Julie Otsuka’s Layered Points of View

the book cover for The Swimmers featuring an aerial photograph of a few people swimming in lanes in a pool

Julie Otsuka’s third novel, The Swimmers, out earlier this year, is a masterclass in the use of non-traditional points-of-view. This slim, gorgeous book is divided into five chapters, three written in the first-person plural perspective and two in the second-person; the novel examines dementia, familial relationships, and the friction between the collective and the individual, using the shifts in point-of-view to marry form to content. Otsuka’s inclusion of multiple perspectives underscores the content of the book and provides the reader with fresh insight into both the story being told and the craft of writing it.

The novel opens with a chapter entitled “The Underground Pool.” The first-person plural point-of-view is introduced in the first sentence: “The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured, and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions.” The book starts in community. It is “our town,” and the swimmers come to the pool for a shared interest in wellness. And yet, as the third sentence details, they swim for a multitude of reasons, a list of maladies that ranges from the small to the large, from the physical to the emotional. The collective is made up of individuals. Otsuka also nicely sets up the contrast here between two worlds—the underground and the aboveground—foreshadowing the dualities that are threaded through the novel.

The present tense is used throughout this chapter and throughout the book. In “The Underground Pool,” it works well to bring us into the moment, to clarify that the time the swimmers spend at the pool is a moment when they, too, are present. It is the time in each of their days when “bad moods lift, tics disappear, memories reawaken, migraines dissolve, and slowly, slowly, the chatter in our minds begins to subside as stroke after stroke, length after length, we swim.” The swimmers all share the need to immerse themselves in this activity—the life aboveground is made tenable because of the life in the pool. In this way, this solitary, individual sport means community.

There are also more literal communities at the pool—the cliques are well known to anyone who swims: “we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.” Otsuka introduces us to swimmers as she describes them, cycling through the individuals to create the collective. A woman named Alice is mentioned frequently. And the pool itself provides structure and rules: there is a lifeguard, there is an Aquatics Director, and there are ways to behave (“All Band-Aids must be removed.”).

Slowly, we begin to understand the metaphorical implications at play here, and they become quite clear as the chapter ends: “But until that day comes you keep your eyes focused on that painted black line on the bottom of your lane and you do what you must: you swim on. Your pace is steady but unhurried. No need to rush. Your form, good enough. Your mood is calm. You are back in your element again. Just one more lap, you tell yourself, and I’m done.” The onset of disease and death has been here since the beginning of the novel but the ending of this chapter makes it clear: we are all journeying toward the end.

And then, the world shifts.

In the following chapter, “The Crack,” a crack is discovered at the bottom of the pool. This chapter, which is also written in the first-person plural point-of-view, shows what happens to a community when something changes, when something shifts, when there is a literal crack in the foundation. There is an investigation. The crack disappears then reappears. Swimmers begin to leave. Some of the remaining swimmers try to see the crack in a positive light: “Someone says, ‘I feel like it’s the thing I’ve been waiting for all my life.’” After attempted fixes and much talk, the pool is scheduled to be permanently closed. The community will be disbanded. On the final day the pool is open, the last swimmer in the pool is Alice, and the narration subtly switches from the  first-person plural to a clearer focus on this woman: “and when she’s swum her last lap she takes a long hot shower in the locker room and changes back into her clothes and then climbs up the stairs and emerges, blinking and stunned, into the bright, blazing world above.” She is alone.

The abrupt transition to the aboveground world at the end of the second chapter is continued in the third, which is called “Diem Perdidi.” Even if we don’t know the translation—“I have lost the day,” further developing the theme of loss and confusion—it is clear that the book is moving to a different place. When the chapter begins, Otsuka uses repetition and what appears to be a third-person voice until we hit the middle of the first paragraph: “She remembers her name. She remembers the name of the president. She remembers the name of the president’s dog. She remembers what town she lives in. And on which street. And in which house. The one with the big olive tree where the road takes a turn. She remembers what year it is. She remembers the season. She remembers the day on which you were born.” It is fascinating how that final sentence forces the reader to pay attention. The cadence of the initial repetition (“She remembers”) almost lulls the reader—we may even believe we are still in the first person plural point-of-view—but that final line is a shock. We may, at first, understand the use of the second person as an address to the reader. She remembers when I was born? But as we read on, we understand that the “you” in question is the daughter of the woman being spoken about and that the woman is Alice from the pool.

