‘The Swimmers’: A Long Song to Memory

Julie Otsuka’s third novel, the California Book Club selection for September, performs a rescue of what might otherwise be forgotten.

julie otsuka, the swimmers
IDRIS SOLOMON

One of the saddest stories in American literature is also one of the most magical: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” The tale begins on a lark. Getting drunk at a summer party, Neddy Merrill decides he’ll swim home that afternoon, crisscrossing backyard pools all the way. At first, the journey is full of light amusements. He is greeted triumphantly at each house. There are pauses for gin and tonics, for kisses and handshakes. He is the Forrest Gump of suburban explorers!

Quickly, though, the trip takes on a more somber hue. One house is missing most of its inhabitants; at another, a tree has dropped its leaves; at a third, the neighbor’s pool is drained dry. By the time he reaches this point, Neddy is good and drunk and has swum himself into a lugubrious solitude. The prank, begun in the blustery spirit of youth, has become a parable of aging and alcoholism. He returns to his own house later than he imagined he would to find it empty, the doors locked.

What a velvety miracle this story is—a triumph of Cheever’s sumptuous poise, which lures the reader, one aperitif after another, into the spirit of the swinging ’60s and boozy suburban parties.

Another writer in American literature possesses this same profound elegance—writing like a poet and possessed by destruction, too. Her name is Julie Otsuka, and in her mythic and devastating third novel, she has written a tale to rival Cheever’s own, one in which swimming becomes a metaphor for the final isolation we face, whether we drink or not.

The book is called The Swimmers, and as with all of Otsuka’s work, part of its power comes from the collective first-person voice she has made into her trademark. Used in her first two books to address the collective experience of Japanese American immigrants to California, here it speaks like a wry, observant chorus, from the lanes of a community pool. “Most days, at the pool, we are able to leave our troubles on land behind,” it announces early on, and what a simple, perfect sentence this is—for what else is swimming but learning to float.

After offering the reader a tour of who comes to the pool—“we” includes a famous actor, successful doctors, onetime athletes, and retirees—the book bevels down to the rules everyone has agreed upon in order to function together. There will be no tailgating, no excessive splashing, no diving into the sacred space without a shower first. Everyone must wear a cap.

Tone here, as in Cheever, does so much exquisite work. It is warm, brisk, and somewhat prim. Each one of Otsuka’s sentences has been polished to its finest point, so the contours of the society bloom vividly into view like flowers against a crystal blue backdrop. There are slow-lane, medium-lane, and fast-lane people. Once a year, in mid-August, the pool is drained, causing relief and consternation in turn as the daily swimmers miss their patterned existence.

The overall effect of this introduction strongly recalls Chekhov’s great stories, wherein a society unfolds in all its grandeur and absurdity against the backdrop of an institution. In The Swimmers, ritual and routine combine to bring a waltz-like pace to the prose—an order that seems eternal, until something happens. The swimmers begin to leave.

From time to time one of us will disappear for a week or two and aboveground inquiries are made. Emails are sent. Voice messages left.… Usually it is nothing serious.

It is in this context that we meet the soloist of this collective, the center of the book, and ultimately the point around whom it orbits. Just as gently as the book creates its world, it reminds us that the world, and the participants, are not forever.

You forget to change the battery in the smoke detector. You fail—just this once—to look both ways before crossing the street. You wake up one day and you can’t even remember your own name. (It’s Alice.)

Alice is the only one whose presence is sustained through the length of this short but intensely imagined book. Otsuka’s gorgeously deliberate prose is so enchanting, it curls so neatly around our inner eye, that it’s easy to miss her presence at first, just as it’s easy to forget it when a crack develops in the bottom of the pool. The fissure is a tiny thing, a small hairline fracture that someone notices passing over it. But it grows—or does it, some wonder?—and experts arrive. Seismologists. Strange and ominous, this sign ripples through the community.

The shape of The Swimmers is one of the most marvelous aspects of the book. It begins like a portrait of a community, then it seems to head toward a magically real fable, and just as you adjust to this abstract shape—it plunges headlong into the medical reality out of which it proceeds. Alice has dementia and has forgotten so much around her—and yet not all of it.

She remembers her name. She remembers the name of the president. She remembers the name of the president’s dog.… She does not remember how she got the bruises on her arms or going for a walk with you earlier this morning.… She does not remember to comb her hair…

If there’s a better long song to the miracle of memory, and the awful spectacle of its erasure in a parent, it’s doing a good job of hiding. Like Rabih Alameddine, Otsuka began her creative life as an artist, first with sculpture, then with painting, and she sketches Alice in a series of naturalistic brushstrokes. Alice is a combination of what she remembers and forgets. A love affair, a marriage, a stillbirth; a trip, a shade of orange; a daughter’s name, an address, her own name. Every detail Otsuka introduces is painted as if in watercolor, as if its very substance could at any time be washed away. By that chapter’s end, it nearly has been.

How far we are now from Cheever, and yet so close. The tragedy of Cheever’s swimmer was his self-imposed isolation. The destruction of Alice’s world, by contrast, is not her fault. It is simply the bad luck of a gene splice. Still, like Neddy, Alice doesn’t entirely realize how alone she is until it is too late. As a story, “The Swimmer” gives us only one point of view; as a novel, The Swimmers brings us, in how Otsuka introduces “you”—an anguished daughter who has been caring for her mother—those who are affected.

It will happen to us all, this slow or sudden erasure. In her first novels, Otsuka used her collective first-person voice to bear belated witness to the collective experience of Japanese Americans coming to the United States as picture brides (The Buddha in the Attic) and the shame and rupture presented by time spent in an internment camp (When the Emperor Was Divine). Jeweled and specific, drawn from a mountain of research, yet light as air, those books feel like steps of the eternal rescue California literature must perform on its amnesiac history.

But who rescues those physically losing their memory? It is family and carers. It sometimes is those who shared an office place, or those who shared a pool. The Swimmers is Otsuka’s most intimate book yet, for it reminds us that even if art can create a public remembrance, those who lived it, the individual lives, every single one of them, will be poured into a much bigger body in the end. Here she uses a pool as the metaphor, but in truth, even the ocean isn’t big enough to describe the mystery that awaits and the numbers who have gone there before.•

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 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.

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