Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Tim Parks / Reality Fiction

Reality Fiction

Tim Parks
October 16, 2014, 4:30 pm

It has long been a commonplace that fiction provides a way to break taboos and talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself. Put the other way round you could say that taboos and censorship encourage creativity, of a kind. But what happens if the main obstacles to free and direct expression fall away?

Monday, November 28, 2016

George Saunders / A brief survey of the short story

George Saunders

A brief survey of the short story part 71

 George Saunders 

George Saunders's funny, sad stories from a divided nation

Chris Power
Thursday 13 October 2016 10.00 BST

With a surrealism that owes a lot to the real world of ordinary Americans, his stories offer sharp, moral parables of contemporary life in the US

Earlier this year, George Saunders wrote an article for the New Yorker about Donald Trump’s election campaign in which he described an America “intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse”, divided into “two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two sub-countries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems.”
This riven America has always been Saunders’s great subject: there is a reason why his first collection is called CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, with its title story set in a war re-enactment theme park; and it is the same reason why, 20 years later, his forthcoming first novel focuses on Abraham Lincoln in the early 1860s. As symbols of American division go, none are greater or more terrible than the civil war.
Saunders’s America isn’t only divided into left and right, but also rich and poor, black and white, and, most notably, the individual and the corporation. Aside from being one of the funniest writers around, it is difficult to think of anyone better than he is at describing how commercial imperatives deform individual lives. The powerlessness of the individual haunts his stories, the sense of citizens being to multinationals as flies to wanton boys. “‘I pour my life’s blood into this place,’” the narrator’s father says in the early story Isabelle (1994), “‘and you offer me half what I paid?’ ‘Market forces at work’,” the estate agent replies, a line that is virtually impossible to argue with, both within the confines of the story and without. Variants of it occur again and again in his work, expressing the idea, as he put it in 2001, “that our public institutions – our companies and our government and our media – absolutely affect our ability to exist gracefully in the world”.
“Market forces at work.” The words could be a top-line summary of Saunders’s stories, whether their focus is demeaning wage slavery (stripping at a chain restaurant; inhabiting a lonely cave on the outskirts of a vast theme park), advertising (the nightmarish marketing research facility of Jon; the consumerist, Philip K Dickian society of My Flamboyant Grandson), the military (the angry, isolated veteran of Home), or drug testing (on chimps in the bleak lab report of 93990, and convicted felons in the more satirical Escape from Spiderhead).
These stories are rife with euphemism, those phrases Saunders identifies as ways of enabling the unsayable to be spoken, and the unthinkable to be broached. Employers talk of “staff remixing”, not layoffs, and urge their employees to “Tell the truth. Start generating frank and nonbiased assessments of [your] subpar colleague,” while researchers who kill their human test subjects exonerate themselves by announcing they are merely obeying “the mandates of science”.
Saunders is often called a surrealist, a fabulist or an allegorist, but his work contains a lot of recognisable reality, often in the form of people worrying about how to balance insufficient income and excessive expenditure. This, from The Semplica Girl Diaries (2012), captures the rising panic of a father working every angle to move his family another rung up the social ladder:

Visa full. Also AmEx full and Discover nearly full. Called Discover: $200 avail. If we transfer $200 from checking (once paycheck comes in), would then have $400 avail. on Discover, could get cheetah. Although timing problematic. Currently, checking at zero. Paycheck must come, must put paycheck in checking pronto, hope paycheck clears quickly. And then, when doing bills, pick bills totalling $200 to not pay. To defer paying.
The “SGs” themselves are economic migrants, who leave their families to decorate suburban American lawns (the girls are strung from their heads via a microline threaded though their brain that “does no damage, causes no pain”). They are a pungent symbol of the way the west exploits third-world poverty. For much of its length, the Semplica Girls inhabit its edges, just as for the narrator, whose diary we are reading, they are marginal presences crowded out by the status anxiety he feels for his children: “Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers. Help us not, that is, to fall further behind peers. For kids’ sake. Do not want them scarred by how far behind we are.”

