A Place for Us

Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers explores the possibilities for finding one’s place in a collective—and having to let go.

underwater image of swimmer in action

My kickboxing life started like a movie. Picture a tracking shot of a guy walking down Court Street in Brooklyn toward a busy corner, where he stops to gaze through the windows of a gym before crossing the expressway and disappearing into Red Hook. There he is again, weaving through the traffic on his bike, glancing over his shoulder before darting into the shadows. Finally, when seen again on foot, he walks in. Hear the surge of hip-hop on the soundtrack as the door swings open and the peppy manager asking if he has any experience. (The answer, of course, is no.)

In a previous life, I might have found the gym’s group workouts corny, but at this stage, I dived right into the team spirit and the leave-it-on-the-mat mentality.

Julie Otsuka expresses a different but analogous team spirit in her third novel, The Swimmers, by writing the first section from a collective first-person “we.” My fellow gym members had their own reasons for going, just as each of the swimmers referenced in the title seeks something different from the pool. For some, it’s a “need to heal.” For others, it’s to be alone in the water, free from their families or jobs or other obligations. Still others come to be around people, to escape the loneliness of their lives.

Like Otsuka’s obsessive swimmers, who practice their breathing at home and mentally rehearse their form while lying in bed, I shadowboxed and ruminated about my technique. My shins, once they grew conditioned, ached with the desire to swing at 100-pound heavy bags. Six months in, I started learning muay Thai from the trainers and sparring with them in the gym’s basement. By this time, I was going in five days a week, sometimes twice per day. The confidence and sense of purpose I took from the new regimen made me realize I’d been sleepwalking through life for the past few years. I needed exercise, sure, but I also needed to be a part of something larger. Like Otsuka’s swimmers, like my fellow gym members, I needed to heal.

Similarly, Otsuka’s pool allows swimmers to be their best selves. While reading, I thought back to the others at my gym during the three years before I left the city. It was the kind of place that posted before-and-after testimonials. Some of these were dramatic—three-figure weight loss—but for the most part, the change was on the inside.

If Otsuka’s pool and my gym were places of renewal spurred by group exertion that allowed the group to be greater than the members’ individual selves, the assisted-living facility where one of the swimmers, Alice, settles in the second half of Otsuka’s novel would seem to be the opposite. Here, Otsuka offers some of the best writing about a nursing home I have ever read. I adore Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which still gives me something new after more than two decades of rereading, but as I read The Swimmers, I became aware of a blind spot in the redemptive closer, “Beverly Home,” set in a nursing home. Johnson’s unflinching portraits of the patients achieve moments of great sympathy, such as the thirtysomething man with multiple sclerosis whose wife is divorcing him and whose voice is reduced to an unintelligible groan (“No more pretending for him!” says the narrator, Fuckhead. “He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other”). But Johnson never writes from the patients’ points of view. For Fuckhead, unlike Alice, the nursing home is a place for rebirth and recovery, not for losing memories and dying.

“There is no ‘meaning’ or ‘higher purpose’ to your affliction,” reads a chapter in The Swimmers that takes the form of a brochure for new nursing home residents. “It will not ennoble your paid carers (‘She’s a saint’) or enrich the lives of those around you.… It will just make them sad.” The brochure includes a list of things a resident won’t need as she enters her “final phase” (Ralph’s rewards card, day planner), to which Alice could add her treasured swimming cap and goggles. For the reader, as I’m sure it would be for Alice, it’s an infinitely sorrowful realization, and it’s followed by another disarming shift in point of view.

In the final section of The Swimmers, Otsuka moves artfully to a second-person perspective on Alice’s middle-aged daughter, a novelist filled with piercing regret over the distance she’d kept from her mother as she prioritized her writing: “When she asked you why you weren’t closer you said you didn’t know. You closed the door. You turned your back. You grew quiet and still, like an animal. You broke her heart. And you wrote.” Though the daughter regularly visits the nursing home, on one occasion she mistakes another woman for Alice in the common room, but Alice recognizes her right away. It’s a striking depiction of the daughter being seen clearly by Alice despite advanced dementia. With this final stroke of metafiction, in which Otsuka makes Alice’s daughter into a writer, Otsuka works her own poetic magic, surpassing Johnson’s, by recovering for Alice and Alice’s daughter something beyond speech and memory.•

Join us on Friday, September 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Otsuka will talk to CBC host John Freeman and a special guest, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist 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.

David Varno is the fiction reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.
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