Vacuum in the Dark: A Novel by Jen Beagin

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While her parents were busy ruining their marriage, she’d spent three or four days a week with her paternal grandfather, Woody Boyle, a mild-mannered man, an avid reader and functional alcoholic. But he’d taught her all of life’s essentials: how to spit like a man, take a good photograph, drive stick, make a stiff drink, swim butterfly, French-braid, and, perhaps most importantly, how to play dumb.

Mona’s voice is always entertaining for me as it’s unfiltered. In Pretend I’m Dead it was all about her love for drug addict Mr. Disgusting and his “creepy honesty.” She staunchly remains messy, keeps her cracks like we all do and isn’t going to transform into a perfect human ideal giggling under some rainbow because she has it all figured out. Does anyone ever truly do this in real life? Wherever you go, there you are whether you’ve gained wisdom or not, you’re still you! So Mr. Disgusting is out, what does she do? Takes up with a married man she calls Dark, of course, which isn’t really a step up from chasing after her dead junkie boyfriend. Still cleaning other’s filth, she spends her days swooning over the love notes he brazenly leaves behind for her to find on her cleaning days at his home. The stupor their love-making puts her in dissipates when Rose, his wife, enlightens her about the true state of their marriage. Then there is the mystery pooh, yep… poop. Jen Beagin can spin some of the strangest situations for Mona, darkly hilarious, she seems to witness people at their lowest. I shouldn’t grin like a lunatic when I read her books but I do. This novel is a great escape from the usual writing out there.

Soon she meets the barbarians, cats owned by the Kosas, a pill popping Hungarian couple. The murderous cats are as exotic as Lena and Paul, both artists with a house that feels like a lover waiting to be explored by Mona. Explore it she does, making her own art, taking photographs while talking to herself (Terry, her subconscious or imaginary friend), crossing boundaries, as always. We learn more about Mona’s past in this book. Yoko and Yoko (Shiori and Nigel) are still telling her to ‘stay curious’ but she isn’t curious enough about her childhood, would rather leave what is hiding in that dark abyss untouched. Lena and Paul convince her to pose nude for them, but it’s the way Lena helps Mona feel carefree enough to ‘bare’ herself that bonds them as much as Lena’s “war stories”. Then there are the pills, no big deal… Lena can mentor her, help her get her foot into the art world, do something with her photographs. Lena helps her give birth to the meaning behind her pictures, which tell a story Mona hadn’t been paying attention to until Lena’s keen eye comes along. Their intimacy happens fast, Mona is finally opening herself up to someone, telling Lena a story she buried long ago, making her vulnerable in a way she has never been and just like that, Lena is gone, a sudden abrupt departure.

Mona is left alone to pose for Paul as Lena is called away for work at the gallery, props are firing off memories of her past better left untouched. She discovers through Paul that Lena hasn’t been as open and forthcoming as she seems. There is something about Mona that has inspired Lena to pull her into their world, that has Lena praying for her and for rain, rain in a clear sky. Paul wants too much from her, it begins to feel wrong, and to the surface the muck of her long-held shame rises. The couple may be a catalyst forcing her to understand that her long held beliefs about her relationships have been skewed, always forcing her into the role of villain.

Licking her wounds from betrayal, her biological mother calls and asks her to come out to LA and pick up the boxes she has kept. Returning feels like regressing, and her mother and stepfather Frank seem to have ‘gone to the birds’. Drug abuse, mental illness… all sorts of troubles in her family genetics, but things can change, people can sober up and face their pain. It’s never too late for one’s mother to take her rightful place in your life, is it?  For Mona, it’s ‘mercy’ that brings her to tears, and tough Frank may surprise her as much as her ‘reformed’ mother. The forces of nature lead her to a man named Kurt and Bakersfield but old habits die hard, Mona doesn’t always do the right thing for herself, and she sometimes figures things out too late, but some people take the long way home. Mona likes to chase her own tail, but by the end she may find direction and clarity.

I think Jen Beagin is fantastic because maybe I enjoy my characters shell-shocked by their life experiences, it is easier to relate to imperfection. I loved it!

Publication Date: February 26, 2019

Scribner

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