Greta, the narrator of Jen Beagin’s third novel, Big Swiss, is a 45-year-old American woman who lives in Hudson, New York. She has slightly deranged ideas about Europe. She’s convinced, for instance, that multilingualism is something Europeans achieve in order to make Americans feel bad. She also maintains that Europeans can be divided neatly into two categories: the ‘classy’ and the ‘trashy’. Classy Europeans are gorgeous and erudite; they invariably speak fluent English. Trashy Europeans are funny foreigners, and make the sorts of mistakes an anglophone does when trying to imitate a funny foreigner.
The classiest of them all is Greta’s lover, Flavia, whom Greta calls ‘Big Swiss’ because she’s tall and from Switzerland. Flavia is married, wears lots of silk and cashmere, and is a practising gynaecologist. She seems to view Greta, a gig worker, as something of a sapphic Mellors, a surly, sarcastic bit of rough. (‘I also like that you only speak one language,’ Flavia assures her.) Even before they meet, Greta is intimately acquainted with Flavia’s voice: ‘It was a voice you could snag your sweater on, or perhaps chip one of your teeth, but it was also sweet enough to suck on.’ Greta’s latest job is transcribing sex therapy sessions – the Dutch translation of the novel is splendidly titled Die sekstypiste. The therapist employing her is called Om – né Bruce – and Flavia is one of his clients.
All Flavia’s money cannot buy her an orgasm. She’s in therapy to get to the bottom of the matter, but winds up bottoming, full stop. Greta becomes infatuated with Flavia as she types out her words, and when the two encounter each other by chance in a dog park they embark on a fuckfest. Out from the woods of contemporary fiction crawls that rare and dying animal: a plot. Will Flavia discover that Greta has been transcribing her therapy sessions? Will Flavia’s husband find out about the affair? Will Flavia’s stalker, just released from prison having served eight years for brutally attacking her, somehow track her down? If you’ve ever read a novel, you know the answers. There’s no suspense here – it’s all about the how.
Greta’s opinions are dependably unwoke. She quips that her dog’s fur has turned white from seeing ‘the souls of dead slaves’. She assumes that her landlady’s adopted Nicaraguan son is the gardener and talks to him ‘like a dog’ (a ‘bad habit’, she allows). She refers to bees as ‘Japanesey’ for their ‘kamikaze’ habit of ‘crashing into shit’. But Greta’s crusade against political correctness doesn’t make her an outlier in the novel. ‘Trauma people are almost as unbearable to me as Trump people,’ Flavia tells Om. Nicole, another of his patients, is upset by her partner claiming that her vagina smells like ‘an aquarium supply store in Chinatown’, especially the ‘Chinatown’ bit. ‘Perhaps because everything is so cheap in Chinatown,’ Om reflects. Both he and Flavia see India as a hellhole with garbage-strewn streets and the world’s saddest dogs. There’s a strange neediness to these jokes. You imagine a wild-eyed Greta peering over your shoulder, poking your ribs, asking (in the words of another character): ‘Aren’t you just a tiny bit triggered?’
Then there’s the European stuff. The depiction of Swiss people relies on stereotypes about their being uptight and a fantasy of Flavia wearing a dirndl. (The dirndl is in fact Austrian and Bavarian; the word Greta wants is ‘Tracht’.) Western Europe spells old world refinement, while Eastern Europe means sex workers and mail-order brides. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way,’ Greta says when she first sees Flavia naked, ‘but you remind me of a Polish prostitute.’ A particular low comes with the arrival of a German sculptor, who tries to hit on Flavia. He introduces himself as ‘Ree-schtard’, which differs from how Germans actually pronounce ‘Richard’ in every possible way. ‘Nice to meet you, Ree-tard,’ Greta replies.
When Beagin veers away from anti-woke slapstick, she’s witty and playful. The walls in a decrepit house are not ‘distressed’ but ‘tormented’. Greta has two different-sized bags under her eyes: ‘One was a toiletry bag; the other, a weekender.’ Elsewhere the comedy is visual: ‘Anyone could see that Greta was not a horse person. Her hair wasn’t long enough and neither were her teeth.’ Or physical: missionary sex with a man lacking in upper-body strength is like ‘being made love to by a large, trembling finger’. But Beagin’s kookiness becomes laboured. A line about Greta wearing a menstrual ‘blood diaper’ appears three times in case we missed the first two instances. Even more tedious are several pages in which a character’s non-rhotic New England accent is rendered phonetically for comic effect: ‘car’ becomes ‘cah’, ‘effort’ becomes ‘effit’. At times you feel as if you can’t go more than a page without someone buying emotional support donkeys (‘it’s necessary to purchase them in pairs. Otherwise, they die of loneliness’) or licking Nutella off another character’s boobs.
