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Still waters run deep in 'The Swimmers,' a brilliant novel about routine and identity

The Swimmers, by Julie Otsuka
Penguin Random House
The Swimmers, by Julie Otsuka

In Julie Otsuka's new novel, The Swimmers, a rag-tag group of regulars shows up every day, many of them for years, to swim laps in a university pool. One day, a crack — the "length of a wire" — appears at the bottom near the drain; then another, reproducing in spiderlike clusters all over the bottom of the swimming pool.

When the pool is shut down for safety reasons, the collective daily rhythm of the swimmers' lives abruptly stops. One swimmer is particularly affected by this rupture in the pattern of the everyday: her name is Alice, "a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia." We're told that, "even though [Alice] 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." Untethered from the practice of those repetitive daily laps, Alice's mind floats free.

The Swimmers is a slim brilliant novel about the value and beauty of mundane routines that shape our days and identities; or, maybe it's a novel about the cracks that, inevitably, will one day appear to undermine our own bodies and minds; and — who knows? — it could also be read as a grand parable about the crack in the world wrought by this pandemic.

Otsuka's signature spare style as a writer unexpectedly suits her capacious vision. As she did in her celebrated 2011 novel, The Buddha in the Attic, about so-called Japanese "picture brides," brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s to wed men they didn't know, Otsuka tells her story in short block paragraphs written mostly in the collective first person.

The narrators of the opening section of her novel are the "we" of the swimmers; in the second part, the "we" is the institutional voice of the nursing home where Alice winds up; the ending section takes us into the mind of Alice's adult daughter — desolate, guilty, exhausted.

You'd think the subjects here and this choral type of narration would make for a cold, impersonal dirge of a novel. Instead, The Swimmers has the verve and playfulness of spoken word poetry, as in this opening mega-sentence where the swimmers collectively introduce themselves:

"IN OUR "REAL LIVES," up above, we are overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters (Just one more row), secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses, twins, vegans, "Mom," second rate fashion designer, an undocumented immigrant, a nun, a Dane, a cop, an actor who just plays a cop on TV ("Officer Mahoney"), a winner of the green card lottery, a two-time nominee for Outstanding Professor of the Year, a nationally ranked go player, ... two Roses (Rose, and the Other Rose), one Ida, one Alice, one self-described nobody (Don't mind me), one former member of the SDS, two convicted felons, addicted, enabled, embattled, embittered, out of print, out of luck ... in our prime, in a rut, in a rush, in remission, in the third week of chemo, in deep and unrelenting emotional despair (You never get used to it), but down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.

With The Swimmers, Otsuka is plunging into chlorinated waters that John Cheever has pretty much had all to himself since 1964. I'm thinking, of course, of Cheever's classic short story "The Swimmer," which was later made into a film starring Burt Lancaster.

Cheever's swimmer, Neddy, was solitary, paddling his way one surreal summers' day through a series of backyard suburban pools, as, within the space of hours, summer turned into fall and Neddy himself aged. What is it about swimming — the doggedness of all those repetitive laps — that invites these thoughts about mortality and the meaning of it all? "I thought ... that we could stay down here forever," says one of Otsuka's shocked swimmers when the pool closure is announced. "It all went by so fast," [says another] ... "But I was so happy in my lane," protests a sidestroker named Irene. Alice says, "Me too."

The Swimmers, perhaps because of the variety of voices Otsuka assembles, glides lightly through these philosophical waters, more lightly I think, than Cheever's metaphor-heavy short story did. But why compare? There's room enough for all in this Olympic-sized existential pool.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.

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