Like Talking With a Friend: Intimacy in Lucia Berlin’s Peripatetic Narratives
Alexandra Chang on Learning from a Master
“Lucia Berlin—is she dead or alive?” the man said, pointing to the orange sorbet-colored book on the table. This was September 2015. Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women had been published a month prior to wide acclaim. I, having read the reviews and wanting to be in-the-know at the outset of what I considered then my own serious literary journey (starting at an MFA program in fiction), had bought it at the local bookstore and brought it to this coffee shop.
The man had pronounced her name, “Loo-sha.” I echoed him. “Loo-sha Berlin is dead,” I said, as though I was an expert. He nodded, made a comment about my having good taste (were only dead writers “good” writers, in his eyes?), and walked away. I was embarrassed in the aftermath, so I put the book back in my bag and headed home to avoid any further encounters.
Looking back, I was partly right in my answer. Lucia (actually pronounced Loo-see-ah) Berlin had died in 2004. But when I began reading her, in the privacy and comfort of my own home, I realized that the dichotomy the man had presented, that of “dead or alive,” wasn’t quite relevant for Berlin, wasn’t quite relevant for any writer of books with a language and a voice like that. On the page, Berlin struck me as very much alive, as though I were listening to a close friend speak to me about her life.
Another time, another story which involves Berlin. In a craft course, well into my time in the MFA, a professor asked us, Which writers do you love who you consider “technical?” Which writers do you love who you consider “not technically skilled?” For the latter category, a student quickly responded, “Lucia Berlin.” People nodded and made assenting noises, acknowledging that Berlin fit into this strange, illusive category of the “not technically skilled” writer. I sat there for several minutes confused (at this point I’d read Berlin’s entire collection), trying to figure out why my classmates considered Berlin un-technical, or at least, unconcerned with the technical. For me, she is one of those writers who after having read her, I look up and think, How does she do it? How can I get my stories to do this, too?
There must be something beyond being naturally talented, something grounded in specific technical moves. Was I wrong? Is Lucia Berlin actually not very technically skilled? Had she created these stories through pure talent and luck? I finally concluded that, no, my classmate was incorrect. Or perhaps, we were both right. (Though I was more right.) Berlin’s stories are so adept at achieving an effect of intimacy that it’s easy to be swept up in the naturalness of her voice and storytelling. It’s easy to forget that there is anything technical behind the effect.
Of course, not all fiction, or writing in general, is concerned with achieving this effect. There are, however, few writers who I can think of that do this as well as Berlin. She writes how one talks. How we talk, however, is full of grammatical mistakes, interruption, digression—it often lacks clarity sentence to sentence. A better way to put it might be to say that she writes in a way that achieves the effect of a person talking. (It might be important to point out that this “talking” effect is different from trying to depict the workings of the mind/thought itself through language. The latter often attempts to capture the patterning, or lack thereof, of our thoughts—stream of consciousness, for example, is a popular mode in which to do this. Think, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Talking, however, takes on a more performative role, in which the speaker is aware of a listener.)
Berlin’s reflective first-person narrator in the story “Stars and Saints” is illustrative of this intimate, gossipy effect. Technically, I’m interested in how Berlin’s narrator travels between her “present-day” moment to different memories, how she inflects memories with further reflections, and how she travels between memories themselves, juxtaposing different times and places with one another. Some of the specific moves she makes include casual diction, recursion, and, most importantly, interruption or pauses of a peripatetic nature, which take the form of direct address, ellipsis, space breaks, and shifts in distance. It’s in these techniques that Berlin’s narrators are able to reflect that recognizable, lively quality of intimate conversation.
Take the opening: “Wait. Let me explain . . .” Though she doesn’t directly address a particular person, there is an implied direct address to somebody, arguably the reader, with the imperative, single-word sentence, “Wait,” followed by a desire to “explain.” This immediately sounds like the narrator talking, as though she is in the middle of a conversation. A few sentences later, she employs a full direct address in the lines, “Why do I hesitate to tell you this? I don’t want you think I’m sappy, I want to make a good impression.”
The direct address is a very simple move, one that Berlin uses in many of her short stories, to create the effect of a narrator who is speaking intimately to the reader. I won’t go into much detail about the direct address, but it’s worth pointing out, that the first direct address seems to make room for the second, and vice versa, as well as sets up the later moves between times and memories. If Berlin hadn’t included the second direct address, the first would not have felt as effective or necessary (it could, arguably, have been cut).
What the second address does, too, is delineate and shift between a present moment, the moment in which this story is being told, and the past, the scene(s) that make up the story. The second paragraph of the story largely recounts a specific misunderstanding in the past between the narrator and her psychiatrist neighbor. The small scene is compelling on its own, but it’s made even more active through the narrator’s present-day anxiety that her “whole life [she’s] run into these situations” and that she hesitates to tell the reader about it.
On the following page, Berlin’s narrator travels between times and memories at an even faster pace.
As far back as I can remember I have made a very bad first impression. That time in Montana when all I was trying to do was get Kent Shreve’s socks off so we could go barefoot but they were pinned to his drawers. But what I really want to talk about is St. Joseph’s School. Now, psychiatrists (please don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not obsessed by psychiatrists or anything—it seems to me psychiatrists concentrate entirely too much upon the primal scene and preoedipal deprivation and they ignore the trauma of grade school and other children, who are cruel arid ruthless.
