In recent years, Scandinavian literature has become synonymous with thrillers. The pervasive cool detachment that cloaks those novels is deftly applied to Jensen Beach’s collection of short stories, “Swallowed by the Cold.” Beach, an American, lived in Sweden for six years, which is where these stories are set.
It seems a disservice to classify this skillful collection as one of interconnected stories. Rather, characters appear, recede, then resurface throughout the book.
In this way, their passage through the stories mimics the manner in which these characters struggle to connect with one another. These are people who go out of their way to avoid conflict: They sneak into the homes of dead men and take alternative roads rather than face their fears.
They also enjoy comfortably bourgeois lives complete with summer homes and boats, tennis matches and easy infidelity.
One character, Lennart, has a career in telecommunications that promotes him time and time again; yet, he can’t bring himself to embrace fully his role as a son, a brother or a partner to his longtime girlfriend.
In “Ships of Stockholm,” instead of dutifully attending an assessment of his father’s estate, Lennart flirts with an American tourist at a waterfront cafe. There, he silences increasingly urgent texts and calls from his family.
Finally, “Lennart’s phone rang again. It vibrated loudly against the table. He started to reach for the phone. The woman gripped his hands tighter. ‘Don’t,’ she said. ‘Everything is going to be fine.’ ”
In “The Right-Hand Traffic Diversion,” a character claims to prefer winter to summer: “In winter, we’re on the way to better things. Summer is so unhopeful.”
A powerful set of stories, told from two points of view, concentrates on Lennart’s increasingly senile grandfather Bent’s involvement in the 1939 Winter War, which began when the Soviet Union invaded Finland.
Throughout his lifetime, Bent avoided discussion of his involvement, but “as he got older it seemed to Lennart that Bent’s memories of the war became fresher, more present.” This misunderstanding leads Lennart to take his grandfather to a cinematic memorial of the event. At the film’s conclusion, Bent muses, “I wonder if it happened like that.”
Later, Lennart drunkenly confesses to Bent that he wants to end his relationship with his longtime girlfriend.
Talking past each other, each man faces the following dawn struggling to reconcile memory and desire.
E.M. Forster famously said “only connect,” but Beach’s stories do anything but follow that dictum.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.
Swallowed by the Cold
By: Jensen Beach.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 191 pages, $16.