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Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel, Pretend I'm Dead, features the raunchy, antsy, droll and painstakingly proficient housekeeper Mona. After a blue-collar childhood in Torrance, Calif., with an alcoholic father and equally dysfunctional mother, she is placed with distant kin in Lowell ("Hole"), Mass., and pretty much left to fend for herself. By day she cleans the houses of her adopted hometown with "all this brick and repression... snow, wool, guilt." By night she works at a pop-up needle exchange where she meets a disabled addict wearing a tee with Jack Kerouac on the front. Two decades older and living in an SRO hotel, this man she calls "Mr. Disgusting" has a room with real paintings, Indian textiles and shelves of existential and Russian novels--unlike her last boyfriend: "some edgeless dude... whose heaviest cross to bear had been acne." Mona may not know where she's going, but she knows what she likes.
If Mona's uneasy relationship with Mr. Disgusting opens doors to possibility, her housecleaning work grounds her. She's got a vacuum jones ("on applications she listed it as one of her hobbies") to go with the practice of raiding her clients' medicine cabinets. When Mr. Disgusting disappears, he leaves her a letter urging her to escape to New Mexico to start a new life. Why not?
Packing her pickup with books and cleaning supplies, she takes off in "what the 12-steppers called a geographic," rents half an adobe casita duplex in Taos, and launches a housekeeping business. Sharing her casita, the ashram mystics Irishman Nigel and Japanese Shiori remind her of John and Yoko, "but the truth was, they were more like Yoko and Yoko." They take Mona under wing and introduce her to meditation, a healthy diet and marathon contemplation of New Mexico sunsets. Softening somewhat under their transcendental tutelage, Mona reaches out to reconnect with her father and even holds questioning discourse with the God she calls "Bob."
As Mona's business adds new referral clients, she finds herself scrubbing the floors and bathrooms of cancer victim Henry and spiffing the double-wide in the desert of red-haired psychic Betty. Beagin generously seasons her narrative with the nuts and bolts of housekeeping work, including Mona's reliable Hoover Aero-Dyne Model 51 vacuum and clever uses of Murphy Oil Soap on leather sofas and olive oil on stainless steel appliances. But Pretend I'm Dead is all Mona's story. The central characters of its four sections provide a different slant on her often painful path to maturity. She listens and she learns. Beagin's debut is grungy and ribald, melancholic and funny. Throw in a little wisdom, schmaltz and a few useful housekeeping tips, and Pretend I'm Dead delivers a real bang for the buck
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.
— Bruce Jacobs
Whiting Award Winner Jen Beagin introduces us to a beguilingly damaged character in her debut novel, Pretend I’m Dead.
When the book opens, 24-year-old Mona is a housekeeper in Boston. Having survived incompetent parents, Mona’s tough exterior and shrewd commentary on the world mask an empathic muscle that strengthens through the novel.
Aunt Sheila has been the ad hoc parent in Mona’s life and she owns the housekeeping service employing Mona. During the day, Aunt Sheila and Mona work together. While Sheila compartmentalizes the behind-the-scenes glimpses of her clients, Mona, with nothing to lose, chimes in with running psychoanalysis of each client—to great comedic effect.
When Sheila decides to sell the business and move to Florida, Mona is on her own. She is at the end of a heartbreaking relationship and finds herself making the first decisions that will determine her future. She moves to Taos, New Mexico; finds an apartment; and picks up housekeeping jobs to make ends meet. As Mona navigates being self-employed, she enters the murky waters of her own vulnerability.
With an acute sense of humor, Beagin ratchets up the tension as Mona investigates her clients’ lives. These intrusions provide Mona a mirror with which she can reflect on her own life and damaged childhood. Pretend I’m Dead elucidates sexual abuse, juxtaposing what we think we see and what we discover to be true. Beagin is insightful, funny, and generous to all her kind- and hard-hearted characters, and this promising debut novel assures us of the great healing power of art—even when we think we aren’t under the weather.
Sarah's review first appeared on 89.1 KMUW. You can listen to her review HERE.
— Sarah Bagby
NAMED A BEST BOOK of the YEAR by O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE, REFINERY 29, andKIRKUS REVIEWS SHORTLISTED FOR THE CENTER FOR FICTION FIRST NOVEL PRIZE
A “wondrous,” (O, The Oprah Magazine) “scathingly funny” (Entertainment Weekly) debut from Whiting Award winner Jen Beagin about a cleaning lady named Mona and her quest for self-acceptance and belonging after her relationship with a loveable junkie goes awry.
Jen Beagin’s funny, moving, fearless debut novel introduces an unforgettable character, Mona—almost twenty-four, emotionally adrift, and cleaning houses to get by. Handing out clean needles to drug addicts, she falls for a recipient she calls Mr. Disgusting, who proceeds to break her heart in unimaginable ways.