This anxious father, barely tolerated by his children, is a stock character in Saunders’s fiction. “I’ve done my best” one screams in Bounty (1995). “Pitiful!” his wife screams back. Bounty is the longest story in his first collection, and combines several of Saunders’s key themes: not only the loser dad, but also a theme park patronised by the rich and staffed by the disenfranchised poor, and an apocalyptic US governed more by private companies than elected officials (“our corporations”, he writes in his Trump essay, “those new and powerful nation-states”). Like the country his contemporary and friend David Foster Wallace created in Infinite Jest, Bounty is a vision of where millennial America might end up after another 25 years of bad decisions:

I sit on the deck of the barge with a semiautomatic. The water’s brown. As prescribed by federal regs, all inflow pipes are clearly labelled. RAW SEWAGE, says one. VERY POSSIBLY THORIUM, says another.
Humour is intrinsic to Saunders’s project; it both sharpens and makes palatable his vision of humanity’s tendency towards predation. But as the extract above indicates, it was more antic and farcical in his earlier collections. The jokes in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) are very funny, but arrive with a relentlessness that can become mechanical, whereas the comedy in Tenth of December (2013) is richer, arising more from character than situation. In his essay on Donald Barthelme, a writer whose style of absurdist humour is deeply imprinted on CivilWarLand (Barry Hannah being another discernible presence), Saunders writes that “[s]ome part of art, certainly of Barthelme’s art, involves the simple pleasure of watching someone be audacious”, and there is a sense that this was enough for the younger Saunders, whose vision Joyce Carol Oates once described as “cruel”.

From today’s vantage, it is a strange word to read in relation to Saunders, someone who is often cited as continuing the project of working towards a moral fiction that David Foster Wallace once stated as his goal; a practising Buddhist who is cast as fighting the good fight against capitalism’s cruellest excesses; a sage who, like Wallace before him, has had a speech to students packaged up as an inspirational tract. But the early stories really do display cruelty, at least in part: much is made of disability, children are killed off at an alarming rate (this tendency, it so happens, has persisted: wherever you find yourself in Saunders’s fiction, you are never many pages from a dead child), and characters are forced out of difficult situations into impossible, agonising ones. This soliloquy, from The 400-Pound CEO (1993), captures the world in which much of the early fiction plays out:

I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.
But if Saunders was more callous towards his characters in the past, he has always positioned them within a moral landscape. The world he describes may seem to be beyond repair, and yet the urge to repair it persists. In his introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Saunders writes that Twain’s novel “locates itself squarely on our National Dilemma, which is: How can anyone be truly free in a country as violent and stupid as ours?” Saunders returns to the same moral conundrum again and again. “As soon as I start writing”, he told Ben Marcus in 2004, “things start to unfold around some central moral vector, and that’s that”. Inevitably, at some point in a Saunders story, an ethical decision has to be made. Like Flannery O’Connor, a writer who had a moral vision of forbidding harshness, Saunders enjoys stripping things down to the basics and setting two characters on a collision course. Think of Morse and Cummings in The Falls, or the drowning boy and the suicidal old man Eber in Tenth of December. Two people with opposing views set on an intersecting path: a fundamentally dramatic situation, and also, often, a moral one. In The Falls, the stressed dad Morse and the poet manqué Cummings walk alongside a river, each absorbed in their own frustrations. When they see, from their alternate vantage points, two girls in a canoe heading for the falls, a clear moral question is being posed. It is Morse who replies, throwing himself to almost certain death in order to try and save the girls, who, we are told, “were basically dead” already. The story’s final line – “he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water” – resonates with a sense of the heroism that resides in the everyday, and the belief that it is what we attempt to do that defines us, rather than what we succeed in doing.

Reading Saunders in quantity, you get the sense that if The Falls continued beyond its abrupt end, Morse might not be pointed to as a hero but derided as a fool. An aspect of morality that Saunders is particularly interested in is the pressure that one person doing the right thing exerts on the vast majority of regular people who prefer to bump along with the blinkers on, making immoral or at least amoral choices and not appreciating being made to think about it. Brad Carrigan, American, from Saunders’s most overtly political collection, In Persuasion Nation (2006), is an ingenious study of the way morality breeds resentment. The story is a fantasy in which the main characters appear to be living inside a surreal sitcom. They hear music announcing commercial breaks, or to signify that the contents of their suburban back garden have “morphed again”, and “the familiar Carrigan backyard is now a vast field of charred human remains”.
It so happens that these slaughtered tribespeople can still communicate (ghosts are another Saunders trope). Brad befriends them, and is saddened by the story they relate. He tries to help them, but only succeeds in alienating his wife and her lover, Chief Wayne. She tells him:

