One of my favorite literary breakouts from last year, Jen Beagin has followed up Pretend I’m Dead with Vacuum in the Dark — a novel that brings her indelibly deadpan heroine Mona Boyle back for another round of bad boyfriends, bizarre encounters, and personal breakthroughs. It’s a thoroughly delightfully, surprisingly profound encore.
Beagin stands out among fiction’s fresh crop of promising voices: Her prose is dry, cutting, and genuinely funny; she loves writing about strange people, an affection which translates in characterizations that stay sharp and peculiar without ever turning cruel. It’s partly because the author is writing close to her own experiences. Mona is based on a younger version of Beagin, who worked as a housecleaner and comes from a difficult, traumatic background.
Vacuum finds Mona having relocated to Taos, New Mexico, reeling from her breakup with Pretend’s sad-sack romancer Mr. Disgusting — nobody names trashy lovers better than Beagin — and working for a new group of dysfunctional clients. Assuming a relatively episodic structure, the novel depicts Mona bouncing around new clients’ homes — first with a troubled blind woman, later some Hungarian swingers — and observes as she temporarily peers in on their lives, photographing herself in the various homes. She also, naturally, falls into another doomed affair, this time with a man she calls Dark.
Vacuum proves dramatically satisfying too, as Beagin pushes its boundaries to grant us deeper, darker access into Mona’s interior life, and the pain of her troubled past. The character’s salty perspective resonates perfectly — a kind, weary, almost laconic wit that carries a sneaky depth.
We caught up with Beagin about bringing Mona back to life, digging deeper into her own past, and more. Read on below. Vacuum in the Dark is now available for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you decide to write another novel about Mona?
JEN BEAGIN: After I finished Pretend I’m Dead, I never wanted to write a novel again. I thought I only had one in me, period. I started working on something else, but I was a waitress at the time. I worked in this restaurant in Boston, and I’d been working there on and off. Everyone in the restaurant — all the customers and stuff — were really sweet…. I heard all these people asking about it, so I started writing another Mona book after that.
How did you know she had another book in her?
The premise lends itself well to multiple books because she’s a cleaning lady. She’s moving around a lot: There’s a new house, then there are new clients, she makes a fool out of herself again and again. [Laughs] I thought it lent itself well to a sequel — just the premise of it.
How much of this one is based on your own experience? Taking the photos, going through the garbage, stuff like that?
I took photos, I went through garbage. I was a little bit of a snooper. I didn’t read anyone’s diary, but I did some light snooping — that is true.
I took a bunch of photos — like, hundreds of photos. Sometimes with their knowledge, often without their knowledge. The photos weren’t very good. I was constantly relating my experience to myself in my head, so that I’d have something to talk about at the dinner table later. I realized slowly that my story is about taking the pictures more than the pictures themselves.
And what is that story?
The story wherein I’m trying on the person’s clothes and trying to get the camera and the glitches with the camera and getting caught taking pictures. My narration of the pictures were better than the pictures. The pictures were pretty boring. I’d talk about the client and the house, etc. The pictures were okay. They needed some kind of text.
So in this case, the picture was not worth 1,000 words.
Exactly. Exactly, yes.
I imagine a lot of the clients in these books are based on people you’ve actually encountered.
Well, Betty in the first novel — I did clean a house for a psychic, and she did live in a trailer. It wasn’t in New Mexico; it was somewhere else. She did ask me to take pictures with her ex-husband, which I did. I started there. Once you get into writing something, other ideas occur to you. [They were] loosely based on my experiences, I would say.
Did you have a favorite to write in Vacuum?
The opening was most fun to write. I did clean a house for a blind woman once, but she’s nothing like Rose in the book. I had the most fun with that. “Poop” is purely fictional. [Author’s note: “Poop” is the title of the first chapter in Vacuum in the Dark.]
Let’s dig into the more dramatic aspect of these books. There’s a real intimacy that develops in the work Mona is doing, stopping into people’s lives as she does. What’s the dynamic you wanted to capture there?
Cleaning houses, you’re working alone, and it’s monotonous, repetitive work. You project a lot of your own baggage onto your own clients — inevitably, I think. I just wanted to explore that, how a person does that. You’re triggered by your environment — it allows you to go inward. That’s what [Mona] does.
How close are you to Mona?
I’d say she’s pretty close. First of all, I’m old — I’m almost 48, and Mona’s only 26. She’s a version of me at various ages: 8, 12, 24, 26, 32. I’m definitely not like her now. [Laughs] I’m a little more self-aware than she is. But she’s definitely a version of me, without question.
You dig deeper into Mona’s past in Vacuum, and wade into pretty dark territory. In terms of the autobiographical aspect of that, was it difficult to put some of that stuff on the page?
I wanted to explore my own experience with sexual abuse, primarily, and my relationship with my mother and my stepfather — which is heavily fictionalized, but I did leave home at an early age and lived with relatives on the East Coast. I hate to admit it, but these novels are me working out my stuff. It was really difficult. I was a little more hesitant to go there in the first book, just because I was new at writing and I haven’t always been a writer. I was tentative about it.
But I wrote Pretend I’m Dead 10 years ago; with Vacuum, 10 years had passed. I wanted to go a little deeper. It was difficult. I wanted to explore some of this stuff without there being a victim in the story, and just to have compassion for the characters no matter what sh—y thing they did. It was difficult, definitely. But I’m happy with it in the end.
You mentioned earlier that you didn’t ever want to write again after finishing Pretend I’m Dead. Is that emotional difficulty partly why?
Does it feel therapeutic too, though?
For sure, it does.
To end on a lighter note: As Vacuum begins, Mona is reeling from her breakup with Mr. Disgusting. Did you have a boyfriend who deserved such a moniker?
For sure. There’s been more than one Mr. Disgusting in my life, absolutely.