I don’t think where I read Big Swiss by Jen Beagin (by the pool in Fiji) was a contributing factor to how much I enjoyed it (which was a lot). But it did assist in reading the entire book in two sittings.
I’m not sure who to recommend this book to, because when I describe it to people, it sounds really weird. My summary has basically been – it’s about a middle-aged woman, Greta, who kind of drops out of life and goes to live in a town like Daylesford… or Byron Bay… but in America, and she transcribes counselling sessions for the town sex therapist, and because it’s a small town there’s effectively no confidentiality, and so she recognises peoples’ voices from the tapes.
Ryan (REP) spoke as if he had an entire diaper stuffed in his mouth. His last session had taken fucking eight hours to transcribe. He was a baker but called himself a maker. Greta didn’t have many makers in her life, but as far as she understood, makers were producers of physical objects, like cabinets. … Ryan felt comfortable referring to himself as a “grain scholar”.
And then Greta becomes a bit obsessed with a woman – known by her initials (FEW) – who she dubs ‘Big Swiss’. Greta eventually meets Big Swiss at the dog park, because Greta has a dog (a Jack Russell named Piñon, who’s a huge personality) and Big Swiss also has a remarkable dog (Silas).
Does that sound good? Or just really odd?
It’s important to know from the outset that there are a couple of violent scenes (and a very long list of trigger warnings). Not gratuitous, but the trauma associated with those scenes is necessary to the plot, and ultimately allows the reader to understand how a traumatic past can shape a person and continue to reverberate, in very different ways. In this case, Greta is busy burying her trauma, while Big Swiss does the opposite (hence visiting the therapist) –
If everything can be explained by your trauma, then nothing is really your fault, right?
It’s an interesting and thought-provoking approach to examining accountability, which leads into another element of the book that I admired – there are no unnecessary inner monologues to explain why a character is doing something. This is important because obviously Greta makes some Very Bad Decisions. And usually, when we’re in the middle of making Very Bad Decisions, we press on – the guilt, or questioning of choices, or reflection comes afterwards when things are Completely Fucked Up. That’s Greta.
Despite the dark elements, I found myself laughing out loud while reading this book. Beagin’s humour will not appeal to everyone but it was one hundred percent my thing.
Greta recognized her overly texturized hair as the work of Alexis, of Neptune Hair Design, the hairdresser responsible for every mullet, shag, and bowl cut in Hudson. Alexis considered herself an empath as well as a stylist and possessed a paranormal ability to apprehend the true wishes and desire of your hair… Greta recalled her own experience in Alexis’s chair. Apparently the inner child of Greta’s hair desperately wanted micro bangs, a desire Greta had been totally unaware of but willing to grant her, just for the hell of it, having no idea how radically unlike herself she would end up looking. The actual haircut had felt like waking up during surgery, unable to speak or move… Three and a half months later, Greta’s bangs were only halfway to her eyebrows.
There are so many truly delightful elements of the book that I haven’t mentioned – Sabine, who Greta lives with (and who is also the town supplier of hash and edibles); the very old house they live in, built in 1737, that is ‘…closer in age to the Black Plague than it is to AIDS‘; the miniature donkeys they adopt – referred to as the ‘donks’ – but named Ellington and Pantaloon –
Their ears were extremely mobile. They rotated almost 180 degrees and were moving constantly. It seemed obvious they used them to communicate, though Greta didn’t know what they were saying yet. All she knew was that their presence had obvious physiological and psychological benefits, like forest bathing in Japan. When their ears rotated in Greta’s direction, she felt a sense of deep well-being, along with the urge to reproduce them in some way. She could render them in pencil, perhaps. Or pastry dough? Donkey Ears: éclair-like pastries filled with chocolate custard and topped with a crunchy croustillant made from pistachios, pralines, and…holy shit, was she stoned? Why was she thinking like this?
Turns out she was stoned (the granola she’d had for breakfast had been baked on the same tray as Sabine’s hash cookies).
This book will strike many readers as odd, or even tone-deaf. Lots are likening it to Ottessa Moshfegh, but I also saw a comparison to Fleabag, which felt a better fit to me – Greta is not so much gross but rather, unfiltered. I saw the novel as tongue-in-cheek and not taking itself seriously at all. It’s ludicrous, mad, freewheeling… and so much fun (half a mark off because it didn’t quite end in the way my heart was hoping for).
FEW: A French martini. It’s a disgusting pink drink from the eighties. I admired him for not being embarrassed about ordering it, and for drinking it out of a martini glass. Usually men like him request a different glass.
OM: A less gay glass?
FEW: A rocks glass…
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 1): Belfast 12°-17° and Melbourne 8°-15°. And, as it happened, I was in Fiji when I read this book and the weather that day was 17°-28°.