Oh, you break my heart. Why does everything have to be so sad to you? Why do you have so many negative opinions about things you don’t know about, like foreign countries and diseases and everything? Why can’t you be more like Chief Wayne? He has zero opinions. He’s just upbeat.
Unable to simultaneously maintain his ethical standpoint and function in his domestic environment, Brad is consigned to a grey space where misfits get “Written Out”. Fittingly for someone whose compassion has made his existence untenable, his final utterance as he dissipates into nothingness is the repeated phrase: “Poor things.” The story is a masterpiece of Saundersian juxtaposition: satirical and absurd but heartfelt, and bleak but intensely funny. What better form for a critique of a divided country to take than a radical split between registers?
To return to Twain (who also wrote about two Americas, and chose a fitting name to do it under), the things Saunders identifies most clearly in his predecessor’s writing are also true of his own. Twain “started his career being purely funny”, Saunders explains, and “did not establish an agenda and carry it through, but wrote as the spirit moved him, in as improvisatory manner as ever writer ever did”. Likewise, Saunders has often spoken of attending not to theme, or overall structure, but to the individual sentence: get that right, and the rest, he says, will fall into place. “Huck Finn”, he writes, “is a great book because it tells the truth about the human condition in a way that delights us”. Saunders’s most successful stories work in the same way, leading us along new and surprising pathways to arrive at fundamental truths.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Beckett, the maestro of failure / A brief survey of the short story

Samuel Beckett
Illustration by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 70

 Samuel Beckett

The maestro 

of failure

Sketching lives very similar to her own, Berlin’s stories of hardscrabble lives resemble Raymond Carver’s – while also invoking some of Proust’s spirit

Chris Power
Thursday 7 July 2016 12.25 BST

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, Samuel Beckett wrote a short story called Ping. It begins:

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one sure yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping elsewhere.
The first time I read it, it reminded me of the chant-like rhythm of BBC radio’s shipping forecast: a hypnotic flow of words the meaning of which is initially utterly obscure. But persevere and patterns emerge: “moderate or good, occasionally poor later”/“white walls”, “one square yard”, “white scars”. In both cases, we soon realise we are within a system of words performing very defined tasks, albeit ones only understood by initiates. But while fathoming the shipping forecast can be achieved relatively quickly, initiation into the system of words Beckett was working with in the mid-1960s is more complicated, not least because the system was corrupted, a failure, as were all the systems Beckett devised during his long career.

A page from Beckett’s notebooks.
The text reads: ‘What is my life but preference for the ginger biscuit?’
 Photograph: Sotheby's/PA

Beckett came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed. His best-known expressions of this philosophy appear at the end of his 1953 novel The Unnamable – “ … you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” – and in the 1983 story Worstward Ho – “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Beckett had already experienced plenty of artistic failure by the time he developed it into a poetics. No one was willing to publish his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the book of short stories he salvaged from it, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), sold disastrously. The collection, which follows Beckett’s mirror image Belacqua Shuah (SB/BS) around Dublin on a series of sexual misadventures, features moments of brilliance, is a challenging and frustrating read. Jammed with allusion, tricksy syntax and obscure vocabulary, its prose must be hacked through like a thorn bush. As the narrator comments of one character’s wedding speech, it is “rather too densely packed to gain the general suffrage”.

Beckett in New York in 1964, on the set of Film, his short film starring Buster Keaton.
Photograph: IC Rapoport

