Swallowed by the Cold by Jensen Beach

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Jensen Beach’s intricate, riveting story collection Swallowed by the Cold opens with the story of a man named Rolf Strand sitting on a bicycle, paused atop a lowered drawbridge, debating the route he will take home. Rolf has just won a difficult tennis match. A sailboat bobs below him in the river, waiting for the bridge to rise. The clock is ticking: nineteen minutes. Rolf calculates: “If he pedaled hard, he could take the path that ran parallel to the canal out to the Baltic and beat the sailboat to the headland. It would be a simple victory, but still the thought pleased him. It was that kind of day.”

Accidents, revelations, twists of fate—all arrive without forewarning, striking us blindsided, altering our lives forever. An ordinary day, a good day even, can in an instant become a day after which nothing is ever the same again. Rolf crosses the river; the river becomes the Rubicon: the path he chooses leads to the end of his life.

Swallowed by the Cold, Beach’s second collection, is composed of 16 interlocking stories that move between a Swedish village and Stockholm, past and present. Each moment contributes to a larger illustration of interconnectivity, unpredictability, and the ways in which extraordinary events ripple across communities, pushing at the edges of innumerable lives. On her way home from work, a woman witnesses a car crash and later feels intractably linked to the victim. A dissatisfied wife convinces herself that a new tenant in her building is the daughter of her deceased lover. A rainstorm compels a young girl to seek shelter in a neighbor’s home, where they each confront fragility and loss. Beach’s characters are governed by violent forces, yet their inner lives are textured by tender questions about self-judgment, regret, and finding grace in a landscape that is at once bleak and beautiful.

While sudden reversals propel each of the stories, Beach’s aesthetic is sophistically understated, aspiring less to shock than generate a steady current of foreboding. In the tradition of Breece D’J Pancake, Alan Heathcock, and Kyle Minor, Beach employs deliberate, achingly spare language to delve into the darker corners of human experience. The resulting atmospheric tension is as much a testament to Beach’s talent as it is effectively unnerving. In “February 22, 1944”—a story that follows Rolf’s father, Bent, as a young man—we experience the Soviet bombing of Stockholm in the turn of just a few sentences: “[Bent] was eager to see Agneta again. They had plans to meet the following day. The thought made him smile. Just as he did, he was struck in the face by the hail of an erupting window. He fell to his right side and could not hear. Snow soaked through his pants, clung to his coat and hair. Shoes rushed toward him and away from him.” As Bent lies on the cold ground, looking for help among the smoky streets, he “underst[ands] that here anything at all might reasonably transpire.”

In the same way that fear slows time, the suspense woven through Swallowed by the Cold is intensified by Beach’s exquisite patience and attention to detail. With cinematic touch, Beach captures illustrative associations in a manner that is by turns stunning and hair-raising. Consider these lines from “The Drowned Girl,” a story in which the child who discovered Rolf’s body reflects on her own mother’s death: “On All Saint’s Day, she stood at the tall window in the front room and watched a storm tumble in from the east. The twins, Eskil and Einar, were chopping wood for the furnace. She heard their laughter and the ax splitting wood. The dark line of the storm’s approaching shadow stretched across the water.”

While the stories in Swallowed by The Cold evoke the claustrophobic nature of isolated regions, their interwoven relationship ultimately lends the collection a sprawling, novelistic quality. Some readers might be dissatisfied by the lack of denouement in the stories, many of them ending abruptly. Yet as the collection proceeds, unexpected connections surface, hidden causes become plain, and ties between characters deepen. Despite his death in the opening story, Rolf serves as a cohesive figure: we follow Rolf’s neighbor, his tennis partner, his father and his son. In this way, the stories become tiles in a larger mosaic of intersecting lives. There is the feeling that Beach could even follow connections between his fictional characters infinitely outward, linking them through degrees of separation all the way up to us. In “To God Belongs What He Has Taken,” a woman named Marie learns of the death of a favorite shopkeeper and silently observes a fellow customer while wishing to “lay bare the wonder between them, the way their lives have orbited so closely for so long; and now, tragically, but not overwhelmingly so, have met here at the occasion of the death.” She ultimately wonders: “How much of another’s life can we rightly assume when we see it only in passing bursts?” In “The Apartment”, a lonely woman reflects on a past argument with her husband and comes to a similar conclusion: “Our individual memories of a shared event mean such different things to each of us.”

This central preoccupation is perhaps best illustrated in “The Winter War I,” in which Rolf’s son Lennart brings his grandfather Bent to the opening of an art film inspired by the Winter War of 1939-1940, in which Bent himself fought. Bent’s memory is failing, as is Lennart’s relationship. The characters are weighted by the twin pillars of death and desire—we see bodies broken, feelings betrayed. The art film distorts time, flashing through overlaid images of soldiers and a solitary cabin. Afterward, Lennart notes that, “There was no death in the film, apart from the idea that winter itself represented, but there was something else. Something in the soldiers, their postures or the way they held their weapons and peeked, almost childlike, over the lip of the trench, managed to define their mortality, to suggest their fate without resorting to the blunt shorthand of violence.” Sometimes, the intensity of suffering is most acutely portrayed not by looking at it head on, but rather by observing its shifting outlines, tracing its irreversible repercussions outward.

This is the fundamental effect of Swallowed by the Cold, and what also allows the collection to successfully imitate the world’s complexity. Through Beach’s deeply felt prose we hear rumors of distant wars and political conflict, gossip of affairs and neighbors. We experience recapitulation and recall—we are made to change our minds. In this way, the collection validates lives on the periphery, offering glimpses of characters who, like the strangers we pass each day, have the potential to reveal new perspective and understanding. As Susan Sontag noted when speaking of fiction, “An ending that satisfies is one that excludes.” It is precisely through its lack of glassy closure that Swallowed by the Cold creates space to showcase underlying coherence. In the face of life’s random violence and disquieting volatility, Beach’s collection offers an unforgettable affirmation of the interconnectedness of all things.

A native of New Mexico, Lara Palmquist received her B.A. from St. Olaf College and her M.Th. in religion in peace and conflict from Uppsala University. Her work has been honored with awards from the Association for Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), Anderson Center at Tower View, Marble House Residency Program, Kimmel-Harding Nelson Center, and Sozopol Fiction Seminars, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughsares.com, South Dakota Review, and the 2016 Articulated Short Story Anthology. She is also the recipient of fellowships from the National Science Foundation, Rotary International, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission, through which she taught creative writing for the 2015-2016 academic year in Ukraine. She currently lives and writes in Northfield, Minnesota. More from this author →