Sometimes, it’s okay to judge a book by its cover. I picked up Jen Beagin’s debut novel, PRETEND I’M DEAD, because the combination of that title and the rubber-gloved hand holding a cigarette on the jacket drew me in. After reading the back cover and learning that the book involved a love interest named Mr. Disgusting, I knew I had to read it. Judging by those things, I figured I was in for a truly unique, offbeat, and probably sharply funny story. It is all of those things and so much more.
Mona is almost 24, rootless and emotionally unstable. She makes a living cleaning houses, and in her spare time, she volunteers at a needle exchange, where she falls for a lovable but hygienically challenged addict she dubs Mr. Disgusting. But after a devastating heartbreak, Mona moves to Taos, New Mexico, to start over. There she meets a strange and eclectic mixture of people. There are her neighbors, two New Agers who met while meditating on life’s mysteries in India, wear silk pajamas all day, and compose awful 18-minute-long pieces of music on instruments of their own creation. There’s a housecleaning client whose home is stuffed with hundreds and hundreds of pieces of angel paraphernalia, from statues to ornaments to truly bizarre paintings. There’s a fake psychic who lives in a trailer and has creepy dolls under her bed and . . . might actually really be psychic? Through Mona’s interactions with this odd assortment of people, she searches for her place in the world and comes to terms with her painful past.
This novel delves into places that seem hopeless or abject: the flophouse, the dive bar, the trailer park. Jen Beagin populates them with people who are damaged and hurting and strange, but also achingly human, striving for meaning or love or survival. Their collective story is as deeply funny as it is deeply sad; it is heart-wrenching, fresh, and weird in a wonderful way.
Joshua Ferris said, “This book invaded my dreams.” After I finished it, I told a friend it was haunting me. I meant it in the best possible way. The characters, their lives, their hopes and sadness had crawled into my heart and the recesses of my mind and I couldn’t get them out. I found myself sitting at my desk thinking about the psychic and her past heartbreak. Thinking about Mr. Disgusting struggling to get clean and writing a journal entry imagining he’s in a plane approaching his favorite island, but the plane is running out of fuel. Thinking about Mona hiding letters to a higher power under rocks in clients’ backyards. The details with which Beagin paints these characters’ lives are so specific, so singular and unique, they feel alive. Once you meet them, they’ll be with you for a long, long time.