Throughout this period, Beckett remained very much under the influence of James Joyce, whose circle he joined in Paris in the late 20s. Submitting a story to his London editor, Beckett blithely noted that it “stinks of Joyce”, and he was right. Just compare his, “and by the holy fly I wouldn’t recommend you to ask me what class of a tree they were under when he put his hand on her and enjoyed that. The thighjoy through the fingers. What does she want for her thighbeauty?” with this, from Ulysses: “She let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable woman’s warmhosed thigh.”
Beckett was rudderless in his late 20s and early 30s (which, thanks to the allowance he received following his father’s death, he could just about afford to be). He wandered for much of the 1930s, having walked out of a lectureship at Trinity College, Dublin. He returned to Paris, then moved to London, where he wrote the novel Murphy and underwent Kleinian psychoanalysis. He toured Germany, and in 1937 settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1989. During the second world war, he joined the resistance, fled Paris to escape arrest, and lived penuriously in Roussillon. These years of wandering and war and want influenced the character of his later work. In 1945, working at a Red Cross hospital in Saint-Lô, he wrote an essay about the ruins of the town, “bombed out of existence in one night”, and described “this universe become provisional”. Versions of this ruin strewn landscape and post-disaster environment would characterise the settings and atmosphere of much of his later work.

Although Beckett had written some poetry in French before the war, it was in its aftermath he resolved to commit fully to the language, “because in French it is easier to write without style”. This decision, and his switch to the first-person voice, resulted in one of the more astonishing artistic transformations in 20th-century literature, as his clotted, exhaustingly self-conscious early manner gave way to the strange journeys described, and tortured psyches inhabited, in the four long stories he wrote in the course of a few months during 1946. The Expelled, The Calmative and The End, and to a lesser extent First Love (which Beckett, always his own harshest judge, considered inferior and suppressed for many years), describe the descent of their unnamed narrators (possibly the same man) from bourgeois respectability into homelessness and death.
We witness a succession of evictions: from the family home, some kind of institution, hovels and stables, basements and benches. There is a nagging suspicion that the initial expulsion in each story is a form of birth, often characterised in violent terms. (In the novel Watt, a character’s birth is described as his “ejection”; in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo says birth takes place “astride of a grave”.) These journeys become surrogates for the journey we take through life, as Beckett perceives it: bewildered, disordered and provisional, with only brief respites from a general strife. In the final scene of The End, the narrator is chained to a leaking boat, his life seemingly draining away. It is the monumental bleakness of works such as these (often shot through with splinters of sharp humour), thatHarold Pinter was writing of in a letter of 1954 when he called Beckett “the most courageous, remorseless writer going, and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”.

Following the four stories, Beckett reached an impasse in his writing with the Texts for Nothing (1955). Language is on the verge of breakdown in these brief, numbered pieces. The disdain in which words are held can be summed up with the phrase “the head and its anus the mouth”, from #10. In #11 a crisis point is reached: “No, nothing is nameable, tell, no, nothing can be told, what then, I don’t know, I shouldn’t have begun.” Here the playfulness of the Three Dialogues, and the tortured courage of The Unnamable’s “I’ll go on”, has soured into hopelessness.
Discussing his writing in the early 60s, Beckett described a process of “getting down below the surface” towards “the authentic weakness of being”. Failure remained unavoidable because “[w]hatever is said is so far from the experience” that “if you really get down to the disaster, the slightest eloquence becomes unbearable”. Thus, the narrowing of possibilities that the Texts for Nothing describe leads into the claustrophobia of the “closed space” works of the 1960s. Beginning with the novel How It Is (1961), told by a nameless man lying in darkness and mud, and continuing with All Strange Away (1964), Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) and the aforementioned Ping, Beckett describes a series of geometrically distinct spaces (cubes, rotundas, cylinders) where white bodies lie, or hang, singly or in pairs. Beckett had reread Dante, and something of his Hell and Purgatory characterises these claustrophobic spaces. The language with which they are described is so fragmented that it is difficult to orient ourselves: we are in a system of words where multiple paths of meaning branch from every sentence, not on the level of interpretation but of basic comprehension. Take for example the opening line of Imagination Dead Imagine:

