365 Books in 365 Days – Episode 220 by Annie Walton Doyle

Big Swiss by Jen Beagin

“All I’m saying is that trauma doesn’t get you a lifelong get-out-of-jail-free card. It also doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom, or the right to pontificate”…

The world of Jen Beagin’s Big Swiss is nothing if not unusual. Living in a bug-infested farmhouse, Greta both makes her money and gets her kicks by transcribing audio sessions with Hudson’s only sex therapist, a caricature of a hippy named Om (of course). But when she listens to one client, whom she nicknames Big Swiss, Greta finds herself captivated, entranced, and even a little obsessed. This sparks a chain of events that impact each character in the novel, rewriting their lives.

Big Swiss speaks to Om in the hopes of recovering from a horrific trauma, which she describes in detail. But the novel manages to avoid allegations of trauma porn, and even takes a swipe at such literary tropes. Big Swiss is pragmatic in the face of her past tragedies, wanting only to ‘deal with’ them as a means of moving on. “Why do you keep rolling around in your own shit?” she asks.  In fact, Beagin argues that even if one experiences trauma, one must avoid becoming a “trauma person” if one wants any hope for a happy and fulfilled life. In Big Swiss’s eyes, self-victimization can be almost as damaging as the actual victimization she’s already experienced. “If everything can be explained by your trauma, then nothing is really your fault, right? You always have this convenient out. Your mother killed herself, and so that gives you permission to do whatever you want?”

That Big Swiss manages to look unflinchingly at these horrific events, then move us on quickly through the rest of the book, is thanks in no small part to how funny the book is. Beagin peppers the novel with hilarious dialogue (Greta’s commentary on Om’s interview style being a personal highlight), uncanny descriptive passages (see: the sex scenes), and wisecracking witticisms. “Yes, people age horribly. They suffer strokes. Their bodies and brains fall apart. But the male ego? Firmly intact until the bitter end.”

The surreal and slightly bizarre world it inhabits helps add some lightness and fluffiness to what could otherwise be a rather punishing read. It’s a remarkably wry and un-self-serious novel, even in the face of what could be, in a less skilled writer’s hands, an Important Message.

Another theme of note that Big Swiss explores is that of perception. Because Greta is in the curious position of hearing peoples’ deepest secrets without actually seeing or knowing them, she is left to fill in the blanks. But as these people become more real to her, Greta is forced to contend with different ways her own perceptions fell outside of the realms of reality.

As Greta herself begins to make an appearance on Big Swiss’s tapes, she gets to live out the ultimate fantasy: being able to really know how other people see you. But, as Greta discovers, there’s also a visceral horror to this experience, and sometimes, it’s preferable not to know. If the different aspects of Big Swiss I’ve chosen to expound on here sound disparate then that’s one of the real charms of the book. It’s a sweet and funny sex comedy written with a sardonic, droll voice that also manages to touch on nearly all of humanity’s darkest impulses. It’s an odd, slippery read that evades easy categorization. But just because something is curious, that doesn’t mean exploring it a little should be any less rewarding. 

“Sometimes I feel like we’re getting somewhere,” Greta said. “Other times I wonder if I’m just not that kind of person.”

“Which kind?””

The kind who gets to the bottom of things.”

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