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Pretend I'm Dead


Pretend I'm Dead

Jen Beagin’s debut novel, PRETEND I’M DEAD, is laugh-out-loud funny and refreshingly real, despite the ghosts, psychics and cult-like characters who are sprinkled throughout the story --- or, rather, who leap off the page. Beagin’s voice is reminiscent of Edward St. Aubyn’s: dark, funny and out of control. She does not hold back, even if it makes readers squirm in their seats.

Mona, the protagonist, is a 24-year-old who works as a professional cleaning lady with her legal guardian, Sheila. She floats through life, rather numb, yet still searches for someone to hold onto. At the onset of the story, that someone is Mr. Disgusting, a middle-aged heroin addict she meets while volunteering giving out clean needles. He’s caught her eye, and she’s intrigued. He disappears for a while, and she worries that he’s either in prison, rehab or the ground. Yet he returns in the spring with a gift for her, saying, “I thought I’d put my number on a mirror so you can check yourself out while we’re talking on the phone.” Mona waits a few days to call. Their conversation is funny, and although we don’t feel particularly great about Mr. Disgusting --- the relationship seems sort of doomed from the start --- we are interested in how this romance will develop. We are lured into the taboo love story of a couple with a large age gap and so much baggage that it can hardly fit.

"PRETEND I’M DEAD has the voice, characters and story that make for an invigorating breakout novel. It doesn’t hold back any punches and is unafraid to explore controversial themes."

Mr. Disgusting has his quirks. Some might find them off-putting and run in the other direction. Other more daring types --- those with a thirst for adventure --- might stay put just for sheer entertainment and, of course, love. On their first date, Mr. Disgusting shows Mona the residential hotel room in which he lives. He may as well get it out of the way, he says. Then he makes a confession. There’s something she needs to know; their future will depend on her reaction to it. She’s worried, until he throws his dentures into a cup of water. He lost his teeth. Yet Mona doesn’t care much. Maybe, in fact, he looks better that way. As they spend time in bed together, he is calm in the fact that he can’t do much --- he has erectile dysfunction --- so instead he uses his hands. Mr. Disgusting is endearing in the way he aims to please Mona, whether it’s through intimacy, gifting her with paintings stolen from condemned houses, or furniture lifted from dumpsters. He’s been clean for a little while, and she asks him to move in with her.

Then Mr. Disgusting relapses, and the book is like a missile that shoots off into a completely different direction. At first, Mona yearns for him and leaves keepsakes in his room while he’s passed out in another dimension. One day, he’s awake, and she demands to try what he has. If that’s what’s taken him away from her, she should at least know what it feels like. He agrees, and she practically overdoses. Mr. Disgusting forgot that the heroin was laced with cocaine. Yet he had his fingers on her pulse, he says, and her heart had only stopped beating for a few seconds. Soon enough, he disappears altogether, leaving a suicide note stating that Mona is better off with someone closer to her age with whom she can actually have a sexual relationship. He also advises her to move out West and join a cult, which she essentially does, but not before she kills her most beloved pet, which is actually her vacuum. The truth is, Mona genuinely does love cleaning.

It’s in Taos, New Mexico, while living with a hippy couple who believe they can see into Mona’s soul --- as most people imagine out there --- where we get a greater glimpse into her childhood and what drove her to become so nihilistic. Mona calls her father, who lives with a hook for an arm and is an alcoholic. Their first phone conversation goes like this:

“Two words,” she said. “Alcoholics Anonymous.”

He laughed. “I’m done with the double A. Besides, I’m not an alcoholic. I’m just bored.”

This section of the novel is interspersed with Mona’s memories, one of which includes a haunting story of a secret trip to Vegas with her father where he takes inappropriate pictures of her. This recollection disturbs her; what gave her the chills was having witnessed her father show the pictures to one of his friends. While cleaning the home of a young man with cancer, she’s convinced after peeking into his diary that he’s a danger to his daughter. It becomes her mission to save the girl, until she realizes that nothing is taking place. Mona then meets a quirky psychic who, decades later, is still in love with the man to whom she was married for only three months. She lives in a trailer and keeps a bunch of dolls around the house. The psychic also follows Mona while she cleans, telling her about her chakras and what’s holding her back, hinting at traumas buried way beneath the surface. Maybe this woman truly does have powers. It’s this relationship that sends Mona on another adventure, which is to finally start being alive instead of just living.

PRETEND I’M DEAD has the voice, characters and story that make for an invigorating breakout novel. It doesn’t hold back any punches and is unafraid to explore controversial themes. Even if the story is at times hard to swallow, it’s authentic and original while discussing pressing issues in society. Mona is a great character to stay with, and she never loses her true self, while also finding herself at the same time. I hope to read Jen Beagin’s work again very soon; her voice is one we need in this generation.

Reviewed by Bianca Ambrosio on May 18, 2018

Pretend I'm Dead
by Jen Beagin

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501194429
  • ISBN-13: 9781501194429