Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin: Smart, funny and dark

Cover imageJen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead comes adorned with a ‘laugh-out-loud’ puff on its jacket, although it was the New Mexico setting that was the attraction for me. It’s about twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living, falls hard for a junkie who disappears then takes herself off to Taos. Not perhaps the most inspiring of synopses but it’s Beagin’s whipsmart humour and Mona’s idiosyncratic take on life that keep you reading.

Mona loves to vacuum, sees dirt wherever she goes and indulges in self-portraits, playing dead in her clients’ houses often wearing at least one item of their clothing. Her parents split when she was twelve, packing her off to her father’s cousin the other side of the country. Once a week she volunteers at the local needle exchange where she meets Mr Disgusting, twenty years older than her and determined to get clean. These two damaged misfits get to know each other, fall in love and plan to set up home together but then he disappears leaving Mona with nothing but an idea in her head that she would fit right into Taos. She takes off for New Mexico where she sets up shop as a cleaner again. Her neighbours spend an hour looking at the sunset ever night, meditate, eat a macrobiotic diet and think she should do the same. Business picks up but she’s lonely, worrying away at the puzzling childhood memories that resurface now and then.

Nothing much happens in Beagin’s debut: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. Beagin demonstrates a nice line in satire with her New Mexico characters, from her neighbours Nigel and Shiori, or Yoko and Yoko as Mona likes to call them, to Betty the psychic who may be a sharp-eyed charlatan or more prescient that Mona first thinks. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. A few favourites should give you a flavour:

Rather than a photo, Mona kept a list of her mother’s phobias in her wallet

Like cancer, he had a way of trivialising other aspects of her life

She didn’t believe he’d accidentally killed himself. He was too attached to his problems

There’s a superb one towards the end which made me laugh out loud as promised by that puff but you’d have to read the book to understand why. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing. Can’t wait to see what Beagin comes up with next.

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