By Simon Demetriou
Having become infatuated with Jen Beagin via her most recent novel, Big Swiss, I am now rationing her two previous books so as not to run out too quickly. Pretend I’m Dead, Beagin’s 2018 debut, did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for its author, though it did remind me of the fact that reading a writer’s work back to front in this way is probably not that sensible. Take my advice and read Beagin’s books in the order they were written; you get to save the best till last that way.
Mona, Pretend I’m Dead’s protagonist, defies society’s expectations by virtue of the ‘fact that she was white, managed to graduate from a decent parochial high school, and yet chose to clean houses’, which leads her clients to treat her ‘warily, as if she were mentally ill, learning disabled, or an ex-con.’ Consequently, Mona feels she has more in common with the heroin addicts at the needle exchange where she volunteers, and in particular with ‘Mr Disgusting’ – so called ‘on account of his looks and dirty clothes’. As romances go, dating a substance abusing part-time flower-thief, part-time pimp who refers to his penis as ‘either “a vestigial, functionless appendage” or “the saddest member of the family”’ might not be for everyone. Even more so when that person casually allows you to overdose and treats your spasming body as a matter of artistic interest more than a cause for concern. Still, as Mona says, ‘big deal – people made mistakes’.
You can tell from the above that Beagin’s gifts for dark humour, perfectly pitched phrases and characters you can’t help but like despite their many unlikable qualities are distinctly on-show in Pretend I’m Dead. Underlying all these qualities is a passionate sensitivity for the ways in which people deal with trauma and carry it through their lives. Mona’s father – a flirtatious one-armed gambler who shared naked photos of his pre-teen daughter with his friends and enjoyed a game called ‘Pretend I’m Dead’ where young Mona would float motionless in the swimming pool waiting for her father to ‘rescue’ her – is the presence she carries with her and compulsively returns to, despite feeling that ‘His mouth was a coffin she’d spent years wanting to nail shut.’
Comedy is the genre that allows for the most tolerance because it calls for a perspective that can view the world askance, that can sneer and smile, disdain and understand. The great comic writer is painfully aware at all times that humans are ridiculous, foolish, messed up creatures, but we’re all we’ve got, and we better find ways to make the best of it and of each other. Jen Beagin is a great comic writer.