As I get older, I have less time for tricksy. I want honesty, authenticity, sympathy for the human condition. A book like Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, for me, falls into the first camp – it’s a dog walking on its hind legs, and it impresses the right people, and you can’t move for column inches and podcast interviews and all the rest of it; a book like Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin falls into the second camp – so you probably won’t have heard about it, or read reviews, or heard interviews. It’s just a good, unshowy book. One of those.
Largely a novel that functions by the accumulation of episodes, we first meet our narrator, a housecleaner called Mona as she volunteers at a needle exchange. The first quarter of the book concerns a relationship she has with an older man who we come to know only as Mr Disgusting (in that as much as the first portion of the book concerns a relationship between a younger woman and an older man, it actually has some things in common with Asymmetry). Mr Disgusting has his ups and his downs and Mona finds him by turns intriguing and repulsive. Beagin writes with a delicious snap:
“It was like dating a recent immigrant from a developing nation, or someone who’d just gotten out of jail.”
And Mona herself, for all her actual attachment, can look at her life with a cool, dispassionate humour:
“She spilled the beans:: she’d fallen for an addict, someone she met at the needle exchange. They were in a relationship. Yes, a romantic one. He’d been sober for six months. Now he wasn’t. “Blah blah,” she said. You’ve seen the movie a million times.””
And perhaps that would be the case if the relationship didn’t end a quarter way in and Mona blow town for Taos where she shares a rental with a couple of New Age-y types who she christens Yoko and Yoko, cleaning house for a cancer patient she suspects might be abusing his daughter and a psychic who is hung up on a former boyfriend, among others.
Beagin writes with real humour. Pretend I’m Dead reads like Harriet the Spy for grown-ups. Here she is filling us in n her thought processes when she’s asked a question about the strange photographs she takes of herself while she is cleaning other peoples houses (it’s straight out of Peep Show):
“No,” she said. “I take pictures of myself, mostly.” Naked, she wanted to add. On your sofa. With a broomstick up my ass. “Interesting,” he said. “Where you from again?”
Any Cop?: It’s a sassy book. A funny book. A confident statement of intent. Beagin is a talent and Pretend I’m Dead is the kind of subtle sucker punch that will have you looking out for whatever Beagin does next.