Jen Beagin, a master of small-town strangeness, has not strayed from her literary strengths with her third novel, Big Swiss. Hudson, New York, a small town of NYC transplants, farmers, and artists, acts as much more than a mere backdrop in this, her most recent book. Though it sounds cliche, Beagin has a real handle on making the setting another character in her work, such that it elevates her storytelling to a new dimension. This novel is funny, strange, engaging, sexy, intimate, and best of all, voyeuristic.
Big Swiss follows forty-five-year-old Greta, a transcriber for a local sex therapist named Om. Greta lives with an eccentric local, Sabine, in a house built in 1737, with no heating and a persistent bee infestation. Through her headphones, she hears Om’s clients pouring out their sexual and emotional secrets, and due to her job and the size of the town, Greta encounters familiar voices whenever she leaves home. Greta engages in a type of voyeurism that is so wrong it is irresistible.
Greta is inexplicably drawn to the recordings of a specific client, whom she nicknames “Big Swiss,” because “she was tall and from Switzerland.” Big Swiss is not like other clients: she approaches her sexual hangups and violent trauma with a stoic practicality that Greta finds both confounding and magnetic.
Greta’s window into Big Swiss’ world is limited to the confines of her job, until one day in the dog park, Greta hears a familiar, deadpan voice. Through the guise of wanting a friendship between their dogs, Greta initiates regular meetings with Big Swiss and they soon become intense friends. Big Swiss shows up at Greta’s house unannounced,
“I’m just letting you know I’m attracted to you,” Big Swiss said. “I never told you this, but before we met, I once saw you at a farm stand. I was there to buy tomatoes, but I noticed you in the meat section, pulling venison cubes out of a freezer, and I fell in love with your forearms. I obsessed about them for weeks. (...) I liked to imagine them in different settings,” Big Swiss went on. “Hanging out of a car window, resting on furniture, floating underwater.”
Their platonic relationship quickly crosses the threshold into a sexual, experimental, and mutual obsession. Greta knowingly violates all the strictures of her job, while Big Swiss remains unaware that Greta has listened to her recorded therapy sessions.
The story goes to places that are phenomenally unpredictable. Beagin fills every single corner of the world she’s created with such refined detail that she gets away with every insane plot twist or unprompted flashback she throws at us. Every word drives the reader deeper into a rich and honest world that lingers between reading sessions.
Brilliant concept and wild plot aside, this book achieves a seamless mix of catharsis, humor, and despair, which is only heightened by Beagin’s sentence-level choices. The author’s single phrases are so vulnerable and honest that they are startling. I believe one of the marks of a exceptional writer is when they are able to take everyday actions and turn them into something revelatory. We all know the feeling of a first kiss, but Beagin makes it religious:
Big Swiss kissed Greta’s cheek. Then she kissed Greta’s other cheek. Then the first cheek again. A Swiss goodbye, Greta assumed, except it happened in slow motion. Greta leaned forward and kissed Big Swiss’s barely parted lips. Big Swiss smiled. Kissing Big Swiss’s teeth was jarring and humiliating, like kissing a bathroom sink. But maybe that was too unkind. It was like kissing a baptismal font full of holy water.
While Beagin’s syntax and word choice cause sharp little epiphanies, she also tackles large and difficult themes by going at them sideways. Suicide, rape, stalking, mental illness, and even violence against animals are incorporated and talked about with a satisfying matter-of-factness. Our free-indirect narrator shows us that Greta thinks like a philosopher who is unaware of her brilliance. After Om strongarms Greta into attending a session as his patient, she throws out the following casual conclusion:
OM: What do you feel most guilty about?
GW: The malice I felt toward her (Greta’s mother) When I realized she’d gone through
with it, I felt very much like it was me holding the gun.
OM: But she was holding you hostage.
GW: Isn’t that what parenting is?
As above, large portions of this book are in the form of the transcripts from Greta’s job. (While it may not have been the chief intention, it breaks up the book in a way that is nice for people with poor reading stamina like me.) The form reframes the information we get on the page and shows us the strange constraints of learning about people through nothing but their sex therapy sessions. In one of my favorite scenes, Greta admits to Big Swiss that a lot of their conversations turn into transcripts in her head. The form switches and the real world and Greta’s stunted work-world become one, using structure as foil. Greta is portrayed as a sort of bifurcated character: we get access to both her thoughts and what she chooses to say out loud, and the two do battle. I agreed with almost everything Greta thought, but felt hated everything she chose to say out loud.
There is so much that I loved about this book that I won’t be able to touch on: Greta’s dog Piñon, the role of bugs in the novel, the many ways a person can watch or be watched, and heaps more.
This is, of course, a review, and there were a few things that I wish had been explored more. A lot of this book is about sex, yet there were very few sex scenes. I believe that it was intentional—but the few sex scenes that were included were some of the strongest bits of the novel. They are at once uncomfortable and beautifully crafted. There’s merit in her choice to limit the sex encounters on the page, but I feel like those scenes are where Beagin truly shines.
There is some incredible innuendo, examination of taboos, a vulnerable spanking scene, the phrase “topping from the bottom,” and more. Despite the better LGBTQ+ representation in the last decade, there is so much to be unpacked when it comes to queer sex in literature. While it is not the responsibility of any specific artist to break down these barriers, I was excited and then a little let down by how little exploration we got.
I had a lot of trouble actually picturing Greta. This may not be important to some readers, but I found it distracting, as I had such a clear visual Om, Sabine, other auxiliary characters and primarily Big Swiss, “Most women would look ridiculous in a mink coat and rancher’s hat. Big Swiss simply looked like the owner of a mink ranch.”Big Swiss feels so real that she is now, on some level, a person in my life. This is, again, a case of Beagin being quite good at something, but using that skill differentially.
Beagin is such a good storyteller that she has infused a pathos-heavy book with amazing humor. My copy is covered in post-its and notes; there are so many hilarious and poignant quotes that I wish I could share, but I wouldn’t dare rob anyone of the joy of getting to read them for the first time.
In my brain, I have something called the “Sapphic Obsession Hall of Fame.” Legendary stories about women being consumed by other women have earned their place: The First Bad Man by Miranda July, Pizza Girl by Jean Kyuong Frazier, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke byEric LaRocca, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and countless others. Big Swiss has more than earned its place in its hallowed halls.
Leyton Cassidy is a writer and summer camp professional from Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. You can find her work in The Columbia Journal, Entropy Mag, The Weekly Humorist, Vagabond Journal, and at leytoncassidy.com. At the moment, she’s moving around aimlessly in a van with her naked cat, Darwin. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University and a GED from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.