There is something uniquely intimate about getting to know someone through their voice. To hear a person without seeing them allows our imaginations to flourish. We form an identikit based on an accent or a specific intonation, or how they mispronounce a certain word. We pay attention to how they express themselves and tell stories, and adjust our portraits accordingly—maybe a strong-sounding person grows more muscles in our minds; a woman prone to sarcasm hides her face behind glasses. Nursing these illusory attractions is something of a lost art in our modern technological age of social media and online dating, which can make it seem all the more romantic. It’s also, incidentally, how readers first come to know authors, albeit through the written word rather than the spoken one.
Greta, the protagonist of Jen Beagin’s third novel, Big Swiss, isn’t an author in the traditional sense, though she professes a vague intention to be one. In the meantime, she’s working as a transcriptionist for a sex therapist who calls himself Om in Hudson, New York, spending her evenings listening to the audio recordings of his sessions. This means she knows both too much about the people around her and nothing at all, privy to their most vulnerable secrets but prevented by NDA from revealing her information. It’s a strange space to inhabit, but Greta is accustomed to strange spaces. Having moved cross-country after breaking up with the fiancé she strung along for ten years, she currently lives in a dilapidated farmhouse with her old friend Sabine and a substantial beehive in the basement. Her personality, in her own words, is akin to a kohlrabi: “Not very approachable. Not sweet or overly familiar. Not easily boiled down or buttered up.” She also tells fibs with an instinctual frequency, which may be in part why a particularly candid female patient, on whom Greta bestows the titular nickname, draws her notice. When the two meet by chance at a dog park, Greta recognizes her voice and invents a false identity on the spot. An uneasy relationship ensues.
If it all sounds like the setup for a classic comedy of errors, it sort of is. But Beagin has more on her mind than mere social satire. Both Greta and Big Swiss (née Flavia) have experienced significant trauma in their lives—Greta’s mother died by suicide when she was thirteen; Big Swiss was severely beaten by a man who’s about to be released after serving eight years in prison for the crime. She also happens to be married. Greta herself is, by her own admission, “a little suicidal.” Their sapphic entanglement is a consuming affair, both literally and figuratively, though the nourishment that each gets from the other is undeniably lopsided. There’s an age difference, and a class difference, not to mention Greta’s eavesdropper position in the relationship. Big Swiss is occasionally spooked by Greta’s seeming clairvoyance about her life. At one point, Greta hears Big Swiss refer to her as a “broken toy” during a therapy session. “Harsh,” as Greta herself might say. Such imbalances raise not just the question of how much we can ever know about a partner, but the more provocative one of how much is even good for us to know.
Beagin, who has won a Whiting Award for fiction among other honors, has what used to be called “the gift of the gab.” Like the recently revived British writer Rosemary Tonks, her prose has the acerbic warmth of the first friend you’d tell you’re sober, not because she’s the most supportive but because she might talk you out of it. It speaks the same seductive language as bad decisions. There’s also a fecund sensuality reminiscent of Melissa Broder and Ottessa Moshfegh; Greta’s descriptions of private parts in particular can be downright baroque. On the other hand, the writing here can also seem evasive at times, constantly hiding its feelings behind jokes and winky Gen-X references, which might be appropriate for the story of a compulsive liar but can occasionally be exhausting. An aimlessness also takes over the proceedings as the book goes on—a problem that’s become somewhat endemic in modern literary fiction. There’s a great concept but not always great plotting behind it. Still, like a good friend, Big Swiss is worth sticking with. As the romance begins to unravel spectacularly, Greta is forced to face harsh truths and the beating heart of Beagin’s book is revealed.
The thing about relationships that both Greta and Big Swiss fail to grasp until it’s too late is that it’s not your partner who’s often the biggest mystery to you but yourself, and it’s a very bad idea to attempt to solve that by looking to another person. While trauma and self-care get thrown around so much online these days that all useful meaning can feel beaten out of them, Beagin takes the history of her characters seriously and believes in their potential for growth. It’s fitting, then, that after all the drama they’ve caused, the book ends in a place of fragile peace. As Om puts it to Greta: “[W]e all have an inner shithead, and maybe you need to shake hands with yours.” Or, put another way: sometimes the voice you most need to be hearing is your own.
By Jen Beagin
Scribner Book Company
Published February 7, 2023
Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.