‘Pretend I’m Dead’ by Jen Beagin: Confessions of a house cleaner
Review: Beagin’s debut novel should be a hit with readers and awards lists alike
Jen Beagin: excellent at physical description, in particular how the body memorises or processes trauma. Photograph: Beowulf Sheehan
Pretend I’m Dead
“For as long as she could remember, she’d had a death wish, which she pictured as a rope permanently tied around her ankle. The rope was often slack and inanimate, trailing along behind her or sitting in a loose pile at her feet, but occasionally it came alive with its own single-minded purpose.”
With its playful, unassuming cover of a hand clad in a yellow rubber glove, Jen Beagin’s debut novel, Pretend I’m Dead, doesn’t prepare readers for the remarkable story inside.
Told in a clear, powerful prose that grabs the reader from the off, the novel is an unflinching look at a life of a young woman recovering from trauma. The offbeat story of mid-20s narrator Mona, who makes her living as a cleaner first in Massachusetts and later in New Mexico, is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and deeply affecting as past abuses are revealed.
Beagin, an artist and writer with an MFA from the University of California, wrote the book after cleaning houses for five years, during which time she created a series of in-situ self-portraits and amassed a collection of vintage vacuum cleaners. These details make it into her debut – including one hilarious scene where she stages her own bloody death in a client’s house – and give the book the authenticity and immediacy of a memoir.
Mona’s low self-esteem manifests itself in a witty opener that sees her fall in love with a heroin addict while volunteering at a needle exchange programme in Lowell, Massachusetts: “For the first time in years, she felt beautiful, like a real prize.”
Mr Disgusting is a real catch. He works as a pimp, tempts Mona into injecting and examines her like an art project as she overdoses: “So he’d almost killed her and then told her she looked like a fish – big deal, people made mistakes.” While Mona can’t seem to make up her mind about him – “aging hipster, total creature, aging hipster, total creature” – Beagin takes the decision out of her hands and manages in the process to give pathos to a character who really doesn’t deserve it.
Minor characters are brought to life in mere sentences, to the extent that even those introduced in later stages of the novel seem to have earned their place: Betty the psychic with her flamboyant pubic hair; gruff Johnny, the unlikely matchmaker; his nephew Jesus, who was “one of the fortunate ones: he’d emerged from childhood a whole person, and his past wasn’t some vast, immovable mass with its own weather system”.
It is a description that recalls the character of Lenny in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, as he laments how you only discover as an adult whether you were one of the lucky ones. More contemporary comparisons are recent whip-smart debuts from American authors Mona Awad, Thomas Pierce and Jade Sharma. The latter’s narrator in Problems has a similarly erratic approach to dealing with painful memories and relationships. In a word, oblivion.
But Beagin also grounds Mona in the everyday realities of life through her job as a cleaner. A fresh start in New Mexico brings new clients and new neighbours, including hippies Nigel and Shiori, or “Yoko and Yoko” as Mona refers to them. Nigel is the smug, pearls-of-wisdom-dispensing, enlightened individual who would have anyone reaching for the gin bottle. Shiori is almost supernatural in her serene compliance and appearance: “Her skin. Pale and supple, it was utterly lacking in pores, blemishes, or identifying marks of any kind.”
Beagin is excellent at physical description, in particular how the body memorises or processes trauma: “She waited for her back to go out, which was usually how her despair chose to manifest itself.” Mr Disgusting’s addiction is also related to physical injury, as are the secrets of Mona’s past. Her father, Mickey, lost an arm to a tire bomb when he was 18: “He’d been forced to watch [gangrene] eat its way to his elbow. ‘It was like watching a plant die,’ her mother used to stagewhisper to friends and relatives. ‘You could smell it all the way down the hall.’”
These details are given as backstory to a darker history of abuse that is told with great care and tension, leaving the reader as mired in ambiguities as Mona finds herself decades later. Although she hasn’t seen her father in 12 years, she still puts herself through the torture of calling him: “It was conditioning, partly. She thought she was supposed to call him. Wasn’t it also biological? She felt a pull sometimes, on what she thought of as a cellular level … But she didn’t want a relationship. She wanted retribution. Verbal, emotional, monetary.”
With the clarity and vision of a more established writer, Beagin pieces together Mona’s past and, hopefully, her future. Wiping the floor with other, more hyped debuts this year, Pretend I’m Dead should clean up with readers and awards lists alike.