Pretend I’m Dead, the debut novel by Jen Beagin, was first released in 2015 via Northwestern University Press, though has since been picked up by Oneworld.
In many ways, the novel shares a spirit with AM Homes’s This Book Will Save Your Life, though the differences are key. Homes’s protagonist Richard Novak is an affluent business man at the nadir of a conscious retreat from society, living an anaesthetised, hermetically-sealed existence within his luxury LA apartment. After what was either a brush with death or severe panic attack, Novak gradually re-emerges from his solitude, engaging in a series of bizarre and often New Age lifestyle choices as he integrates into a hyperreal Californian society. While Homes is witty and hilarious when commenting on all of this, it is conspicuous just how happy and fulfilled Novak becomes, as though for all of our ironic sniggering he is healed by the so-called banalities of self-help strategies.
Which brings us to Beagin’s protagonist, Mona. A house cleaner, Mona is at the other end of the social spectrum to Novak, though actively resists attempts and suggestions that she try to climb the ladder toward something more respectable. Which isn’t to say her sense of self-worth is robust. The beginning of the novel finds her volunteering at a needle exchange, where she soon meets an addict she knows only as Mr Disgusting and falls for him hard. “For the first time in years,” Beagin writes, “she felt beautiful, like a real prize.” Far from becoming a figure of humanity struggling within the grip of addiction, Disgusting is prone to long, unexplained absences, moonlighting as a pimp when he is present and treating Mona as something of a curiosity. Not only does he break his own alleged sobriety but also introduces Mona to heroin too, a situation which culminates in a casual moment of near-death, where he chooses to observe the result of an overdose rather than help.
The near-death experience is analogous to that of Homes’s Novak, and initiates a similar quest for meaning and self-discovery. Moving to Taos, New Mexico, with a brief detour to steal the miraculous dirt of El Santuario dear Chimayo, Mona starts her own cleaning business and gradually becomes acquainted with a variety of the local people. The role serves as a plot device, allowing Jen Beagin to set up a series of vignettes in which Mona’s idiosyncratic personality can clash with an assortment of weird and wonderful characters, both via direct contact and her constant sifting through the minutiae of their lives when cleaning.
These include, but are not limited to a New Age couple, Yoko and Yoko, who have never heard of David Lynch or Dennis Hopper yet watch the sunset every evening, a psychic named Betty who is in fact so psychic she thinks Mona is called Maura and the mysterious Henry, who is certainly sick, but in just how many ways? The encounters serve the purpose of pushing Mona toward self-acceptance, often by calling to mind her own past, and indeed her relationship with her father is a recurring theme that is dredged up by her present situation.
A fuller version of Mona soon emerges, one apathetic and emotionally-distant not through some hip disaffection but rather the chaos and distrust of her past. The metaphor of cleaning takes on a whole new slant, a constant movement toward purity that is doomed to perpetual action, just as Mona’s attempts to reconnect with herself and others allows long swept memories to surface.
Unlike Homes’s Novak, Jen Beagin’s Mona cannot free herself from cynicism long enough to embrace any potential cure, though there is a similarity in how proximity to bizarre beliefs and lifestyles encourage the development of one’s own. Maybe a full embrace of one’s position and life, contrary to any outside expectation or criticism, is a noble and valuable pursuit. Which is to say, for Mona, perhaps cleaning could have a spiritual function? No book, no psychic seeing, no pyjama-clad, lotus-positioned observance of the setting sun can be sure of saving one’s life. But perhaps the idea can trigger something more practical. Something better than pretending to be dead.
Pretend I’m Dead is out now via OneWorld (UK) and Simon & Schuster (US).