It might seem tiny—the image that fuels the events of Julie Otsuka’s novel The Swimmers, our September California Book Club selection. A dark line appears on the floor of an underground community pool. It merely “flits briefly into view as you swim over it and then, once it has passed out of your field of vision, is instantly forgotten, like a dream that vanishes upon waking.” With this, Otsuka evokes what is glimpsed on the surface of our lives and what our unconscious produces, but the phrase that powers this melodic sentence and foreshadows what happens later is “instantly forgotten.” What might seem inconsequential to most of us, what might seem like a minor distraction in the plot of our lives, in Otsuka’s novel slowly, quietly cocoons itself in profound meaning.
Questions about what the crack represents and what caused it propel the second section of the novel, but what gradually becomes salient as the swimmers and others try to perform a differential diagnosis is that nobody knows much about the phenomenon. Still, they respond to it in highly particular ways, thereby revealing themselves and their differences—some quit, some are alarmed, others investigate.
Spare sentences of silken fineness elevate the crack. One such sentence, whistle-clean:
If you blink, or are angling your head upward, toward the light, as you are surfacing for air, or are simply admiring the superior physique of the swimmer in the next lane, you will miss it.
Otsuka evokes life at a community pool, the brightness of light on water, the flash of an arm coming up through water, the gossamer intangibles of life somehow called up through the concrete precision of her words. Yet her sentences describing the crack also accomplish far more subterranean work than we might think at first.
Only with the passage of time, after surprising us with unexpected observations, does the novel yield the crack’s significance to us. The line is not merely a single, passing, forgettable phenomenon. It remakes the pool community. It’s also a metaphor for the progression of frontotemporal dementia, specifically Pick’s disease, which unpredictably causes rifts and gaps in memory, damaging, painfully, a sense of self. The swimming pool, then, is transformed into a figure for the mind itself—embattled and diminished under forces outside its control.
As with a swimmer glimpsed in another lane, we see only flashes of a retired lab technician with dementia, Alice, in the initial sections. In the third section, we are split off into her separate story, and the perspective radically shifts from a plural-first to a close third-person voice that deepens in intimacy to reveal how deeply Alice is losing her memory. The gaps in what she remembers start out as little things, like not realizing that an image is familiar, but develop into many more-serious clefts.
Once the novel breaks away from the perspective of the swimmers as a collective, the commentary about the pool crack doubles as commentary on the losses that appear within Alice’s reality as a result of her mental deterioration:
Maybe the crack is just a crack, nothing more, nothing less. A little bit of spackle might just do the trick. Or maybe it’s a rupture. A chasm. A miniature Mariana Trench. A tiny tear in the fabric of our world that no amount of goodwill can fix.
This could describe what happens to the mind that loses its memories, its ability to train its attention.
Every facet of The Swimmers does more heavy lifting than its simple, literal interpretation would suggest. The technique of using strings of details, reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s approach in The Things They Carried, about a different kind of war, reveals itself to be a way of evoking the sensory textures of life as well as a commentary on the arbitrary nature of which memories hold on the longest, what different self is revealed by the fewer things that remain once you start losing your memory.
Otsuka’s stunning versatility as a writer shines even as she breaks from the plural point of view in the third section and then swerves in the fourth and then again in the fifth. As deep troughs develop in Alice’s memory, she also loses her personality, almost all the invisible matter that make her a “self,” a perspective, a member of the living.
And yet—in Otsuka’s masterpiece of impressionism, certain recognitions stay. While the book made me weep on a second reading, it does not feel like a book of despondence, but one that is awake to our shared ephemerality, whatever the specifics of our lives. We are all swimmers— here together only briefly.•
Join us on Friday, September 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Otsuka will talk to host John Freeman and a special guest, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Cunningham, about The Swimmers. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the novel. Register here.
WHY READ THIS
Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin recommends Otsuka’s novel, noting that the “perspective is slippery” and that we are never quite certain of where we stand. —Alta
Alta contributor Bethanne Patrick writes about a gift box created by two immigrants, Sandeep Bethanabhotla and Lavanya Krishnan. For a six-box series called American Fiction and inspired by the diversity they saw in Irvine, they are partnering with acclaimed novelist and essayist Alexander Chee (Queen of the Night). —Los Angeles Times
HOW TO LIVE
Historically, prosecutors have used rap lyrics against artists as evidence of intent. A new California law restricting whether creative expression can be used to inject racial bias into criminal proceedings could soon be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. —Los Angeles Times
CREATOR OF “AFRO-PUNK”
Documentarian and artist James Spooner released a graphic memoir, The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere., that relates the complexities of life for a Black biracial teen coming of age in the late ’80s in Apple Valley. —Los Angeles Times
BOOKS FOR SHORT ATTENTION SPANS
Launched in Seattle in 2019 by Joshua Rothes, independent press Sublunary Editions publishes what it calls “small volumes of exciting literature,” including Julio Cortázar’s Letters from Mom and Can Xue’s Mystery Train. —Orange County Register
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