Each night at bedtime, I snacked mindlessly on Jen Beagin’s new novel, Big Swiss, like it was a bag of popcorn. It’s worth saying that I really liked reading it, emphasis on the gerund. I enjoyed passing time with Greta, a woman living in Hudson, New York, who works as a transcriptionist for a sex therapist and who becomes first intellectually and then sexually obsessed with one of his clients, a woman Greta refers to as Big Swiss. The book was airy and approachable. I liked who and where I was while reading it — nobody and nowhere.
But when I was done, when I had flipped all Big Swiss’ pages and the metaphorical bag of popcorn was empty, it hadn’t moved or changed or deposited anything in me, which was a surprise given how much this book had been hyped in the literary news cycle. What had I just consumed? I wasn’t sure.
I felt unsettled in a way that reminded me of whipping through Melissa Broder’s 2021 novel Milk Fed. Both books are funny and center on a woman who is not-all-the-way gay having sex with another woman. Insomuch as I am a not-all-the-way-gay woman who likes sex and laughing, I should be more or less the target audience for these books. But both ultimately left me with an ick on my tongue. Through their logic, voice, and depictions of intimacy and desire, the novels suggest that the main character is at best ambivalent about women’s bodies and at worst repulsed by it.
Big Swiss and Milk Fed feature highly unstable protagonists and credulity-straining plots that have been described by reviewers as “madcap,” “strange,” “off kilter,” “eccentric,” “deranged,” “graphic,” “obscene,” “a riot,” and “a romp.” In the logic of these stories, sexual desire for a woman is not a queer expression of romantic or erotic or, god forbid, political meaning, but rather evidence of the female protagonist’s emotional incoherence. Queer sex here is just another zany life choice, like living in a house full of bees or being obsessed with frozen yogurt. It is no wonder then that both books have been highly successful with devotees of the hashtag “unhinged women,” which has over 35 million views and counting on TikTok and includes titles such as Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen, Mona Awad’s Bunny, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, and Lisa Taddeo’s Animal, among many others.
This genre, which I’ll call Unhinged Bisexual Woman Fiction, is characterized by a kind of mean, dry, deadpan first-person voice that communicates to the reader that the protagonist views herself as exempt from the embarrassing task of being a human being. Her voice, which is the opposite of caring or earnest, implies that everything is material for a joke, love is for suckers, and politics, including gay liberation, is a bore.
“Flowering dogwood trees are bisexual,” Big Swiss says to Greta at some point. “Like us.” To which Greta responds, “You’re joking right?”
No surprise that Greta treats sex like a joke, too. Here’s the moment where Greta and Big Swiss finally get down to it: “Her jutting hip bones reminded Greta of a ship’s sails,” writes Beagin. “Otherwise, she was straight, supple, taller without clothes, and covered in tiny blond hairs. So, less like white asparagus, more like white peach.” It’s that “so” that reverses the potential loveliness of the moment and returns the voice to its natural state — mocking and objectifying.
Then, when the long-awaited and obsessed-over sex happens, it is obfuscated with odd metaphors and hyper focused on disembodied genitals in a way that feels dehumanizing and just plain unsexy: “Her pussy looked like advanced origami,” Beagin writes. “A crisp pink lotus flower folded by a master. Greta briefly rearranged it with her mouth. The flower transformed into an acorn. Then a unicorn. Then back again. Greta dragged her tongue over it diagonally three dozen times. Now it resembled two dragonflies languidly mating on a lily pad.” Is this scene deliberately alien and alienating, or is it just bad writing? Either way, even in sex, Big Swiss cannot be just a woman with a body that Greta wants to touch; her pussy must look like anything but what it is.
This alien — and alienating — rendering of desire is also at play in Broder’s Milk Fed, a book that follows an anorexic Reformed Jewish woman named Rachel as she ostensibly falls in love with a fat, Orthodox Jewish woman named Miriam. I noted a continued emphasis on thinness, an equivalence between thinness and male desirability, and a strong projected tension between a thin white woman doing gross or odd things. Much of the shock value and supposed humor in Milk Fed tracks back to how a protagonist who has spent her life making herself thin for men — at her mother’s behest — finds herself doing mommy play with a fat woman.
