I’m writing this in the aftermath of a raging August thunderstorm in Cleveland. Downed branches litter my driveway and the air is electrified with the ionized effect of moving water. It all brings to mind the healing and destructive power of water, whether it is moving around us or we are moving through it. Water, so necessary for life, has been an evocative symbol in many great works of literature.
Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers is both a tribute to community and lament for its loss. The swimmers are a diverse group of people who frequent a local public pool. They are not close friends, but know each other by the particulars of their mutual activity - choice of lane, color of swimsuit, body type, preferred stroke. In spare, poetic language, Otsuka’s omniscient second-person narrator gives us just enough information about each member of this microcosm to make us feel as if we are part of the group, yet somehow observing it from above.
One day, a crack appears in the bottom of the pool. Speculation begins to run wild over the cause of the crack, the meaning of the crack, the potential dangers of the crack. Some swimmers are obsessed with it, others unconcerned. The crack begins to take on a life of its own, growing and shrinking, changing locations, disappearing and then reappearing, changing shape, developing cluster cracks. Engineers are brought in to examine it, but cannot find a reason for its existence or a way to fix it. One by one, the swimmers begin to look for alternatives to the pool, emerging into the outside world like moles blinking in the bright sunlight. Some find other pools to frequent, others take on outside activities, reacquainting themselves with the lives they led before they came to the pool, looking for purpose beyond the daily swim. The pool eventually closes, and the fractured community dissolves.
The last swimmer to leave the pool is Alice, a woman struggling with dementia. The second half of the book picks up her story. She is in an assisted-living facility, being visited by her estranged daughter. Her life has been reduced to the strictly regimented schedule of the home, being infantilized by the well-meaning but overworked staff.
Fragments of memories flit through her fragile mind - memories of living in an internment camp during World War II, memories of a child who died in infancy, memories of how to play “Claire de Lune” on the piano. Here Otsuka’s attention to detail is a marvel of meticulousness. The minutiae that make up a life - a hairbrush, a jar of face cream, a pot of rice, clippings from newspapers - are elevated beyond their material value.
Her daughter, whose visits are exercises in regret and grief, watches helplessly as her mother slips away. Ostuka never elaborates, only hints at the cause of their estrangement. Her father is steady and workmanlike in his response to his wife’s ordeal. As the daughter helps him sort through her mother’s things, she gets glimpses of the life she missed through the material objects she valued.
Otsuka’s prose has an eloquent, lapidary touch. She displays an uncanny flair for leading the reader gently by the hand to witness intimate scenes that have a devastating emotional impact. While her voice is uniquely her own, there are aspects to the writing that bring other writers to mind. The swimmers’ obsession over the crack is Kafkaesque, the mysterious fluidity of the crack is reminiscent of Murakami, and the repetitive rhythm of the prose sometimes has the feel of Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport. It is this rhythm that ties the two halves of this elegant book together - the rhythm of a swimming stroke, the rhythm of a life.
Water, water, everywhere …. If you enjoyed The Swimmers, here are a few recommendations for more water-themed reads -
Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty
This rollicking tall tale reimagines the founding of Cleveland, Ohio as the feat of the superheroic Big Son. Our hero has the power of many brawny men, yet can’t win the heart of his beloved Cloe. The tale is narrated by his brother, Medium Son (or Meed for short) in a folksy vernacular that will leave the reader in stitches. The cast of characters is as quirky as anything out of Deadwood, and their exploits create a new mythology for the opening of the Midwest. You don’t have to be a Clevelander to be amused by the east side/west side rivalries and the presaging of the burning of the Cuyahoga River. A fun escape into an alternate history.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Chopin’s feminist classic is the story of Edna Pelletier, a Creole woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage. While vacationing on Grand Isle, a resort near New Orleans, she is swept into a relationship with serial womanizer Robert. The circuitous route to her sexual and creative awakening is fraught with peril. The backdrop of the Gulf of Mexico serves as a cautionary metaphor for the dangers that 19th-century women faced in their struggle for self-expression.
