“I’m definitely fucked up enough to be a therapist.”
Vacuum in the Dark from Jen Beagin is the follow-up novel to Pretend I’m Dead, but it can be read as a standalone. Pretend I’m Dead was the author’s debut novel; it introduces 24-year-old Mona, who cleans houses for a living. In this novel, Mona falls in love with a man she calls Mr Disgusting, and moves to Taos, New Mexico. When Vacuum in the Dark opens, Mona is cleaning the home of Rose, a blind therapist when she discovers a piece of poo, masquerading as soap, sitting on the side of a sink.
Mona’s cleaning lady observations were brilliant and brilliantly funny. Cleaners get to see a side of their employers that is invisible to others, and the author capitalises on Mona’s employment, making observations, while Mona engages in “clandestine photography.”
People were like vampires. Their stories drained the life out of her. Then, half-dead and bloodless, she carried on cleaning their toilets like nothing had ever happened.
Even before Mona starts finding poo strategically placed in Rose’s home, it’s already evident that Mona’s life is strange. She’s surrounded by Strange. Perhaps this explains why she has conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross in her head. “Terry was simply a sober and inquistive voice,” who argues for rational behavior in Mona’s otherwise looney-environment. The weirdness in Mona’s life also extends to her home. She rents half a house while the other half is rented by an older married couple who “made music with homemade instruments and dressed in matching pajamas.”
Then there’s Rose and her household. Rose owns a dog named Dinner, has a hostile teenage daughter, and a husband who makes coffins. The Big Question lurking under Mona’s daily routine is: who is responsible for the poo?
Here’s Mona talking to Rose after describing a photograph she has just found:
“What do you see when you think of the color red?” Mona asked.
“Oh, I remember red,” Rose said. “I wasn’t born blind.”
“Oh,” Mona said. “Were you … in a accident?”
“Sort of,” she said, and smiled weakly. “I was having an affair with the man you just described.”
Mona silently took a step back. She heard Dinner drink from his bowl in the kitchen.
“Do you mean your father molested you?” Mona asked.
“I thought of it as an affair,” Rose said, “which sounds ridiculous and insane, but I was convinced that we were in love. I was thirteen.”
“Mayday,” Terry whispered. “Bail out.”
“Not now, ” Mona whispered back.
“We never had intercourse,” Rose volunteered. “It was more emotional than anything. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t sexual too.”
Mona cleared her throat. “And you went blind?”
“Well, that was partly genetic,” Rose said.
Mona looked toward the front door, Closed, but not locked. She imagined herself tiptoeing out of the room and then making a run for it.
Opening a novel with a description of grabbing fecal matter is a bold way to begin, and it’s also an off-putting start. I almost gave up right then and there but very quickly found myself engaged by Mona’s engaging narrative voice. Some authors have a talent for creating genuine voices, voices that appeal and compel us to read on, and in this novel, Beagin gives us a marvellous, original voice. Some things really worked in this subversive novel, while others did not. Sex scenes in novels don’t add a lot for this reader, and some of the lines grated: “I want to hump your armpits,” she said. “And maybe your hair.” But that said, I’m glad I stuck with this.
Vacuum in the Dark may appeal to fans of Ottessa Moshfegh