By Julie Otsuka
I started swimming seriously at a local YMCA last August and signed up for a month-long adult swimming lesson with a couple of women in their 70s. I knew the basics—how not to die—but wanted to learn how to swim laps. And so I started, badly. Twice a week I now visit my local pool. I wave to fellow swimmers in the same time slot: the man with the pool noodle, the woman who swims half-lengths in a tank top. In a period marked by hamster wheel-like habits, swimming has become my newest. Unlike the privacy of other routines — writing, for example — swimming is done in public. It is a clearly visible practice: you are seen in your captivity and repetition, while you see others in theirs.
Julie Otsuka’s sleek third novel, “The Swimmers,” like her award-winning previous book, “The Buddha in the Attic,” begins in the first-person plural perspective. Here she tells from the collective point of view of the enthusiastic swimmers who regularly visit an underground communal swimming pool. Together, the swimmers form a squabbling Greek chorus – a quirky cast united in their near-religiosity when it comes to the pool. Many seem maladjusted to land: “There are those who would call our pool devotion exaggerated, if not pathological,” our narrators tell us. Most swimmers can be recognized by the polite distance from another pool mate: “Lane 3 Breaststroke Mark”, “Sidestitch Sydney”. As the narration occasionally slips into the second person, the book’s protagonist sharpens: “You wake up one day and you can’t even remember your own name (It’s Alice† But until that day comes, keep your eyes on that painted black line at the bottom of your lane and do what you gotta do: you keep swimming.”
The swimmers’ idyll is shattered when a mysterious crack appears at the bottom of their beloved pool. Here the tone shifts to the formality of a news item. Experts, the only characters given full names, try to explain the crack’s origin. “This is unprecedented,” says Brendan Patel, professor of structural engineering at the university on the other side of town. Christine Wilcox, a US Geological Survey scientist, says the crack may be the result of an underground microtremor too weak to be detected by local seismic monitors. Short quotes give the text the veneer of non-fiction, keeping the story at bay, rather than drawing you in as fiction often tries.
The crack becomes crack. The swimmers are getting more and more anxious. The rifts are personified, imagined from all sides, described by our chorus, both poetically (it is speculated that “the rift opens to a second and deeper world that lies just beneath the surface of our own. An alternate and perhaps more truthful world with its own underground pool filled with faster, more attractive people in less stretched suits doing their flips every time”) and neurotic: some swear the newer cracks are “thicker than their predecessors, with darker centers and less uniform edges, while others look look strangely bloated (although we remind ourselves of course, they are Underwater).”