Jul/Aug 2023  •   Reviews & Interviews

Big Swiss

Review by Ann Skea

Big Swiss.
Jen Beagin.
Faber. 2023. 325 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 37856 2.

Forty-five-year-old Greta is an audio transcriptionist for a sex therapist called Om (whose real name is Bruce). Om tape-records his sessions with clients then sends the tapes to Greta , who works from home wearing headphones, fingerless gloves, a kimono and leg warmers, and making comments to herself as she does so.

Om's clients are identified on the tapes only by their initials. His sessions involve "breathing, touch and mindfulness," and he favours chanting, "fire-breathing" and gong baths.

OM: I was thinking we could chant the word "Har" which is another word for God.

FEW: You're joking, right?

"You wish" Greta said

OM: "Har" is an ancient mantra for prosperity and good health.

FEW: We'll be repeating the word "Har"? As in "har, har, har, har"?

OM: You'll be surprised how you feel afterward.

"You'll feel homicidal" Greta said.

Greta had never seen the gong Om uses but she knows it is large and shiny, and the first time she heard it mentioned he'd said

"I waxed my gong for you in case you wanted a sound bath at the end of our session", which Greta had transcribed as "I waxed my dong for you".

Om' subsequent text to her—"It's gong, honey, not dong" becomes a treasured phrase for her.

This offers some idea of the way Greta's mind works and, given that transcripts form quite a large part of Big Swiss, it is obvious that there is a lot of frank sex talk in this book. This becomes more graphic—and almost pornographic—when Greta meets Big Swiss and they begin a passionate relationship, but the book is also very funny, and Beagin has created some wonderfully zany characters.

"Big Swiss" is the name Greta gives to FEW when she begins to transcribe Om's sessions with this woman. FEW intrigues Greta and she learns a good deal about her from these sessions. She is a young gynecologist who is consulting Om because she has never had an orgasm, and she also claims to have a huge aura "The size of a barge."

"Your aura is giving me a head injury," Greta would have said, had she been in the same room. "I'm clinging to the side of the barge, bleeding from the scalp".

Listening to FEW's voice, Greta imagines that she is "tall and from Switzerland, and often dressed from top to toe in white, the colour of surrender," that she has "a gap between her two front teeth" and "pale blue eyes," and that she is "stunning but sterile."

When at an unofficial dog-park an heroic woman rescues Greta's beloved Jack Russel, Piñot, from a savage attack by a pit bull terrier, Greta recognises her voice as that of Big Swiss and sees that she is young, and even more beautiful than Greta had imagined. Her dog, too, is "Sleek, silver, the most beautiful dog Greta has ever seen." They exchange names and a little information about themselves, but Greta has to try hard not to reveal that she already knows a lot about FEW (Flavia Eloise). She tells her that her own name is Rebeka, spelled with a "k," and that she works as a transcriber "For journalists. From the city." They agree to accept the invitation from pit bull terrier's apologetic owner for a drink next day at the bar where he works.

After that, things get more complicated for Greta, especially when she and Big Swiss, as she still calls her, find they are sexually attracted to each. Greta is not sure if she is gay. She had broken up with her long-term, dependable, boy friend, who wanted to marry her, before changing careers and moving to Hudson, New York, to have "her own bed." She now lives in a dilapidated old mansion owned by Sabine, who regards herself as a witch and sells various hash-enhanced products to the locals. "But we're not lovers," she tells Om, when she learns that he knows Sabine.

Greta always added that last part as a joke, since it was patently obvious Sabine didn't have a gay bone in her body. But no one ever laughed, so maybe it wasn't that obvious. Or maybe it just wasn't funny. She wondered how many of Om's bones were gay. One or two, she decided.

We learn a good deal more about Greta's past life, her mother's suicide and her own suicidal thoughts; and about Big Swiss's traumatic relationship with convict Keith, who tried to kill her, has just been released from prison, and is stalking her We learn more about Sabine, and about some of the other Hudson residents—people Greta once assumed Big Swiss would view as "emotional libertines or, to use a more psychological term, total fucking basket cases."

Most of all, we learn about the passionate love-making between Greta and Big Swiss. And things get really strange when Greta finds herself transcribing FEW's sessions with Om, where she talks about her "adulterous" relationship (she is married ) and describes some of their meetings. Greta is constantly aware that she needs to confess to Big Swiss, but she keeps putting it off, so she continues to hear Falvia's descriptions of her and of their meetings which are often at odds with what the way she sees their relationship, prompting exclamations of and "Excuse me?", "Right":

FEW: Sometimes it feels almost spiritual. Maybe I'm supposed to learn something from her? She acts like she's having a religious experience.

OM: Which religion, if you had to hazard a guess?

"The Church of Euthanasia," Greta said.

I could have done without so much discussion of "pussy;" and about whether a pussy looks like "advanced origami" or "a clumsily wrapped Christmas present’ ; or a vagina is "a grand ballroom with a vaulted ceiling." What kept me reading, however, was Greta's personality, her wonderfully pithy view of Hudson's people, its wellness culture and its new-age pretensions, and her sharp tongue, which often made me laugh out loud.

Big Swiss is currently in the development stage for a limited season series with HBO. Jen Beagin has provided plenty of social satire and a colorful cast of odd characters for the adapter to work with, but I do wonder how they will televise all the sex.