Is there such thing as a literary poo joke…?
Jen Beagin’s Vacuum in the Dark opens with Mona, a twenty-six-year-old house cleaner, accidentally washing her hands with a poo, mistaking it for a ‘fancy hippie soap.’ She immediately refers to her imaginary friend, Terry Gross, for advice. Terry suggests breathing through her mouth and repeat rinsing.
“The shits are real, Terry,” Mona said. “They have heft. They engage all the senses.”
“Start keeping a record of some kind,” Terry suggested, as Mona finished vacuuming. “Indicate the time of day, the location, plus a brief description, and maybe include a drawing.”
This story is dark. It’s also deadpan funny and occasionally a bit repulsive. It tells the story of Mona’s ‘relationships’ with her clients – a blind woman and her husband, ‘Dark’; and a Hungarian artist couple whose beautifully decorated home masks their complicated personal life.
Five minutes hadn’t passed, yet the woman was revealing her most intimate secrets. Often, after Mona copped to cleaning toilets for a living, people took it as a cue to be candid.
Odd story lines – Mona embarking on a clandestine photography project of self-portraits in other people’s clothes and homes; and her modelling for the Hungarian artists – are the front for much more difficult themes around Mona’s traumatic childhood and troubled relationships.
The minor characters are sharp and brilliantly realised, notably her neighbours, an older married couple, Nigel and Shiori, who have a penchant for loungewear and tantric sex. Mona calls them Yoko and Yoko, because “…in some ways, they reminded her of John and Yoko, but, as they were both terrible musicians, she called them Yoko and Yoko.”
When Mona returns to LA to visit her mother and step-father, she is forced to confront her past.
You’re here, she told herself. You’re home. You got your wish. The wish was stale. A decade too old. It was as if she’d finally gotten that cashmere sweater she’d wished for at fourteen, but now the sleeves were too short and it was some weird New England colonial pumpkin color.
Jokes aside, Beagin’s tentative reveal of Mona’s traumatic past is perfectly executed. In one sense, it is expected, because we know Mona is hurt, but the extent and dimensions of that hurt are unexpected, and the last part of this novel is deeply sad (and written with great sensitivity).
Strange, she thought, how affected you are by malice when you’re a kid, how a mean word or look can unravel you, how devastating cruelty feels when you’re too young to protect yourself. But eventually, after all those defense mechanisms are firmly in place, it’s the so-called positive shit – mercy, not malice – that brings you to tears.
It should be noted that while this book follows on from Pretend I’m Dead, it also stands alone as a novel.
I received my copy of Vacuum in the Dark from the publisher, Oneworld Publications, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
3.5/5 Odd and memorable.
As a kid, most of Mona’s weekends had started with a maple bar binge. She and Clare split half a dozen in the car, a rich brown Buick Riviera with cream leather interior. It was like eating a maple bar inside a maple bar.