Before Big Swiss, Beagin wrote two novels centred on a twenty-something cleaner called Mona: Pretend I’m Dead (2015) and Vacuum in the Dark (2019). Like Greta, Mona is a snoop with abundant childhood trauma. The thing Greta can’t get past is her mother’s suicide: ‘She blew her brains out while I was at horse camp.’ For Mona it’s the pornographic pictures her father took of her as a child and later showed to his friends: ‘She watched Fat Jim run a finger over her black-and-white figure and heard him comment on her flat chest and lack of hair down there.’
Greta’s pretext for eavesdropping is her transcriptionist job; Mona pokes around the houses she cleans searching for clues about her employers’ private lives. Both women are largely invisible to the rich people whose secrets they guard, but they enjoy this strange form of power, the free movement that anonymity grants them. They drop fine art references, bond with dogs and discourse on the sensory aspects of vaginas. Both characters also scorn therapy-speak and seek other ways of reckoning with their pasts.
Beagin is at her best when she’s writing about the world of work, something which often seems conspicuously absent from contemporary North American novels. (She herself was a cleaner for five years.) In the Mona novels she describes with precision the everyday drudgery of poorly paid cleaning work: the routine of shaking the crumbs out of toasters and rubbing olive oil on stainless steel. Then there’s the more abject stuff:
Each time she cleaned Henry’s house she saw new evidence of his illness: blood splattered on the rim of the toilet, bloodstains on his sheets and pillows, vomit on the floor next to his bed. On one occasion she found shit in the shower. Just a nugget, what would have been a floater if it had landed in the proper place. It looked sad, lying there next to the drain. She picked it up with a paper towel and flushed it down the toilet.
Big Swiss provides a catalogue of the temporary jobs Greta has had over the years. ‘As a pharm tech, [she] had spent eighteen months working in the warehouse of a mail-order pharmacy, filling prescriptions by hand … she often ended her shift covered in pharmaceutical dust.’ In her current role as a transcriber, we learn that Greta types forty words per minute, claims to type seventy, earns $25 an hour and doesn’t have health insurance; it’s still an improvement on a previous job waitressing in a cockroach-infested restaurant.
Big Swiss is more tightly plotted than the Mona novels: less episodic, with fewer dispensable minor characters. But if the new book has a more formulaic narrative arc – from will-they-meet to will-it-work to how-will-they-deal-with-things-imploding – it’s also more textured than Beagin’s previous fiction, more trusting of the reader’s attention span, with rich descriptive paragraphs. The semi-derelict Dutch farmhouse in which Greta lives – built by fur traders in 1737 – is repeatedly mined for details: the layers of ancient lead paint that flake off the walls whenever a truck rattles past, the antique hospital beds, the tiny doors and exposed beams. A family of red squirrels takes up residence in the attic; there’s an empty beehive in the kitchen; and in winter Greta has to cut her own wood to keep the stove in her room burning. Greta has never considered herself spoiled, but is apparently ‘habituated to such luxuries as insulation, thermostats and drinking water from the tap’. Despite these privations, she stays; the house is ‘a one-cigarette drive from town’, the rent is only $400 a month, and she feels safe there.
Greta’s fascination with this house is compelling because it serves a larger purpose in the book. It’s connected to her need to feel at home somewhere. Flavia is ‘not a house’, Greta reminds herself (‘not that Big Swiss was even on the market’); the belonging she’s after can’t be found in someone else’s vagina. The Dutch house, in the end, offers Greta a more persuasive romance than Flavia can. It’s more fully realised as a character in its own right, and it’s still there after Flavia leaves.
You can read Big Swiss as a set of Russian dolls, each containing a different debate about trauma. Small doll: Om’s conversations with Flavia, in which the sex therapist parrots pop-psychology jargon while Flavia bullishly denies that her past might have some bearing on the here and now: ‘I’m not attached to my suffering. I’m not attached to what happened to me… I’m a worker, not a wallower. I would never call myself a “survivor”.’ Medium doll: Flavia versus Greta, who transcribes Flavia’s therapy sessions and rejects Om’s wellness bullshit while obsessively ruminating over her mother’s suicide. Big doll: all these characters versus their surrounding environment, a town where churches are converted into overpriced cocktail bars; in other words, a place where you can neither ignore the past nor lose sight of what comes next.
But if Beagin is parodying the earnestness of the trauma novel, she displaces the hand-wringing with a cynicism that is even more indulgent. It’s not that her characters manage to escape the tyranny of their pasts. Instead trauma becomes a sort of alibi for bad character, a means of justifying things like casual racism, which Beagin treats as a crude and harmless tic to be played for laughs – the equivalent of chewing with one’s mouth open. This, Greta or Flavia might claim, is simply the way they like to eat. So what? Got a problem? Are you triggered?
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