At some point in their careers, all authors have heard some variation on the advice "Grab the reader from the front page." For some writers of literary fiction, this translates to "Describe the sun shining on a New England lake in very exacting detail," or something of that nature.
In her new novel, Vacuum in the Dark, Jen Beagin has decided to go a different way. The book opens with a house cleaner accidentally washing her hands with human feces, believing it to be "fancy hippie soap." Panicking, she seeks advice from her best imaginary friend, Terry Gross, whose talk show Fresh Air is famously broadcast on a public radio network (the name of which escapes me at the moment).
It's a fitting beginning to a wildly exuberant novel that doesn't shy away from the weirder and more disgusting parts of life. Vacuum in the Dark is a funny and surprisingly sweet book about a young woman who grew up too fast and is trying desperately to reinvent herself.
The unfortunate house cleaner in question is Mona, a 26-year-old woman who's recently moved to Taos, N.M., to escape the demons of her past. She makes a living tidying up after rich people, accompanied only by Terry, her imaginary buddy who serves as counselor and confessor: "Most days, Terry was simple a sober and inquisitive voice in her head, interviewing her about the day-to-day hassles of being a cleaning lady in Taos, but occasionally she switched roles and became something more: coach, therapist, surrogate parent." (Terry has taken the place of Bob, Mona's name for God, who "was often a flake in emergency situations.")
When she's not confiding in Terry, Mona spends her time taking clandestine photographs of her clients' houses and trying to avoid her insufferable hippie neighbors ("In some ways, they reminded her of John and Yoko, but, as they were both terrible musicians, she called them Yoko and Yoko") Mona finds herself in a series of inadvisable relationships with her clients — she becomes engaged in a torrid affair with the husband of a blind woman whose house has been plagued by mysterious fecal deposits, and then agrees to model for a bohemian artist couple who intrigue her, but whom she finds slightly creepy, but still relatable: "She was comfortable with creepy, though, and they knew it. Wasn't that why they'd let her into their lives?"
When Mona's mother, Clare, calls her out of the blue to ask her to come visit her and her husband, who are renewing their vows, Mona is torn — her childhood was far from happy, and she's always had an uneasy relationship with Clare (so uneasy, in fact, that she calls her "Clare," which isn't her real name). Mona travels to California with the intent of picking up some boxes of her childhood ephemera, but of course it ends up more complicated than that — she's forced to confront past events in her life that she'd just as soon forget.
There are a lot of things to love about Vacuum in the Dark, but the character of Mona, who Beagin first introduced in her debut novel, Pretend I'm Dead, is the main one. She's a mass of contradictions, which is exactly what makes her so real — she's kind but prickly, confident at times but self-sabotaging at others. She also exhibits a wobbly kind of self-awareness: "The only shame I feel is that I've been too passive," she reflects at one point. "I haven't said no to enough in my life. If I had, I'd probably be a different person now. Less tormented, maybe. More ... successful."
Beagin, herself a former house cleaner, treats Mona, and all her characters, with real dignity. She's a wise observer on how it's easy to be exploited when you're an open person who's willing to listen: "People were vampires. Their stories drained the life out of her. Then, half-dead and bloodless, she carried on cleaning their toilets like nothing had ever happened."
Beagin is a wonderfully funny writer who also happens to tackle serious subjects, which few authors are able to pull off successfully. Mona is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults and another character is a recovering victim of incest; others are dealing with substance use problems. Beagin never treats these subjects lightly, but she doesn't shy away from employing very dark humor; the result is a comic novel that's a joy to read but never frivolous or superficial. Beagin is unafraid to take risks, and they all pay off here — Vacuum in the Dark is an excellent book by a writer with a singular voice.