“I’m a cleaning lady,” Mona tells a man she meets mid-earthquake in L.A., which he says is full of phonies. “About as real as it gets.” The real, though, is what Mona says it is, circumscribed by what she sees. “She loved to vacuum in the dark, with only the warm, golden beam of the Eureka’s headlight to guide her.”

For company and counsel, Mona, 26, has her imaginary friend, who happens to be Terry Gross, of NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

“Most days, Terry was simply a sober and inquisitive voice in her head, interviewing her about the day-to-day hassles of being a cleaning lady in Taos, N.M., but occasionally she switched roles and became something more: coach, therapist, surrogate parent.”

It’s a clever device, supplying Mona with a self-questioning conscience, inner voice of reason, the occasional punch line — a glimpse of the interior life of a character who often appears to be operating on autopilot. An argumentative imaginary friend is also, like much in Jen Beagin’s “Vacuum in the Dark,” piquantly amusing.

Mona is coming off a strange affair, chronicled in Beagin’s first novel, “Pretend I’m Dead,” with a man she calls Mr. Disgusting. His disappearance and likely death have drawn her to Taos, where she takes up with a man she dubs Dark, whose wife, Rose, a blind beauty with an incestuous history, hires her to clean their house.

Mona’s own weird, darkly funny, semi-incestuous childhood — a point of reference throughout the novel — makes the whole business too uncomfortable, and she moves on to the book’s second gig, cleaning house for a pair of Hungarian artists.

Mona’s looking for something — although it’s hard to say what — as she moves largely aimlessly from one job to another, exploring each house and investigating each inhabitant with a similarly sexually charged curiosity, as if in their histories and arrangements and belongings she might find her place. A sometimes artist herself, in the new house, in the owners’ absence but with them in mind, she creates a photographic self-portrait of sorts — “Removing her apron … pretty much naked … dressed in your favorite clothes … reclining on your fine Italian leather daybed, pretending to be you.”

Caught at it, she ends up posing instead for the husband’s creepily erotic, Egon Schiele-inflected paintings. And this, in a way, encapsulates Mona’s story, which has a sort of existential drift to it, a sense that of all the houses to be inhabited and roles to be played and liaisons to be had, none offers much beyond the moment; although the moments — sharply drawn, sexually charged, wry with Mona’s deadpan wit — often suffice.

As E.L. Doctorow’s oft quoted line goes: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Jen Beagin’s book is like that, but the headlights she’s following are on Mona’s vacuum cleaners, which, indeed, go only so far.

 

Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin. ellenakins.com

Vacuum in the Dark
By: Jen Beagin.
Publisher: Scribner, 224 pages, $25.