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Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin

Published by Scribner on February 26, 2019

Mona Boyle, the beleaguered cleaning lady from Pretend I’m Dead, returns in Vacuum in the Dark. Someone is leaving hidden poops in one of the houses she cleans. That’s Mona’s life in a nutshell. Mona has an affinity for certain vacuum cleaners and an obsession with cleanliness that is probably symbolic of an unfulfilled desire to clean up her messy life.

The new imaginary companion in Mona’s head is Terry Gross, a sympathetic but honest companion, as one might expect her to be. Mona has gotten over Mr. Disgusting, more or less, but has replaced him with a new man she calls Dark. Of course, Dark is a less than perfect boyfriend, if being married and dishonest count as imperfections.

Mona believes she occupies a “very real place” between straight and gay, real because it isn’t the “fake, slutty island or amusement park” that bisexuality is often imagined to be. She has a new house to clean, owned by Hungarian artists with too many cats, and is attracted both to the wife and to the couple’s furniture, which she likes to fondle. Like her other clients, the Hungarians either want to have sex with Mona or include her in an art project.

Mona’s life continues to be isolated, despite her intimate interaction with various clients, but she finds a friend and kindred spirit in Maria Maria, another cleaner with whom she bonds. Late in the novel she meets yet another man and her life changes, as lives must. Whether the change is an improvement is unclear, as changes often are. When confronted with a choice between boring and stable or exciting and life-shattering, Mona always knows that whatever choice she makes will be wrong.

Vacuum in the Dark explores Mona’s experiences before she came to Taos. Some of those incidents are distressing, but the drama is wisely underplayed, preventing the story from becoming maudlin. At some point, Mona returns for a visit to her mother, giving the reader additional insight into Mona’s formative relationships. All the details of Mona’s past inform the reader’s understanding of the quirky person Mona has become. The reader can sympathize with Mona while appreciating her ability to cope, however shakily, with the life into which she has been thrust.

Jen Beagin has the kind of wit that sneaks up on a reader. She assembles sentences that seem to be informative until they suddenly become absurdly funny. Vacuum in the Dark is perfect for fans of dark humor. Mona’s observant nature, along with her snooping through the houses she cleans, gives her more knowledge about her clients than a cleaner should probably have, but her discoveries are a fertile source of laughter. Her self-discoveries are also amusing, but they add humanizing depth to the ongoing story of Mona’s life. It is an engaging story that could easily continue to entertain readers throughout upcoming stages of Mona’s life.


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