Rachel grows up with a mother who asks her, “Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?” Apparently, Rachel wants the latter. “I wondered, if I could go back and rescue myself… would I do it? I probably wouldn’t. I thought that soft little girl was disgusting too.”
That Rachel is so disgusted by fatness does not bode well for her ability to love a fat person. Milk Fed’s sex scenes are imbued with a reverent, observational awe that treats the object of her desire as an abstraction rather than a person. Miriam’s breasts are described as “magnificent, weighty pendulums…beneath her areolae were a network of veins, blue and purple, bringing forth the blood that sustained her.” In the novel, Rachel’s desire for Miriam is not attributed to Miriam’s appeal, but rather to what her body represents. “She exceeded my worst fears for my own body,” Rachel notes of Miriam. “I longed to feel her big belly against mine.”
The ways in which Milk Fed equates physical and sexual appetite pushed me to observe a similar phenomenon in Big Swiss, which is also remarkably full of physical hunger. Greta describes her housemate Sabine and herself as “Kohlrabi, maybe, or a Jerusalem artichoke. Not very approachable. Not sweet or overly familiar. Not easily boiled down or buttered up. Not corn on the cob.” At home, the two often abstain from eating, or only consume popcorn with nutritional yeast for dinner. At another moment, Greta remembers an ex-boyfriend named Stacy: “She’d never felt so cherished, nourished, pacified, and…sleepy…Stacy made Korean food; Greta took long, even breaths through her nose.”
Greta is fascinated with and repulsed by people who actually eat meals, chief among them the woman she wants to have sex with. “Big Swiss carried the international food aisle with her wherever she went. She seemed to require food every forty-five minutes. Otherwise, she fell asleep,” Beagin writes. “Not surprisingly, Big Swiss was obsessed with Swiss cheese, though not the kind with holes in it, and dairy in general.” In a rare moment of clarity, Greta makes the connection: “It dawned on her slowly, a little painfully, that what she’d been looking for inside the dream house, and what she’d found, was her own appetite. She’d been famished all these years without knowing it.”
The starting point of both these novels is anhedonia and the breakthrough event is pleasure, although neither book entertains integrating embodied pleasure into regular life. In Milk Fed, Rachel settles into an excess of pleasure that becomes its own kind of prison. “A typical late-night 7-Eleven trip has Rachel gorging on nachos, Swedish fish, Hostess cupcakes, four tubs of rice pudding and a box of Golden Grahams,” writes Lucinda Rosenfeld, reviewing the book for the New York Times. “By novel’s end, this reviewer at least, perhaps revealing my own ‘food issues,’ found herself ever so slightly nauseated.”
In Big Swiss, Greta returns to denial and self-punishment. Near the end, Greta stands in a narrow alley deciding which of two buildings to enter. One is an “ashtray,” “one of the oldest and least celebrated bars in town” where she “might get burned,” and “her presence would be unwelcome.” The other is a “queer restaurant and destination” with bright fruits painted on its outside, “welcoming and inclusive, the warmest lap in town.” In other words, she can choose between a dangerous straight bar lacking in nutrition or a safe gay restaurant where she could satisfy all her hungers. “But would she fit in?” Greta asks herself. No, is the answer. Greta chooses the straight ashtray.
And so too do Big Swiss and Milk Fed. The queer relationships in these books are plot devices meant not to say anything new about queer love or intimacy but meant rather to pit the bisexual or straight-proximate characters against themselves. In neither book does the female main character desire specific women because she wants to; rather, her sexual desires are mediated by suspicion and fear of her body, her gender, her appetites, and her emotional needs.
I am thinking now that I may not be the target audience for the Unhinged Bisexual Woman Novel after all, since the target audience may be people for whom lesbian sex is a curiosity, a reverie, a joke, or an unfortunate bodily necessity. With Big Swiss, then, Beagin joins a group of contemporary novelists who write about sex and desire between women yet share a remarkable commitment to avoiding earnestly expressed emotion and lived, meaningful bisexuality.
