A Cacophony of Conjecture

Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers, the September California Book Club pick, reveals the limits of language and plays with the range of possibilities for other timelines.

fortune teller
panida wijitpanya

Julie Otsuka’s third novel, The Swimmers, the September California Book Club selection, is a study of fractures, or, more accurately, the dark matter that manifests when things tear apart.

The first brush with such darkness begins with a crack that appears at the bottom of an underground public pool, a discovery that plunges a group of swimmers into myriad states of frenzy. The comments come fast and furious without evidence, sometimes conspiratorial, such as, “The crack was deliberately planted by management as an excuse to shut down the pool.” Then there’s a bold pronouncement: the fracture is “a tiny tear in the fabric of our world that no amount of goodwill can fix.” The opinions, interpretations, and encounters with the crack—delivered from a collective “we” point of view—flood in until it seems that Otsuka has produced the literary equivalent of a mockumentary. (You can hear the characters, center screen, delivering their deadpan lines.) Yet, as the story edges toward comedy, more fissures appear, both inside the pool and within the novel’s narrative structure. The exercisers are plucked out of the water, and we are committed to an institution for the memory-impaired, where Alice, one of the swimmers, now resides.

The abrupt split between the pool chapters of The Swimmers and those about Belavista, the “long-term, for-profit memory residence,” exposes Alice as the novel’s main character. It’s an unsettling discovery: she appeared at first to be a nonplaying character in this universe, yet we—without knowing—were inhabiting her world the entire time. This comes with a dose of guilt for readers. Any attempt to make amends, by getting to know Alice, to listen to her, is further complicated when Otsuka ruptures the novel with new narrators, all with various points of view (“we” becomes “you” then returns to “we” before becoming a different “you”). Because of the fragmented structure and Alice’s memory loss, we are stuck in the cobwebbed corners of Alice’s mind, never experiencing her life through her senses. Alice is witnessed, but she is not fully present, her mind elsewhere, as if in other worlds where other versions of her exist. Otsuka makes repeated references not only to different possible causes of the swimming pool crack, but also to other ways the events of Alice’s life could have gone, allowing us to ponder the multiplicity of potential timelines within our own lives.

In a section aptly titled “Diem Perdidi,” Latin for “the day is lost,” we learn that Alice had once consulted a fortune teller, who claimed that “in her past life,” a man named Frank “had been her sister.” Soon after, Frank emerges as the great love of her life. This is the man with whom Alice remembers picking apples in the rain, a day she considers “the best day of [her] life.” Of course, Alice and Frank are not together in the timeline we observe, as they both marry other partners, but Otsuka opens the possibility to different timelines in which Alice and Frank are together, as Alice “remembers that everything she remembers is not necessarily true.”

Early on, a rumor is spread among some swimmers:

Others have heard that the crack opens up onto a second and deeper world that lies just beneath the surface of ours. An alternate and perhaps truer world with its own underground pool filled with faster, more attractive people in less-stretched-out suits who nail their flip turns every time.

It feels possible then that the world that we are shown—the one reflected through the prism of Alice’s perforated memory—is not the “true” one, but the other. We recognize this potential even though it is not stated explicitly. Indeed, this is where Otsuka, like a young Ludwig Wittgenstein, who declared that “the limits of language are the limits of my world,” chooses to conceal rather than use words, tricky as they are, to explore fleshed-out alternate realities. Thus, Alice keeps letters from Frank in “a drawer by her bed.” We are not privy to their contents. We just know they exist.

Otsuka isn’t aiming to work in the mode of Christopher Nolan. Where other storytellers use parallel universes and time travel to raise philosophical quandaries or to evoke “Whoa!” reactions, Otsuka flirts with concepts of time and alternate worlds just enough to grapple with one of the most painful questions life can pose: What if?

What if Alice had agreed to marry Frank? What if Alice really had always resided in the Belavista long-term memory institution as the collective “we” proposes. “Soon, in fact, you will forget your ‘first family’ altogether and it will seem as if you have always been here (and perhaps, in some cosmic way, you have).” The novel does not offer any answers to these provocations, and it does not aspire to. It merely suggests a possibility, which is in itself momentary relief, like water on the tongue of a condemned soul, that some other version of Alice, in some other world, may still be running with Frank, slippery apples in hand.

The prose leaves open the difficult question of whether Alice has advanced enough in her dementia to remember her life accurately. The timeline involving the pool may be her real life—or it may not. The crack raises all kinds of conjecture, and this conjecture is mirrored in the account of the life Alice lived. When the crack in the pool first appears, a swimmer named Rose states, “But I thought we could stay down here forever.” Another swimmer named Rose answers, “Maybe we have?”•

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.


woman swimming


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on the rooftop, margaret wilkerson sexton
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Ajay Orona is an associate editor at Alta Journal.
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