Nicholas Lezard’s Choice
The subtitle: “a story of addiction, recovery, and the removal of stubborn stains”. Well, you can’t argue with that. Michele Kirsch’s father died in a train crash when she was a child; and she was, astonishingly it seems now, but was considered best medical practice at the time, prescribed sedatives. From then on she was an addict: at first mainly on Valium, then amphetamine and Valium and alcohol, then mainly Valium and alcohol. Her life fell apart, as lives tend to under such pressures and circumstances; she absented herself from her husband and two small children, living in increasingly horrific bedsits until, finally, she managed to get her life back together. And chief among the arsenal of techniques she used to do this—apart from the Narcotics Anonymous meetings, of course—was that she became a cleaning lady.
This is not, then, your conventional my-drugs-hell-and-how-I-beat-it memoir. Well, large parts of it are, in the sense that one drug addict’s story will have a huge number of features in common with any other addict’s: the very biology of dependence will see to that (“Every drug addict will make every bad event all about himself or herself. And every bad event is another reason to take more drugs”). But what makes Clean stand out is not only the unusual route to recovery that Kirsch takes, but the quality of the writing, and its wonderful, deadpan humor. Here she is, having an interview for a cleaning agency:
'He shows me a picture of the agency’s “Cleaner of the Month”. The guy looks sort of Turkish, heavy-set, walrus moustache, big smile, olive skin and hairy arms.
I have to stifle a memory-jogging giggle. This cleaner of the month looks exactly like a guy I used to see in an advert on the NYC subway: “Armando Vargas: Haemorrhoid Sufferer”. Smiling because he found relief in such-and-such cooling cream for piles. My sister’s friend Yvonne used to rip the posters down on rush-hour trains and explain, in a fake Puerto Rican accent: “Dios mío Uncle Armando bringing shame on all the family.”'
She cannot explain to her prospective employer why she’s smiling: “it is so far from his universe or anything we are here to talk about.” (She’s now in London.) But it is also—unless you’ve worked as a cleaner, and I’m prepared to bet you haven’t—very far from our universe. Or rather, her private memory is something we can happily and easily imagine (personally, I think it’s hilarious, and the lack of punctuation in Yvonne’s explanation is a masterstroke of storytelling), but her current situation, in the interview room, not so much. It is also a very neat example of how people’s inner lives, especially if they are performing menial work, not only inaccessible to us, but, in a sense, unimaginable. That is, unless they tell us, which simply isn’t done, or they write about it, as Kirsch has done here.
The book is simply but cleverly structured. Accounts of her growing up, and her slide into total dependency on alcohol and prescription drugs (she becomes very fond of Xanax as well as Valium) are interspersed with vignettes about her job as a cleaner. She does not belabor the point, because she is a good enough storyteller not to have to, but we get to see how invisible cleaners are to most of their employers. Which may indeed be one of the reasons she took the job on: as a means of self-abnegation, of making herself the kind of person that other people simply do not consider. If we learn anything from this book, it is that this is a grave and shameful mistake to make. During one evening office-cleaning job, she comes across a seventeen-year-old surrounded by empty tins of energy drinks, working when he should, at his age, be enjoying himself instead of being “sugared up, talking up a storm to someone from God knows where who will relent and buy whatever it is you are selling ... for a second I am sure we glance at each other; both of us thinking: ‘you poor fucker.”
The stories she tells of her own addiction get more and more distressing as the book goes on. This, of course, comes with the territory. It’s how it happens: one does not move instantly from a mostly functional life with a moderate drug habit to having to wrap oneself in reeking, pus-soaked bandages because one has tried to cook while drunk. On a first date she is asked why she has moved from the US to the UK, and replies: “I am under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration for forging a prescription for an improbably large amount of Valium.” (The man replies, bewildered: “you are very ... open.”) That’s kind of funny, if you focus on the word “improbably” and put the reality of the situation to the back of your mind; but later on, the jokes dry up.
That said, it is not a grim read. For all the catastrophes that her addiction causes, the fact that we are reading this book at all testifies to Kirsch’s success in vanquishing her demons (a silly, hackneyed phrase she does not use herself). It has as happy an ending as you could hope for; and it also performs the invaluable feat of making us think about the unrevealed lives of others. And the title works on three levels: not only is she now clean, i.e. free of drugs and drink, she can also clean (she manages to slip in some useful tips); and the prose itself is clean, in the best sense of the word. There isn’t a word wasted. It’s sparklingly tidy.
Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He was a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.