“And here I was convinced you were gay,” Big Swiss says to Greta at one point. “Are you?”
“Not all the way,” Greta replies. “I mean, I’ve had sex with women.”
Even as these protagonists shrug off labels and deny identities, publishers are embracing them to sell more books. “As with any literary trend these days,” writes Abby Monteil for Them, “this mainstreaming of sapphic literature — and queer literature in general — may, in part, be traced back to the prevalence of #BookTok, a corner of TikTok dedicated to reading.”
On TikTok, where the hunger for fiction depicting queerness is massive and queer content is commodified, the hashtag #sapphicbooks has 190.7 million views. Monteil goes on to argue that #BookTok is driving a massive increase in queer fiction sales, which doubled between 2020 and 2021 and increased by 39 percent in 2022. To promote Big Swiss, the publisher, Scribner, used the hashtag #sapphicbooks and made a TikTok that promised “Gay is in, gay is hot, I want some gay, gay it’s gonna be.”
It is significant that Big Swiss and Milk Fed and other Unhinged Bisexual Woman Novels have blown up commercially, transcending literary acclaim and entering the world of mainstream success. Beating out 14 other bidders, HBO will adapt Big Swiss starring Jodie Comer, Eileen just premiered at Sundance, Milk Fed sold in a competitive auction, and Exciting Times is in development starring that lady from Bridgerton.
Authors have little to no control over the way their books are marketed and sold as objects, of course. But what does it mean that even if a novel’s characters do not claim queerness — or claim it ambivalently — queer content can still give a book a sales boost? What kinds of queer stories get plucked from literary obscurity and sold to mainstream, straight audiences? Those that satisfy straight appetites, of course.
The Unhinged Bisexual Woman Novel is at its core, a story about self-protection, about protagonists insulating themselves from death and loneliness, from going too far and falling off the edge of the world. Bisexuality has the potential to be a perfect literary vehicle for such characters — for what is more out there than being both/and, neither fully here nor fully there, inhabiting an identity that still draws suspicion and discrimination from straight and queer people alike?
But unlike the best books that open up a space between the fears of the character and the fears of the book, the protagonists here don’t seem to gain insight into their own fears. While they struggle with the drastic tendency to deny themselves what they want because of the disgust they feel for their needs and appetites, the books do not deeply grapple with, or illuminate, the source or workings of that disgust: our old friends misogyny, homophobia, fatphobia, classism, and white supremacy. To look at these bigger forces would be to shatter that deadpan voice, to spoil the joke, to put the mad in madcap. No fun at all.
Maybe that nobody and nowhere feeling I had while reading these books matters even more than I thought. For whom is it possible to read as nobody, as a body that brings no identities that would rupture that rapture? #Unhingedwoman novels assume a white reader willing to indulge in the “off kilter” and “deranged” and “obscene” behavior of the thin, white, rich, straight-proximate characters. Should queer, poor, or fat characters, or characters of color, partake in these same acts, mainstream audiences would consider them disgusting, mentally ill, or criminal. Although Greta is not rich, Big Swiss and Milk Fed are more or less about rich places for rich people.
I consumed Big Swiss and Milk Fed because of the promise they made me: that they would withhold their secrets for a while but then ultimately share them. For despite the quips and jokes of their “anhedonic” “ambiently queer” protagonists, I could detect the smell of a second, secret book: a book that contained real feeling and real insight into the binds and contradictions of being a queer woman with a political body who is at home in neither straight nor gay life. But alas, these novels are only what they are: two books that know only how to withhold satisfaction.
While much is eaten — ice cream, pussy, chocolate, cheese — in these novels, ultimately they are fun to devour but offer little to savor.
Emma Copley Eisenberg’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Esquire, the Washington Post Magazine, and others. She is the author of the New York Times Notable nonfiction book The Third Rainbow Girl, and her debut novel, Housemates, will be published by Hogarth in 2024.
Illustrations from The Ladies’ Home Journal, courtesy of Internet Archive