I finished my review of Jen Beagin’s sharp, funny Pretend I’m Dead happily anticipating what she might come up with next. What I wasn’t expecting was a sequel. Two years after the love of her life disappeared, Mona’s finding herself becoming more intimate with her clients and not necessarily in a good way.
Mona’s still in Taos, living next door to her fey neighbours, cleaning houses for clients and fending off the inevitable questions as to what else she does by telling everyone she’s a writer. One morning, she finds what she thinks is a bar of gritty, brown, homemade soap in the bathroom of Rose, her blind therapist client. Similar distasteful deposits appear in random parts of the house which Mona patiently cleans up much to the disgust of Terry, the NPR presenter she likes to talk to in her head, who suggests that this isn’t normal behaviour. Mona embarks on an affair with Rose’s husband which becomes so twisted, even for her, that she decides to jump ship. Her next gig is equally bizarre but this time she finds herself falling in love with her clients’ house. Lena and Paul are both artists with exquisite taste and difficult lives. Lena offers hope of a career for Mona when she sees her photographs of herself dressed in her clients’ clothes but disappears shortly after Mona begins modelling for Paul. She heads back to L. A. when her mother, sober for the first time in sixteen years, asks her to collect what’s left of her belongings. There she hooks up with Kurt, safe, comforting and just a wee bit dull, until, two years later, her Taos past catches up with her. Throughout it all, Mona cleans and vacuums, removing even the nastiest of stains.
Vacuum in the Dark is more episodic than Pretend I’m Dead, much like a set of very closely linked short stories as Mona moves from client to client. We learn a little more about her childhood, her creepy grandfather and drunken mother, the casually abusive men she was exposed to, but this time we also meet her clients, all of whom have their own darkness to shoulder. The same sharp wit is on show and there are some very funny scenes with her stepfather’s parrots who seem to do Frank’s crying for him, not to mention picking his teeth. It’s considerably darker than Beagin’s first novel: the humour still sardonic and off the wall but less slapstick. I’m often sceptical of sequels and was concerned that Beagin might be pushing her luck but she manages to carry it off. I’m hoping there won’t be a third, though. Best quit while you’re ahead.