Unclean, Unclean!

‘Pretend I’m Dead,’ by Jen Beagin

I read the novel Pretend I’m Dead, by Jen Beagin. Why did I read this novel? It was on the lists, and sometimes I like to read what’s on the lists. Pretend I’m Dead has been floating around for a few years. An initial edition, published by Northwestern University’s TriQuarterly Press, came out in 2015. This year, Scribner picked it up, figuring there must be a huge market for bizarre novels about a 24-year-old woman who may or may not be an incest survivor having a failed affair with a junkie thief.  It won a couple of prizes and then a recommendation from Oprah’s magazine.

The book features a scene where the protagonist overdoses on a speedball in a flophouse in Lowell, Massachusetts. She cleans houses for a living and at one point in Taos, New Mexico, she masturbates to some incest porn that she finds under the mattress of a client who’s dying of cancer. There’s also mention of her, as a kid, sucking on the amputated stump of her father, who has a hook for a hand. This follows a graphic flashback scene of her father’s gangrenous arm rotting off in the hospital. So maybe it lacks mainstream appeal.

But all the grotesquerie doesn’t lead to anything particularly depressing. Beagin clearly has a weird sense of humor, and it translates to her young protagonist, Mona. Her messed-up backstory would drive most people to throw themselves in a creek, but despite some obvious tendencies toward destructive addiction, Mona manages to get through her days pretty well. Beagin has read herself some Denis Johnson and Charles Bukowski. Her book is full of wry, grim observations. She celebrates and understands loserdom as well as any writer I’ve read in a while.

Not a single note in the book feels false. Mona’s romantic relationship with Mr. Disgusting, the junkie thief, couldn’t possibly be more dysfunctional. Yet every horrible detail about him, the world’s number-one bad boyfriend, contains a nucleus of emotional resonance and dark humor. In the book’s second half, after Mona decamps for New Mexico, the weird New Age-y characters she encounters have a similarly lived-in feel.

No yuppies stalk these pages. There are no New York problems.

Hints fall about that this might take place in the late-90s, but there’s not a lot of news in the book. Beagin doesn’t care if we are All Connected, and doesn’t try to relate her novel to the War On Terror or 9-11, like every modern literary novel does. It’s just screwy people stumbling through their days, speaking sharp, funny, realistic-seeming dialogue.

Occasionally the book veers into childhood flashback territory. Those bits go on maybe a page or two more than they should. But we’re back into the main story soon enough. Despite the episodic storytelling, the work never loses control or focus, and never becomes pretentious. It’s a real book, simultaneously authentic and surreal, that reminds me squarely of the work of Nell Zink. Good job, Jen Beagin, random writer person who I’ve never met. Old Man Pollack approves.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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