This type of second person narration is essentially an inverted first person. It is the narrator speaking to themselves. Unlike a true first person perspective, though, this use of the second person creates a distance, rather than an intimacy. There is a reason why the narrator is speaking to themselves—often, it is a way to process something traumatic, something that needs to be held at arm’s length. Here, it is the sobering account of the narrator watching her mother, Alice, descend in to dementia.

There are paragraphs where each sentence begins with “She remembers.” There are paragraphs where each sentence begins with “She does not remember.” There are paragraphs that alternate between the two. Alice is slowly constructed for us through these details, as we learn what she does and does not remember. Throughout it all, though, through the use of the second person, we see and understand the difficulty of watching one’s mother begin to disappear.

The fourth chapter, entitled “Belavista,” represents another point-of-view change. It begins: “You are here today because you have failed the test. Maybe you were unable to draw all the numbers on the clock face, or spell ‘world’ backwards, or remember even one of the five unrelated words that were just recited to you, mere minutes ago, by one of our professionally trained testers. Or maybe, for the first time ever, you just couldn’t copy that cube. ‘I’m not in the mood,’ you said.” We quickly understand that the use of the second person point-of-view has shifted. Now, the “you” is not the person speaking, but the person being spoken to; it is the object, not the subject.  It is no longer Alice’s daughter, but it is Alice, and it is thousands of other Alices; it is anyone who enters a memory care facility. One day, it may be the reader or the reader’s mother. The “you” is both individual and plural; the “you” is both specific and general—it is everyone who can no longer remember.

We learn that Belavista is the name of the facility, and this chapter lays out the rules and regulations of Alice’s new home. There is an echo here of the pool, and, indeed, the first-person plural returns in this chapter, but it represents the facility and not the individuals: “Welcome to Belavista. We are a long-term, for-profit memory residence conveniently located on a former parking lot off the freeway just minutes from the Valley Plaza Mall.” The collective is speaking to the individual—while there is a community within the facility, these individuals have lost much of their ability to be part of a community, so the balance has shifted. Unlike the pool, where the power seemed to lie in the community of individuals, here the power clearly sits with the facility itself.

This is the chapter where the reality of living with dementia—or the reality of living with a family member with dementia—becomes real: “You are at Belavista. Belavista is your last stop. The end of the line. What line? you may ask. The line that began, all those years ago, with the happy event of your birth.” The black lane lines that are drawn at the bottom of the pool, the crack that appears—the metaphor that was developed at the start of the novel becomes fully realized here. The idea of being in the moment returns as well, but that, from the perspective of the facility, is a silver lining: “And 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.’”

In the final chapter, which is called “Euroneuro,” we return again to the second person narrator of “Diem Perdidi”; we return to Alice’s daughter. The Euroneuro is a conference, where the details of Alice’s brain will be discussed; again, we see the juxtaposition of the collective and the individual. But once again, in this chapter, Otsuka allows us to see Alice through the narrator’s eyes, through the narrator’s memory, to see who she once was and who she is turning into: “Little by little, she is beginning to disappear.” The use of the second person voice, with its distance, means that the novel can never become overly sentimental.

Otsuka juxtaposes the two narrative voices in part to underscore the isolation that occurs when dementia slowly destroys a life. A vital and vibrant person—once part of many communities, once part of a “we” and an “us”—is slowly cut off from her world. And the disease wreaks havoc on family members as well. The narrator is talking to herself, about her mother, but she is also talking to the reader. This happened to me, she seems to be saying, it could happen to you too. You could be Alice. You could be her daughter. The book ends, though, in a memory of her mother, a memory rendered in present tense. Although Alice loses her ability to remember and to talk, she won’t ever truly disappear. In the narrator’s memory, her mother will always be alive. She will be the last to leave the pool.