The Inevitable

‘The Swimmers’ by Julie Otsuka

Knopf, March 2022, 192 pp.

Julie Otsuka’s third novel, The Swimmers, is not about swimming, however it might try to make you believe that it is.

Otsuka, award-winning writer of The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Divine, takes us to an underground swimming club whose members operate with a near-religious reverence. The first section of the book, “The Underground Pool,” is told by a collective voice. We, the devotees. Their routine is dreamlike, cultish, and their view of the world centers entirely around their beloved pool. “Up there,” Otsuka writes, “there are wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers’ strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blisteringly hot days that never seem to let up . . . but down below, at the pool, it is always a comfortable eighty-one degrees.” Reality bends differently there; the pool seems equally a typical sports club and a subterranean cavern. Its only voice of authority is the nameless lifeguard who, despite being multiple people that come and go from the position, may also be a single, shapeshifting soul. They are “sometimes a skinny teenage boy and sometimes a grown man. Occasionally, the lifeguard is a young woman.” Likewise, the pool’s attendees are so similar and so many that their names run together. They are “overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters . . . secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses, twins, vegans . . .” And yet here, away from their “real lives” (the quotations marks are present in the text), they are simply swimmers.

Things change when, one day, a crack appears in the pool. There is no indication of what could have caused it, no indication that it could spread, and yet the swimmers are dumbfounded by it. Otsuka writes:

One of us, an off-the-books event planner in her life aboveground with a brisk, no-nonsense stroke, says that she is determined to ignore the crack—“I refuse to let it have the upper hand”—but still finds herself staring at it every time she swims over it, practically against her own will. “I just feel compelled.”

The swimmers hear word of other cracks appearing in other pools throughout the world. Scientific communities begin to study the phenomenon. Some wonder about its spiritual significance. Others suggest environmental vengeance. Still others propose that the cracks are not even there, just a worldwide folie à deux. Whatever the case, knowledge of the crack takes over the swimmers’ lives: “‘What’s wrong?’ they’ll say to us. Or ‘Honey?’ Or ‘Earth to Alice!’ . . . ‘I don’t know,’ we’ll say. Or ‘Everything.’ Or ‘I think I’m losing my mind.’” More and more cracks appear. Some swimmers quit swimming. What is the solution? Is there one? Nobody knows. The pool closes down.

And then, abruptly, we enter the book’s second section: “Diem Perdidi,” Latin for I have lost the day. This part is told in second person. We, Otsuka tells us, have a mother with progressive dementia. Through hazy vignettes, we learn she used to work in a lab, spent time in a Japanese internment camp, and was an avid swimmer. I had to return to the beginning of the book here, myself a swimmer through pages I’d already read, in search of her name: Alice. At the very beginning of the first chapter, she is mentioned:

One of us—Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia—comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water, she knows what to do.

Photograph by Gretchen Sayers.

The Swimmers is a puzzle and must be approached as such.

Realizing this made my heart stop. I’d breezed through the first part of the book, finding it abstract enough to skim by, butnowIhadtoreadit all over again. Alice was indeed there throughout, wearing her pants on inside out or losing her train of thought or blinking in the sunlight after stepping out of the pool. The remainder of the book deals solely with her, and it surprised me—frightened me, almost—that she’d moved along just under my nose, never fully announcing her presence until there is no hope left for her recovery. Her husband and daughter have her committed to a nursing home, and Alice has no choice but to go. Though it may not appear that way initially, The Swimmers is a puzzle and must be approached as such. My revealing its secrets would rob you of the sinking realization

Otsuka sets up for her readers. It descended on me incrementally: first, a few bewildering parallels, then a shocking relation, and then finally, an epiphany that turns the entire story on its head—one that I’m still grasping. To fully appreciate what the book is saying, we must follow the hints Otsuka sets out: the crack, the shifting faces, the world above. Rather than telling us a story, she involves us in it, makes us both an enactor and a victim. And perhaps she makes us a mourner, too, of the pool and what it took with it when it shut its doors. But remember: this is not a book about swimming. You’ll only understand what that means when you read it.

Despite its short length, The Swimmers is the sort of book that unspools. The content throughout is surreal enough to ascribe personal meaning to. It’s easy to imagine oneself making laps in that pool, to see one’s lost relatives in Alice’s bewildered face. Still, though, there is objective truth we cannot ignore: Western culture’s cold casting-out of the old, the echoes of atrocities that occurred on our soil not long ago, and the fact that, if you look for it online, you can find the name of Julie Otsuka’s late mother (Alice).

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