Why You Should Read This: ‘The Swimmers’

Julie Otsuka’s book of voices is the California Book Club’s September 2022 selection.

swimmers, julie otsuka

Julie Otsuka’s third novel, The Swimmers, is a book of voices. A chorus, yes—but also a collective. Otsuka makes this explicit from the opening paragraph, which introduces first person plural as the novel’s earliest, and perhaps most distinctive, register. This blurring (between the individual and the communal, the particular and the universal) is a hallmark of Otsuka’s fiction: Her 2002 debut, When the Emperor Was Divine, brings a similar approach to the experience of interned Japanese Americans during World War II, while The Buddha in the Attic, her PEN/Faulkner Award–winning 2011 follow-up, addresses Japanese picture brides. In all three books, perspective is slippery. We are never quite certain of where we stand.

For Otsuka, this quality of indistinction is the whole idea. As she writes late in The Swimmers, “There is no ‘meaning’ or ‘higher purpose’ to your affliction. It is not a ‘gift’ or a ‘test’ or an opportunity for personal growth and transformation. It will not heal your angry, wounded soul or make you a kinder, more compassionate person who is less judgmental of others. It will not ennoble your paid carers (‘She’s a saint’) or enrich the lives of those around you who have always loved and adored you. It will just make them sad. Nor will it bring you closer to the higher being or liberate you from your formerly petty concerns.… All it will do is bring you closer to your own inevitable end.”

Such a passage may not be reassuring, but then, it isn’t meant to be.

An excerpt from “The Swimmers” appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

Like When the Emperor Was Divine, The Swimmers comes divided into five sections, each with its own point of view. The first two, which unfold at a community swimming pool, maintain the first person plural. The next is written in third person, while the last two employ a version of direct address. Why all these turns? The answer, I think, is that Otsuka’s real subject here is consciousness. She makes this explicit once a crack is discovered in the bottom of the pool and the facility is closed for safety reasons. It’s at this point that the novel zeroes in on an aging swimmer named Alice, who, we will come to recognize, is suffering from dementia. Her struggles—and those of her loved ones—form the substance of the rest of the book.

“When she’s swum her last lap,” Otsuka tells us, “she takes a long hot shower in the locker room and changes back into her clothes and then climbs up the stairs and emerges, blinking and stunned, into the bright, blazing world above.” The image is reminiscent of a birth. And yet, the shift here is actually a retrenchment, from autonomy to something more constrained or stripped away—in other words, a form of death. It’s a brilliant move, a way to frame the conundrum at the heart of the narrative, which functions in the manner of a microscope, starting wide before pressing ever closer, toward the interior. In the end, for Alice and for everyone, diminishment is what awaits.

As Otsuka writes, “Little by little, she is beginning to disappear.”•



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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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