Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold Will Save You from the Cold

by Brandon Taylor

Jensen Beach’s collection, Swallowed by the Cold (Graywolf), opens with a story about a tennis match between an aging tennis pro with one arm and another gentleman named Rolf. It sounds like the start of a joke one might tell in a bar after a few drinks, and yet this story lays so much of the groundwork for what is to come later in the collection. Buried off-center, among seemingly insignificant observations, are key details that come to form the core of later stories. Beach has finely threaded this collection so that there is a sense of parallelism running throughout it. Another striking feature is the way Beach has chosen to tell familiar stories from new, oblique angles, imbuing them with a wry humor. It is difficult to guess how these stories end or to classify them as funny or sad, uplifting or depressing, smart or silly, etc. The truth is that each of these stories is all of those things and much more.

The relationships in Swallowed by the Cold are all in peril. Marriages are threatened not only by infidelity but also by personal vices. These are people who waver, who hesitate just short of saying what it is that they want to say and doing what it is that they know is necessary. In one sequence of stories, Martin and his wife Louise navigate a practical but unhappy middle age. Neither is capable of seeing the other for the person that they truly are. Martin is unable to see Louise as anything but a drunk, near-embarrassment and is often relieved when she chooses to stay at home. Louise is frustrated and sees Martin as not only a bore, but a hard, paternalistic entity. They are each trapped by their own myopia. In “Kino,” Martin’s discomfort with Louise and his discomfort with himself collide in an unexpected way while in “The Apartment,” we see the source of Louise’s private tragedies, the near-misses, how close she came to another life, where she might have been happy. It’s one of the strongest stories in the collection, “The Apartment,” and it so beautifully embodies one of the themes that makes Swallowed by the Cold, so affecting: parallel lives — both those lives we might have lived if only things had gone a little differently, and also the parallel lives that people pursue when they live together yet separately as Louise and Martin do.

There is a hyperlocality to this collection of stories; that is, they feel so much as if they occur within a single neighborhood, though this isn’t exactly the case. It is a cliché, but it would be inaccurate to say otherwise: place is a character in these stories. The way that Beach has used his remarkable, clear voice to fully render weather and architecture and nature, has made it at once invisible and yet so striking. It was so easy to picture the park where Helle and Henrik meet in “Anniversary” or her apartment as they have dinner, the candles and the table. There is also the tennis court where Rolf plays the best tennis of his life in “In the Village of Elmsta,” the cracks and the nets and all.

As much as this collection is about people on the edge of trouble, it is also about Stockholm, its history, its geography, and its culture. There are also extreme examples of hyperlocality, stories where the plot itself hinges on place. In “Ships of Stockholm,” two people discuss a particular museum which is freighted with memory for one of them, transforming an idle flirtation between strangers into a reflection on the relationship between a father and son. There is also “The Drowned Girl,” which does not have a famous place at its core, but a minor cemetery in a small village which plays such a poignant, touching role in the life of a young girl as she works her way through grief. Places both named and unnamed loom large in this collection, becoming an unforgettable and necessary backdrop. While these stories are universal, they couldn’t have happened as they did in any other place.

Reading Swallowed by the Cold calls to mind such experiences as reading Mavis Gallant’s excellent Linnet Muir stories (collected in Varieties of Exile) and offers a sharp response to the critique often leveled at short stories for being too brief or for leaving things unresolved. Provided here is an expanded universe of personal intimacies and exploration of all the parallel lives that collect in a place. Jensen Beach moves deftly in and around all of his characters’ lives, often revealing with stark and startling clarity all the absurdity and beauty present in even the most mundane of daily rhythms.

Click here to read a story, “In the Night of the Day Before,” from Jensen Beach’s collection, Swallowed by the Cold, as part of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.

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