No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead good, imagination dead imagine.
Does the “you say” look back to “No trace anywhere ”, or does it anticipate “pah, no difficulty there”? As Adrian Hunter writes:
What punctuation there is has the effect not of assisting interpretation but of further breaking down any chain of meaning in the language. A simple orientational phrase like “you say” hovers uncertainly between its commas; instead of securing the speech acts that surround it, it operates as a kind of revolving door by which one both exits and enters the various semantic fields in the passage.
In Beckett’s next work, Enough (1965), he abandoned both the first person and the comma (only a handful are found in all of his later prose), his sentences becoming terse as bulletins, short afterthoughts (“modifier after modifier”, in one description) typically consisting of mono- or disyllabic words, that try – and fail – to clarify whatever image or sensation he is attempting to express. Hugh Kenner has written memorably of this phase that Beckett:
Seems unable to punctuate a sentence, let alone construct one. More and more deeply he penetrates the heart of utter incompetence, where the simplest pieces, the merest three-word sentences, fly apart in his hands. He is the non-maestro, the anti-virtuoso, habitué of non-form and anti-matter, Euclid of the dark zone where all signs are negative, the comedian of utter disaster.
Kenner’s evaluation echoes Beckett’s own words from a 1956 New York Times interview, when he contrasted his approach with that of Joyce: “He’s tending towards omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance”. The impasse reached in the Texts for Nothing continues in a story like Lessness (1969), which actually runs out of words: the second half of the text simply duplicates the first half with the words reordered, leaving us, in JM Coetzee’s description, with “a fiction of net zero on our hands, or rather with the obliterated traces of a consciousness elaborating and dismissing its own inventions”.

Strategies like these make navigating Beckett’s work even more challenging for the reader, to the degree that some critics decided pointlessness was its very point. In the case of Ping, this position is strongly rebutted in a 1968 essay by David Lodge. While acknowledging that it is “extraordinarily difficult to read through the entire piece, short as it is, with sustained concentration”, the words soon beginning to “slide and blur before the eyes, and to echo bewilderingly in the ear”, he concludes that “the more closely acquainted we become with Ping, the more certain we become that it does matter what words are used, and that they refer to something more specific than the futility of life or the futility of art.”
Beckett’s closed-space phase culminates in The Lost Ones (1970), a nightmarish vision of a sealed cylinder inside which “fugitives” circulate until futility or death overcomes them. The Lost Ones updates Dante into what one reviewer called “the art of a gas-chamber world”. It is written at an anthropological remove, the cylinder described in punishing detail, and at punishing length. For all the clarity of its language compared with Ping or Lessness, it is the most forbidding of his shorter prose works.

It was almost a decade before any more significant short prose emerged, but when it did another shift had taken place. The terrifying closed spaces were collapsed and gone, replaced by the twilit grasslands of Stirrings Still (1988), or the isolated cabin, “zone of stones” and ring of mysterious sentinels in Ill Seen Ill Said (1981). Language remains problematic, but a level of acceptance has been reached. The phrase “what is the wrong word?” recurs in Ill Seen Ill Said, as if to say: “Of course language is insufficient, but approximation is better than nothing”:

Granite of no common variety assuredly. Black as jade the jasper that flecks its whiteness. On its what is the wrong word its uptilted face obscure graffiti.

In these stories, written in the final decade of Beckett’s life and in which stylised settings blend with autobiographical material, often from his childhood, he seems to deliver us to the source of his creativity, to the moment where an idea sparks in the conscious mind. The terrain and structures of Ill Seen Ill Said seem to come into existence at the very moment we read them. “Careful,” he writes, tentatively bringing his creation into the world as if guarding a match flame:

The two zones form a roughly circular whole. As though outlined by a trembling hand. Diameter. Careful. Say one furlong.
It is an irony of Beckett’s posthumous reputation that his plays are now far better known than his prose, although he considered the latter his primary focus. That he wrote some of the greatest short stories of the 20th century seems to me an uncontroversial claim, yet his work in this genre is comparatively obscure. Partly this is a problem of classification. As one bibliographical note puts it: “The distinction between a discrete short story and a fragment of a novel is not always clear in Beckett’s work.” Publishers have colluded in this confusion: as evidence of the British phobia of short stories goes, it’s hard to beat John Calder’s blurbing of the 1,500-word story Imagination Dead Imagine as “possibly the shortest novel ever published”. Then too there are examples such as William Trevor’s exclusion of Beckett from the 1989 Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories for the nonsense reason that he expressed his ideas “more skilfully in another medium”, or Anne Enright excluding him from her own selection for Granta.

I suspect the real problem with Beckett’s short fiction is its difficulty, and that his greatest achievements in the form do not comply with what some gatekeepers suppose to be the genre’s defining traits. Unfortunate as the resulting neglect might be, this is a fitting position to be occupied by a writer who consistently struggled to develop new forms. If the history of the short story were mapped, he would belong in a distant region. The isolation would not matter. “I don’t find solitude agonising, on the contrary”, he wrote in a letter of 1959. “Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.”