Seeking a kind of healing, she decamps to Taos, New Mexico, for a fresh start, where she finds a community of seekers and cast-offs, all of whom have one or two things to teach her—the pajama-wearing, blissed-out New Agers, the slightly creepy client with peculiar tastes in controlled substances, the psychic who might really be psychic. But always lurking just beneath the surface are her memories of growing up in a chaotic, destructive family from which she’s trying to disentangle herself, and the larger legacy of the past she left behind.
The story of Mona’s quest for self-acceptance in this working class American world is at once hilarious and wonderfully strange, true to life and boldly human, and introduces a stunning, one-of-a-kind new voice in American fiction.
About the Author
Jen Beagin holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, and is a recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award in fiction. She is the author of Pretend I’m Dead and Vacuum in the Dark. A former cleaning lady, she lives in Hudson, New York.
"Rib-ticklingly funny-sad... [Beagin] works magic in the space between hilarity and heartbreak... Absurdly affecting." — O Magazine, a Best Book of 2018
"One of the most anticipated literary debuts of the year... Pretend I’m Dead traces a cleaning woman’s journey to self-acceptance in alternately warm, sharp, and deeply wise fashion... Scathingly funny." — Entertainment Weekly
"With her droll humor and hilarious (but also earnest) observations, the 24-year-old narrator of Pretend I’m Dead had us hooked from page one. Mona gets by cleaning houses; in her free time, she hands out clean needles to heroin junkies. She is adrift; a dreamer without the fuel to make her dreams real. Pretend I’m Dead follows Mona as she moves to a new city, through a few relationships. But reciting the plot doesn’t do the book justice. Glide through Mona’s series of bad decisions with her – she’s a good companion." — Refinery 29, a Best Book of 2018
"Beagin's work has been compared to Denis Johnson, which is high praise indeed, and totally deserved based on this smart, funny, darkly profound debut." — Nylon
"Sharp but empathetic... Clear-eyed and funny... What gives this novel its heart is Beagin's capacity for seeing... Beagin makes [her theme] fresh with her sly, funny, compassionate voice. This is a terrific debut. Singularly enjoyable." — Kirkus, starred review
"Beagin's debut is grungy and ribald, melancholic and funny. Throw in a little wisdom, schmaltz and a few useful housekeeping tips, and Pretend I'm Dead delivers a real bang for the buck." — Shelf Awareness
“How can you resist a love story in which the object of desire is named Mr. Disgusting? Like Denis Johnson, Jen Beagin is able to find humanity and wonder (and yes, love) in some of the most forlorn and hopeless corners of our world.” — Tom Perrotta, author of Mrs. Fletcher and The Leftovers
"Pretend I'm Dead by Jen Beagin is like one of those old-fashioned classics by Charles Bukowski or John Fante or, more recently, Denis Johnson, a shambling, lyrical dispatch from the dive bars and the flop houses where the downtrodden, divested of hope, livelihood, good health, and any number of other markers of respectability, nevertheless retain full possession of their hearts and minds, their integrity, their souls, too, perhaps--and no one nearly as triumphantly as Mona Boyle, Beagin's heart-breaking hero & alter-ego. Rare is the encounter with such a frank and unflinching voice reporting from life on the edge, and rarer still the humor and compassion that Beagin manages to locate in some of the country's, and the psyche's, darkest corners. This book invaded my dreams, took over my conversation, and otherwise seduced me totally." — Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
"Jen Beagin has one of the freshest voices I've read in years - funny, wise, whip-smart and compassionate. I tore through Pretend I'm Dead with a deep sense of affection for all of its beautifully flawed characters and their bittersweet lives." — Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins and All Grown Up
"Pretend I’m Dead is funny, weird, disturbing, and just a touch magical. Mona, our main character, is such fabulous company, even when she wants everyone in her life to leave her alone. Jen Beagin’s novel will stare you down, mesmerize you, and dare you to laugh." — Annie Hartnett, author of Rabbit Cake
"If nuanced, funny, dark, utterly unpretentious literature is your drug of choice, Jen Beagin's Pretend I'm Dead constitutes an epic score. Please enjoy responsibly." — Elisa Albert, author of After Birth
"In Jen Beagin's Pretend I'm Dead, the brilliant and damaged young proprietress of Bee's Knees Housekeeping is continually in danger of too much information. She cleans people's homes, all those telling, secret, even intimate spaces, and reflected back are the secrets of her own past, the million sadnesses. Despite Mona's wicked sense of humor, too much contends for her fine heart in this daily work. Funny, supremely candid, this debut hurt me perfectly on every page." — Ron Carlson, author of Return to Oakpine
"Pretend I'm Dead is utterly engaging, laugh-out-loud funny, and always compelling. Mona is an irresistible character, and I loved being in her head and hearing her thoughts. In short, I was rooting for her straight through. Each sentence is alive, vibrant and quaking. Beagin's writing is fearless and bold, yet the book is entirely accessible and even relatable." — Jessica Anya Blau, author of The Wonder Bread Summer