Book Review – Vacuum in the Dark
“Vacuum in the Dark” is the second novel by the highly talented Jen Beagin, who currently lives in Hudson, New York, but is a former resident of Lowell. In fact, her debut novel, “Pretend I’m Dead,” was set in the Mill City — it earned rave reviews and was selected by O, The Oprah Magazine as one of its “O’s Best Books of Summer.”
Although you don’t have to read its predecessor to follow the plot, “Vacuum in the Dark” is a sequel: Mona, a 26-year-old house cleaner with creative tendencies and, to put it mildly, a complicated psychological makeup, has moved on from a disastrous relationship with a now-deceased lover.
As she tries to put her life back together, we encounter characters who are mostly misfits, all beset by one form of addiction or another. Mona begins a series of ill-conceived affairs. At first, she falls for the husband of one of her clients. Later, she develops a complicated relationship with an affluent art-collecting Hungarian couple. In Beagin’s world, people are never quite what they seem, and it takes us, and Mona, a long time to get beyond surfaces to discover true motives.
Beagin is a writer of considerable wit, and the novel interweaves sitcom-style verbal sparring with a dark portrait of its narrator. Despite her obvious intelligence, Mona is lost and rootless. She takes on different lovers while trying to sort out her own erotic desires, which are complicated by a history of trauma.
“Vacuum in the Dark” is the sort of novel you want to shove into the hands of anyone who thinks that novels don’t matter anymore.
“Vacuum in the Dark” is set mostly in Taos, New Mexico — the dry desert environment a suitable metaphor for her own psychic state — although Taos is just one stop in a looping journey that returns us to Lowell, at least in retrospect, and on to Bakersfield, California. For the writing alone, the book is worth reading. At times a classic American road story, romantic comedy, exercise in bleak realism, David Lynchian horror tale, and treatise on the state of the vacuum cleaner industry, the novel has to be experienced to be understood.
As she works and cleans, Mona attempts to bring order to spoiled environments besieged by the threat of decay. She stumbles into evidence of people’s hidden lives, and this, too, must be sorted out. This leads to one of the book’s most clever devices. While Mona sweeps and scrubs, she maintains a dialogue in her head with an imaginary friend, who happens to be Terry Gross, the levelheaded host of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Gross plays a kind of good angel on her shoulder, questioning Mona’s impulses and encouraging her to make correct choices.
Fitting for a novel about a woman who cleans houses for a living, the theme of home predominates. At one point, recovering from another failed attempt at a human connection, she returns to her childhood home to live with her mother. The homecoming doesn’t end well, although the experience leaves her with something she can truly love: a 1964 Ford Fairlane. With a new set of wheels, she sets out again, although by this point it’s becoming clear that she can’t outrun her past.
“Vacuum in the Dark” is the sort of novel you want to shove into the hands of anyone who thinks that novels don’t matter anymore. It isn’t safe, and it doesn’t always make for a comfortable read. What may be most remarkable about it is how brisk the pacing is, how energetically the dialogue zips along, even as its protagonist raises profound questions to which there are no easy answers.[Note: “Vacuum in the Dark” was released in paperback on Jan. 28, 2020. A statement on the book’s Amazon page notes it is being made into an FX television series starring Lola Kirke. -Ed.]
Vacuum in the Dark