Friday, November 25, 2016

Lucia Berlin / A brief survey of the short story

Lucia Berlin
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 69

 Lucia Berlin 

Sketching lives very similar to her own, Berlin’s stories of hardscrabble lives resemble Raymond Carver’s – while also invoking some of Proust’s spirit

Chris Power
Wednesday 18 May 2016 10.57 BST

“It’s not that I’m worried about the future that much”, explains an ageing woman in Lucia Berlin’s story A New Life. “It’s my past that I can’t get rid of, that hits me like a big wave when I least expect it.” The waves of memory crash again and again in Berlin’s work as she, and a variety of narrators who typically share many of the details of her biography, relate episodes that together form a body of work that is part memoir, part auto-fiction, and part single, extended story cycle.

Berlin died in 2004, but in 2015 a little over half of her 76 stories, written between 1960 and the early 2000s, were republished as A Manual for Cleaning Women. For most readers, a great short story writer with a substantial body of work simply appeared overnight; Berlin had commanded only a small readership when her stories originally appeared in collections in the 1980s and 90s, first through tiny publishers like Turtle Island, and later the somewhat larger Black Sparrow. The latter was also home to Charles Bukowski, who comes to mind now and then while reading Berlin’s conversational, confessional, very funny and very sad stories about addicts of one sort or another, living in a chaotic semi-domesticity.

Berlin’s messy, complicated life provided rich compost for stories. She had a peripatetic childhood, moving from mining camps in Alaska and Montana before a job opportunity for her father saw the family transported into Chilean high society. Her parents divorced, she spent time with relatives in west Texas, married three times, gave birth to four sons and became an alcoholic (like her mother and several other members of her family). She worked as a high-school teacher, a switchboard operator, receptionist, cleaning woman and emergency room nurse (“I like working in Emergency”, she writes in the perfect miniature My Jockey, “you meet men there, anyway.”) Work is very present in her stories, as are the ravages of daily life. A woman in a launderette – a recurring location in Berlin’s fiction, and an indicator of where most of her characters find themselves on the social scale – looks down and thinks: “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands”. The tone, worldly wise and somewhat regretful, is a sort of hardboiled domestic.

When writing in this mode, Berlin is at her closest to Raymond Carver. “I wrote like him before I ever read him,” she said in a letter. “He liked my work, too – we had good talk. Recognised one another immediately.” Other writers she shares at least a little DNA with include Grace Paley and Barry Hannah. Occasionally, in stories like Toda Luna, Todo Año, her beautiful, relentless, evocative prose echoes that of James Salter.
On a fundamental level, her closest parallel is Chekhov. His influence is explicit in several stories: Uncle Vanya provides the epigraph to A New Life, and Romance bears the acknowledgment “after Chekhov”. But his spirit is detectable in many more, primarily through the deeply humane attitude both writers adopt towards their characters. No one is wholly bad in any of Chekhov’s mature work, and no one is wholly bad in any of Berlin’s; not even the drunken, dentist grandfather who sexually abuses Berlin’s narrator and her sister in several of the stories. A good example of Berlin’s universal empathy appears in the story Mojito:

I don’t like Diane Arbus. When I was a kid in Texas there were freak shows and even then I hated the way people would point at the freaks and laugh at them. But I was fascinated too. I loved the man with no arms who typed with his toes. But it wasn’t the no arms that I liked. It was that he really wrote, all day. He was seriously writing something, liking what he was writing.
This generosity of perception is a great strength in a realist writer, and it gives Berlin’s characters tremendous life on the page. Even the cruel, alcoholic mother who appears in several stories is not a demon. “She was witty”, the narrator’s sister says in Mama. “You have to admit it. Like when she’d give panhandlers a nickel and say, ‘Excuse me, young man, but what are your dreams and aspirations?’ Or when a cab driver was surly she’d say, ‘You seem rather thoughtful and introspective today.’”

