The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Perhaps I should have not read Goodbye, Vitamin on the heels of finishing Chemistry by Weike Wang, maybe then I would have found Khong’s novel to be more witty and original than I actually did. The scenario too brought to mind another novel I read fairly recently, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which also centres on an Asian American woman in her 30s moving in back temporally with her parents because her father is showing signs of memory loss. Still, even if Goodbye, Vitamin didn’t quite strike me in the way Chemistry or even<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1682569828
Edge Case by YZ Chin (which is yet another similar read) it was by no means an unpleasant read. The humorous tone was fairly engaging and the complex father-daughter dynamic that is at the heart of this story was certainly poignant. The questions the narrative raises and tries to answer (what we owe to each other? what does it mean to care for someone? is forgiveness always possible?) were certainly thought-provoking and I also appreciated the author’s portrayal of love, break-ups, and illnesses, as well as her depiction of the every-day realities of looking after an ageing parent.

Characterized by an offbeat and occasionally surreal tone, Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated by Ruth, a thirty-something woman reeling from her recent break-up with her longtime partner. Add to that the fact that so far she’s been leading a rather directionless career and Ruth is far from okay. Her mother, who works full time, asks Ruth to move back home so that she can keep an eye on her father, a history professor whose Alzheimer diagnosis has resulted in his ‘temporary’ dismissal from his college. Ruth and her mother try to help him in the only ways they can: they give him supplements and vitamins, design an ideal diet with foods that have plenty of health benefits. Additionally, they try to be ‘stealthy’ about their efforts to look after him as he seems unwilling to admit that he is experiencing any of the symptoms related to Alzheimer. In an effort to make him feel normal again Ruth teams up with her father’s former students and organize unauthorized lessons.
Ruth’s ‘quirky’ narration did at times feel a bit heavy-handed and it seemed a bit of a stretch that all of the various characters would share the same silly & weird sense of humor. The bittersweet nature of the relationship between Ruth and her father was perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel. Her father is not a particularly likeable person to start off with but to see his ‘change’ through his daughter’s eyes definitely made me more sympathetic towards him. Part of me would have liked for Ruth’s mother to be in the picture more as her presence is often relegated off-page.
Despite the subject matter—Alzheimer’s, breakups—Goodbye, Vitamin makes for a breezy read. I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★☆☆