The Crying Book by Heather Christle
Poet Heather Christle wrote The Crying Book as a way of working through her grief at losing a friend and the experience of giving birth for the first time. Told in bite-sized morsels, similar to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, the book is a poetic treatise on tears in all their permutations, as well as a fearless examination of her own depression.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates’ debut novel is a sprawling magical-realist saga about the Underground Railroad. It follows Hiram, an enslaved man on a Virginia plantation. Hiram is recruited to transport people on the Underground Railroad by Moses, aka Harriet Tubman, who, in true Marvel comics fashion, has superpowers of Conduction, which it turns out Hiram shares. The Tasked (as the enslaved are called in this narrative) are swept away to freedom via a complex system of bridges, water, green light, and inexplicable magic.
The Wager by David Grann
Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon, Lost City of Z) gives us the harrowing true story of The Wager, a British war ship that ran aground on a desolate island off Patagonia in 1741. The grueling tale of survival is chock-full of mutiny, starvation, disease, murder, and deceit. Grann is a researcher extraordinaire, and a hell of a story-teller, bringing the reader so close to the survivors’ accounts that we can almost smell them. This one has movie adaptation written all over it.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguo
Ishiguro takes on Arthurian legend in this labyrinthine novel about an elderly couple in search of their lost son. A mysterious mist, which causes collective amnesia, has settled over Britain, thwarting their efforts. The book is a watery hymn to memory and longing.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
Saunders takes us on a deep dive into a selection of short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. He picks the stories apart word by word, character by character in what is a master class in classic Russian literature. If this all sounds dry, never fear - it’s George Saunders. His characteristic humor and empathy seep through every page. The closing chapter is one of the most human things I’ve ever read. A great read for those wanting to dip a toe into the Russians without having to commit to a 1200-page tome.
Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
Shapton’s fragmentary memoir views her life through her relationship with swimming. From her participation in her school swim team to Olympic trials to using the pool or ocean as water therapy after a divorce, her existence has been informed by moving through water. Interspersed are watercolors of people in her life and pools she has swum in and photographs of her collection of vintage and contemporary swimsuits. An elegant, haunting read.
River Woman by Katherena Vermette
This lovely collection by Métis poet Vermette takes a multi-faceted view of rivers, using them as metaphors for decolonial action and healing from trauma. In simple, direct language, she extols the cleansing, nourishing power of moving water and its positive effects on body, soul, and planet. (See poem below)
dusk as slow as
river laps in lisps
stills to a sleep
grey and long
I miss you
there are so many
So many great books are coming out in October! Here is a sampling -
Our Strangers by Lydia Davis
This new collection by the master of the short story Davis is a flurry of quirky fragments with wry observations on everything from aging to marriage to shopping carts. Ranging in length from a few sentences to around twenty pages, they are a celebration of language and the minutiae of everyday life. Particularly entertaining is “Pardon the Intrusion,” a litany of offers and requests for goods and services apparently gleaned from the pages of an online community bulletin board. Davis provides just enough information in each of these tiny gems to invite the reader to color in the blank spaces around them. A collection to make you laugh, cry, think, and wonder.
Mental Fight by Ben Okri
Booker Prize winner Okri has written en epic poem on the most crucial topics facing humanity - racism, hatred, and environmental destruction. He reaches back into ancient history and forward into the distant future to give context to his sweeping, disquieting words. While this might sound like a daunting read, it all leads up to the gleaming ray of hope that is the final poem, in which he stitches together book titles to form a path forward for humanity.
What You Need From the Night by Laurent Petitmangin, translated by Shaun Whiteside
This tight, urgent novella is a rage against the destructive forces of white supremacy. A father in a small town in France watches helplessly as his son is drawn into a violent circle of white nationalists. Reeling from the grief of losing his wife to cancer, he is now faced with the disintegration of the rest of his small family. Painfully intimate, the book is a choked cry against the rising tide of racial hatred in Europe.
For further reading -