Millie is Sisyphus and her boulder is shredding documents. She’s also in the process of trading her own last shreds of authenticity for the things she’s been promised will cure her of her rage and allow her — finally — to connect with others: “I could have friends if I had more money. I could be easier to get along with if I had more stability. … I could be who I wanted to be — calm, cool, self-assured, self-reliant, independent enough to attract people who could enjoy my company because we’re all independent people doing what we have to do to get by. … Not like who I am now, flailing, filled with puke, thinking about death and feeling angry all the time.”
Millie’s fantasy of getting a “real job” succeeds in making her entire life more real for a moment. But the gap between her “hallucination of the perfect future” and her lackluster present will close, and brutally. It’s not that Millie’s delusional; her dejection is depressingly realistic. Butler provides breaks from Millie’s point of view that reveal her distrust of others is justified. Her co-workers don’t like her. He ex-boyfriend didn’t like her. She offends nearly everyone. She smells. So does her apartment. Walking in the park, she is mistaken by onlookers as both drunk and mentally ill. And yet, there’s a nobility in Millie’s inability to fake it.
Another worthy addition is Beagin’s “Vacuum in the Dark,” a sequel to her much-lauded debut, “Pretend I’m Dead.” We’re back with Mona, a cleaning lady who talks to Terry Gross in her head and has boundary issues with the charismatic clients who fascinate her. This novel is a joy: truly laugh-out-loud funny, while staying grounded and dignified, even as Mona capsizes again and again. She’s a young woman haunted by the ghosts of rape, abuse, incest, abandonment and addiction. Set on finding people to help bury her pain, she inevitably attracts more of it.
As the novel opens, Mona is cleaning poop — human feces, left like tributes around the house. Beagin thus metaphorizes Mona as a receptacle for the garbage left by irresponsible people around her: her mother, who left her for pet parrots; a blind therapist, who tells Mona she smells of suicide; a Hungarian painter and opiate addict who persuades her to pose naked; and “Dark,” a married man who twists Mona’s insides with a lust that leaves no prisoners. Mona takes it all, carries it, cleans it. Yet as she rids herself of each leeching narcissist, only to fall under the spell of the next, the novel traces a burgeoning sense of self-awareness. Maybe she’s an artist? Maybe she’s stronger than people think? Remembering that she administered a morphine overdose to her perverted, cancer-ridden grandfather, she says she doesn’t feel shame about it, only “relief” — she finally identifies it as a necessary revolt: “The only shame I feel is that I’ve been too passive. I haven’t said no to enough in my life. If I had, I’d probably be a different person now. Less tormented, maybe. More … successful.”