Novelist Julie Otsuka’s third book has been over ten years in the making. Averaging roughly one novel per decade, Otsuka, a former figurative sculptor and painter, packs exquisite detail into her slim volumes—her latest work, The Swimmers, clocks in at a lean 176 pages. Each paragraph of her books reads like a miniature painting, and every word has been carefully chosen, right down to the pronouns. The Swimmers begins in the first-person plural, a narrative style Otsuka honed with her previous novel, The Buddha in the Attic, which followed the lives of Japanese “picture brides” coming to America in the early 1900s to marry men they had never met. This time, the we belongs to the titular swimmers, members of an underground community pool.

The Swimmers

By Julie Otsuka
Alfred A. Knopf, February 2022, 176 pp., $23, hardcover

For the swimmers, the pool offers refuge from the disappointments of life on land: backaches, injuries, heartbreak, divorce, despair, “the usual aboveground afflictions.” It is a place where things make sense, if only for the duration of a few meticulously counted laps. Outside the pool, the swimmers occupy a range of roles and professions: failed painters, HR managers, untenured professors, a former Olympian, and a retired lab technician, Alice, now in the early stages of dementia. But at the pool all these identities drop away and members are neatly sorted into three categories: “fast-lane people, medium-lane people, or the slow.” In the water, they are, however briefly, at home in the world, as signs of old age, illness, and decrepitude slip away—rubber swim caps mask gray hairs, elegant strokes hide onshore limps, and it no longer matters how much they remember or forget. And as the world above undergoes change after change, both torrential and mundane, the pool remains fixed, predictable, “always a comfortable 81 degrees.” Free from the precarity of everyday life, the swimmers can experience the fleeting ecstasy of weightlessness as boundaries between them and the water dissolve: “It’s nirvana.”

And then a crack appears. Though barely noticeable at first, the crack soon ruptures the familiar predictability of the swimmers’ underground refuge, as suddenly their sanctuary is imperiled. With characteristic humor and grace, Otsuka chronicles the swimmers’ responses to an abrupt, inexplicable loss of control as the crack infiltrates their psyche. We see the obsessive mind at work in vivid detail, with grasping and aversion on full display: some swimmers begin to defect, unsettled by the crack’s sudden appearance; others start monitoring it compulsively, shifting their routines to be closer to it. A lingering unease follows them into their aboveground lives: they lose their keys, their concentration, even their friends. As the cracks multiply, experts are brought in to determine their provenance, but they can find no satisfactory explanation. Eventually management is left with no alternative but to close the pool. The swimmers, deprived of their haven, are plunged back into their lives aboveground.

With the closure of the pool, the narrative shifts abruptly from the swimmers’ collective voice to the story of a single swimmer, Alice, now unmoored from the one place where things made sense. As Alice’s dementia progresses, her unnamed daughter documents what she remembers—and what she does not. These catalogs of forgetting reveal the slow erosion of Alice’s grasp of reality, as the cracks in the pool give way to cracks in memory—to the fracturing of Alice’s very sense of self. Where the swimmers’ torrent of we’s in the previous sections was incantatory, almost hypnotic, mimicking first the pleasure of total immersion in the water and then the all-consuming nature of anxiety, here the repetition is more subdued, melancholy, eventually heartbreaking. A witty depiction of the human desire for control unfurls into a quiet portrait of the devastation wrought by dementia and the ensuing grief and regret of a daughter who has returned too late.

Loss of identity is not a choice but an inevitability.

And then the rhythm breaks and starts again. As Alice’s grip on reality becomes increasingly tenuous, she is moved to Belavista, a “long-term, for-profit memory residence” located in a former parking lot off the freeway. In a bleak critique of the commercialization of care, Otsuka writes from the perspective of the institution addressing its newest member. Belavista’s bureaucratic we eerily echoes the swimmers’ collective voice, and features of the pool’s controlled environment recur, sometimes uncannily: There are just as many rules and regulations, though now they are much more sinister. The temperature is just as predictable. And the experts are just as clueless. Like the pool, Belavista erases distinctions based on age, profession, and identity, though this dissolution no longer carries a quality of ecstasy; instead, the anonymity is just another reminder of the residents’ progressive decline. Loss of identity is not a choice but an inevitability. As Otsuka quips, “with each memory shed you will feel lighter and lighter. Soon you will be totally empty, a void, and, for the first time in your life, you will be free. You will have attained that state of being aspired to by mindful meditators across the planet—you will be existing utterly and completely ‘in the now.’”

At Belavista, Alice’s mind continues to unravel, and Otsuka shifts perspective one final time, centering on Alice’s relationship with her daughter in a tender and quietly devastating coda. There is no cathartic resolution, no clean correspondence between the novel’s halves, no tidy message or explanation to be extracted. Nothing coheres exactly right. The pool is rarely revisited in the book’s later sections. Yet somehow, taken together, the pieces offer a profound meditation on the ways we structure our lives—through laps, through relationships, through memory itself—and what happens when those structures disappear, whether they are wrenched away or simply slowly disintegrate. The novel reveals the uncertainty that lurks even where we feel most secure, and its litanies of loss make visceral the grief of impermanence and erosion of self. Though The Swimmers resists reduction to a trite moral or platitude, perhaps it points us toward care: for ourselves, for each other, and for the everyday objects and routines that make us who we are. Otsuka’s writerly devotion to the mundane details that constitute a life teaches us to be present to the small things, no matter how trivial they may seem, before they eventually—inevitably—slip away.

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