I won’t even go into what happened at Vilas, the first school I went to in El Paso. A big misunderstanding all around. So two months into the year, of third grade, there I was in the playground outside of St. Joseph’s […]
The first sentence returns to the present, inflecting the previous story, while also setting the reader up for a list of bad first impressions. That second sentence about Kent Shreve’s socks is fleeting, yet functions purposefully as a way to move into another time. It then makes way for the narrator to correct herself with the third sentence, while also directing the reader to the main story about St. Joseph’s School. Those shifts, from the second to the third sentence, further create a sense of action and liveliness on the page. Her correction of herself from one sentence to the next reflects the peripatetic and distracted nature of a person speaking. Simultaneously, these moments characterize the narrator—we learn to trust her through these on-the-page self-criticisms.
Then, what follows in the fourth sentence is not St. Joseph’s school, as one might expect, but another reflection that not only colors the rest of the story, but also refers back to the narrator’s mention on the first page about her psychiatrist neighbor. Just as we think we’re going to get the story about St. Joseph’s, the narrator tells of yet another memory, again, in a fleeting manner, of a different school, underscoring another moment in which there was a “misunderstanding” between her and others. Finally, after all of this, she begins the main narrative of the story.
The speed at which the narrator moves between the present-day of the story and different past events increases and extends the effect created on the first page’s direct address, through more complicated technical juxtapositions between times and memories. In addition, the recursion of making “a very bad first impression” and the psychiatrists show how the narrator isn’t forgetting the comments she’s previously made, both about wanting to make a good impression on the reader and the fact that she’s already spoken about psychiatrists. She isn’t forgetting the reader’s presence, and her function as a storyteller, a friend, “talking” to the reader.
Much like in an intimate conversation, there is an impression that the narrator is growing distracted by her own memories, and we feel, on the page, from sentence to sentence, this fluctuation between the story that the narrator wants to tell and the memories that pop up into her mind as she begins to tell it. The clipped speed at which she transitions between thoughts and memories in those two paragraphs, and her use of casual transitional words like, “But” and “Now” and “So,” further achieve this effect. The narrator is framing the importance of a specific story, yet is incapable of progressing directly to it, much like a friend telling a story—albeit, a particular kind of friend who can’t get to the point. This meandering also has the added bonus, at least for this reader, about being excited to get the main story, once we’re there.
Later, Berlin injects a long, ancillary memory in parentheses, about having watched a mother speak to her son on a bus. “Oh, and mothers…” she begins, referencing a mention of her own mother, which appeared a paragraph earlier. The choice to include this pause between the mentions of mothers suggests a sense of thought has taken place. The narrator, as she is telling another story (about her time at St. Joseph’s), continues to think about her own mother, which leads to her arrival at another memory of a mother. Rather than moving directly from the mention of her mother to the memory of another mother, the pause creates a more realistic sense of conversation, wherein a person references something they’ve previously said as they continue to talk about something else. What’s revealed is an elasticity of the narrator’s mind behind what is revealed on the page.
Much like the more fleeting mentions of previous memories, Berlin here is developing a growing sense of what I call, active intimacy. By then, we are clued into the narrator’s peripatetic tendencies, so we are set up for this longer dip into a memory. The memory of the mother on the bus performs another function, too, as the story parallels the story of the birds and the psychiatrist neighbor on the first page. In this way, the memories juxtapose one another, yet are intricately linked by the narrator—there is always a reason for the inclusion of a specific memory, as far as the narrator is concerned, and she makes sure to provide those reasons to the reader. When I read these lines, I have the sense that the narrator is not only alive on the page (working memories and thoughts out), but also acknowledging why I should be reading/listening to her stories. She interjects, she comments, she reasons, she reflects.
As the story continues, it’s important to note that Berlin extends how long we stay in the main memory, the main story of St. Joseph’s, reducing the number of interjections. Berlin clearly establishes in the first two pages that the narrator is telling a past story, so there’s no need to reiterate it again and again, practicing the idea that to create an effect, a writer doesn’t need to mimic it entirely.
Much of the story then moves chronologically forward through the St. Joseph’s school memory until the very last two lines, in which the narrator writes: “I don’t know how she could have thought I would hit her. It wasn’t like that at all.”
We’ve arrived here, after the reveal of the largest misunderstanding (of the narrator being expelled for striking a nun), through a series of whirls through time and a variety of memories of misunderstandings (the birds, the socks, the first school, the mother on the bus), which make this simple commentary from the narrator all the more poignant. That final sentence is like a friend confessing, although defensively, after meandering from smaller misunderstandings to the most difficult part of her story, the crux of her shame and her fear of making a good impression on us in the very beginning. Not only does this make for a stronger emotional ending, it mimics the way in which an avoidant, hesitant person (as the narrator describes herself in the beginning) would tell a confessional story that reflects poorly on them.
But the beauty of this particular story is that we, through Berlin’s traveling between present and past and the manner in which she presents these different times and memories—as reasons, reflections, and moments of intimacy—feel, ultimately, close to the narrator and her mode of thinking, whether we agree that she’s guiltless or not. We feel for her as a friend.
As a writer interested in creating this effect of intimate conversation, Berlin is highly instructive. Her narrators are aware that they are telling a story, and they are aware of their reader/listener. Yet they aren’t quite fully performing. They are comfortable in the reader’s presence. She draws us ever closer—her narrators do not want to be friends with us, they acknowledge that they already are.