“She hated the word love”, we are told: “She said it the way people say the word slut”. Getting good lines needn’t equate to likeability, however, and empathy needn’t entail forgiveness. Regretting that they didn’t make up before her mother’s suicide, the younger sister says: “If only I could have been able to speak to her. If I had let her know how much I loved her.” “Me”, the narrator writes in response, “I have no mercy.”
This closing exchange echoes an earlier story, and the animosity of an earlier generation. In Dr HA Moynihan, a young girl helps her grandfather (the abusive dentist) pull out all his remaining teeth (“The sound was the sound of roots being ripped out, like trees being torn from winter ground.”) At the story’s end the girl, wanting her mother to share the compassion she feels towards her recuperating grandfather, asks, “You don’t still hate him, do you Mama?” To which her mother replies, “‘Oh, yes … Yes I do.” Exchanges like these illustrate the way Berlin instinctively recoils from moments that threaten sentimentality. Tellingly, she once said that she loved Carver’s work “before he sobered up and sweetened his endings”.

However, Berlin does allow the bittersweet. The title of her story Del Gozo Al Pozo is a Mexican phrase that she translates as “from pleasure you go to the pits”. In a great many of her stories, happiness and misery don’t simply follow on consecutively from one another: they repeatedly entwine. “There are things people just don’t talk about,” she writes in Dust to Dust. “I don’t mean the hard things, like love, but the awkward ones, like how funerals are fun sometimes or how it’s exciting to watch buildings burning.” In Emergency Room Notebook, 1977, she writes: “Maybe I’m morbid. I am fascinated by two fingers in a baggie, a glittering switchblade all the way out of a lean pimp’s back. I like the fact that, in Emergency, everything is reparable, or not.” It is this sensibility, this ability to show the interrelatedness of horror and hope: she writes truthfully about depressing situations without being depressing.
What does it mean that even when the narrators’ names change (Lucia, Dolores, Claudia), the other details of their lives mostly stay the same? The abusive grandfather, the cruel mother, well-meaning but chaotic Uncle John, the bombshell cousin Bella Lynn, and most memorably of all Sally, the younger sister who is dying of cancer in Mexico City. In several stories – Wait a Minute, Mama, Grief, Fire, and Del Gozo Al Pozo – the final months of Sally’s life are recounted in a variety of ways.

I think what Berlin is doing here has something to do with a way of thinking about life and literature that also preoccupied David Foster Wallace. Wallace often expressed the view that life is too profuse for fiction to adequately capture it. The narrator of his story Good Old Neon puts forward the most extreme version of this belief, complaining that even a small portion of our internal thought process “is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant”. Berlin seems to shares this view, that individual narratives aren’t sufficient to capture certain episodes in life. As the narrator of Silence says of a piece of family lore: “I know it is true that Grandpa shot him, but how it happened has about 10 different versions”. It isn’t just that different people have different accounts of the same event: our memories can be plastic, contradictory, vulnerable to reinterpretation. In the case of Sally’s death, each time Berlin returns to it the angles are different, the focus has shifted, and yet the characters become more indelible. This isn’t repetition, but a process of ongoing definition.
If Berlin is at her best when exploring character, she is at her weakest when concocting plot. Plenty always happens in her stories but the events themselves are rarely the prime focus. When they come to dominate, as in the drug-smuggling-and-murder story Carmen, or Sombra’s overstuffed account of a death at a Mexico City bullring, the result is melodrama. It’s notable that these stories are the only places where Berlin’s dialogue, one of the great strengths and pleasures of her work, becomes clunky.
In her explorations of personal memory, however, Berlin is another writer entirely: one whose sure control of her material doesn’t slip. Her conclusions are not comforting: the older we get, the work attests, the more our acts of remembrance become catalogues of loss. Relatives die, relationships fall apart. “The good parts are as hard to deal with as the bad ones,” the ageing woman of A New Life concludes: “The point is, they are in the past.” The final story Berlin wrote, BF and Me, about an old woman in a trailer home tethered to an oxygen tank, trying to get a tiler – at least as old, and almost as emphysemic – to renovate her bathroom, provides a fittingly unsentimental conclusion to her work. It invokes Proust, as several of her other stories do: one is called Temps Perdu, and in Lost in the Louvre, she visits his house at Illiers. Here, the “pong” of BF the tiler “was madeleine-like for me, bringing back Grandpa and Uncle John, for starters”. Just as in Proust’s great circular work, in Berlin the end becomes a pathway back to the beginning.