Book Review: VACUUM IN THE DARK, a sequel that doesn’t live up to its predecessor

Beagin, Jen - Vacuum in the Dark (4)Vacuum in the Dark
Jen Beagin

Two years after the events in Pretend I’m Dead, Mona Boyle, the sardonic cleaning professional, sometimes artist, and compulsive liar returns in Vacuum in the Dark. She’s made little progress since the events of the previous volume.

Partly because of her past sexual abuse, Mona’s boundaries are ill-formed. Not only does she act unprofessional while cleaning–taking pictures in her clients’ clothes or nude while posing in their houses–she develops inappropriate relationships with them, having an affair with the husband of one client, posing nude for another client, a semifamous painter. One of the things I enjoyed so much about Pretend I’m Dead was Mona’s funny metaphors involving cleaning products and her obsession with external order, in contrast to her internal chaos. For the most part, that is absent from this book.

Mona continues her path of self-abasement, engaging in casual sexual experiences and drug use. She unquestioningly takes a pill from a client, not wondering if it is a good idea, not even wondering what it is or what it’s effects might be. Even her internal voice, Terry Gross, a welcome dose of rational thought, doesn’t interject. As much as the imaginary Terry Gross serves a purpose by keeping Mona engaged with reality, I thought the device was overused in the novel and it pulled me out of the narrative.

Mona seems not just unwilling but unable to call people by their correct names. At first, it’s amusing, and her nicknames are either funny or telling, but on further thought, it reflects Mona’s inability to see others beyond their role in her own narrative, revealing her fundamental selfishness.

A trip to Los Angeles to see her mother (whom she refers to as Clare, even though her name is Darlene) and retrieve some boxes from storage mends her relationship with Clare and her stepdad and introduces her to Curt (whom she calls Kurt, for its backbone). Mona attempts normalcy in a loving relationship with Curt, but she chafes at its ordinariness. When the chance to return to her risky, previous world arises, she can’t resist, but a harrowing encounter shakes her like nothing else before. I hope that if there is a third Mona Boyle book, we’ll finally see at least a little bit of growth from this experience, since that wasn’t the case between the first two.

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