“Was there anything worse than your own recorded voice playing in your ear? In both ears? About feelings? Your own feelings?” Greta, the protagonist of Jen Beagin’s new novel Big Swiss, works as a transcriptionist for a sex therapist in Hudson, New York. In this mecca for rich, wellness-obsessed retirees, Om, Greta’s employer, has a busy schedule of clients, but close to the end of the book he decides Greta would benefit from therapy herself, forcing her to transcribe her own sessions, one of many humorously painful episodes that occur over the course of the narrative.
Beagin set out her stall early in her career with a debut novel, Pretend I’m Dead, that revelled in fast-paced black comedy about serious issues, including mental illness, drug addiction and sexual abuse. Awarded a Whiting Award in the US, the book won her acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. She followed this up with the similarly irreverent Vacuum in the Dark, which was shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2019. Her third novel – soon to be a HBO show starring Jodie Comer – doesn’t deviate from the winning formula of her earlier work. If anything, there are more jokes on the page. Other writers that come to mind are the late Jade Sharma, Nell Zink, or closer to home, the deadpan one-liners of Nicole Flattery and the hilarious despair of Nina Stibbe.
Big Swiss is a bold, brash, often outlandish novel with a very clever job title for the central character. The role of transcriber gives Greta access to the most private and frequently salacious thoughts of the town’s inhabitants. There is a gossipy, behind-the-scenes feel to these transcriptions, where people are revealed at their most vulnerable. The role lends itself to plenty of comic moments when Greta meets the clients in town and is able to identify them from their voices or circumstances. Unsurprisingly, they appear very different in public: “Why on earth had she expected the same exact story? Stories changed depending on the audience, everyone knew that.”
As with Beagin’s previous novels, Big Swiss features a cast of intriguing outsiders introduced in quick, memorable bursts. Particularly vivid is Greta’s housemate Sabine, a recently separated woman in her 50s who makes edibles for the town’s hippie population (which is everyone). The ancient Dutch farmhouse where they live is a character in its own right: “Built in 1737, unrenovated, uninsulated, and full of bees.”
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And it’s not the only anthropomorphised entity in the book. The depiction of Greta’s piebald Jack Russell Pinon is superb: “All he really required was several hours of exercise per day and to be made the centre of their universe.” At the local dog park, he tries to punch above his weight with a wolfish Akita: “Pinon clutched Silas’s front leg and humped it vigorously. Silas permitted this while gazing at the horizon like a gentleman.”
Beagin writes the sex scenes well, leaning into the sometimes grotesque comedy of the act in a way that feels highly contemporary
The owner of Silas is another superior being – a beautiful, aloof gynaecologist in her late 20s, who Greta knows, from her transcription work, as Big Swiss. As they become friends and lovers, their relationship forms the core of the book: two women both dealing with harrowing pasts in very different ways. Big Swiss refuses to let her trauma define her, though it shows up anyway, specifically in her unsatisfying sex life with her husband. Greta, crippled by guilt over her mother’s suicide decades earlier, is instantly drawn to Big Swiss’s stoicism and detachment: “She’d heard plenty of extreme stories, but she’d never known anyone who’d taken such a beating, not even a man, without luxuriating in self-pity.”
Big Swiss’s sexual awakening is recounted in explicit detail. Beagin writes the sex scenes well, leaning into the sometimes grotesque comedy of the act in a way that feels highly contemporary. Both women learn a lot from each other and from their attraction to each other. (It’s no surprise that Jodie Comer has been chosen for the TV adaptation – Killing Eve charted similar territory.)
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Om, for all his comic posturing, is a good mentor, astute on desire and intimacy: “You’re no longer engaging in display sex. You’re no longer going through the motions. You’re no longer observing yourself from outside the window.” Away from the bedroom, Greta has to deal with more familiar problems, like being the older and less beautiful one in the relationship: “[She] often felt like the little placard next to the sculpture, glanced at out of politeness or mild curiosity, or consulted simply because they wanted more information.”
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The book is full of such offbeat, accurate descriptions. There’s a pinpoint passage on the varying moods of the menstrual cycle that deserves its own award. In short, Big Swiss is a modern, funny whirlwind of a novel about a traumatised transcriber who ends up setting her own record straight.