Known more for fantasy and children’s books, William Kotzwinkle made his name with novelizations of hit movies like E.T: The Extra Terrestrial. His forays into more serious fiction are often ignored, but his novella Swimmer in the Secret Sea deserves a closer look. It is a beautifully written but harsh examination of the ways in which we create meaning for ourselves in a meaningless world.
At a basic level, Swimmer in the Secret Sea presents the reader with the protagonist John Laski’s thoughts as he deals with his child’s birth gone horribly wrong. The action moves along slowly but surely, with Laski’s little epiphanies thrown aside like tiny corpses. These revelations often seem transitory, and with good reason. In fact, the whole novella is filled with masks and extended metaphors. While watching his wife give birth, Laski tells the reader that “she smiled, but it again was a mask.” Masks and illusions are all that keep him going throughout the novella, set in a cold wasteland that mirrors the abyss.
Laski’s vivid imagination is his primary weapon against “the abyss” of meaninglessness. “The air seemed dreamlike, a dream in which he could make things any shape he liked.” This idea is very tempting – that one has the power to create meaning. Throughout the novella, he attempts to use that power, mythologizing even his own child as “a god of time and men.”
However, just as the baby becomes a symbol for Laski’s imagination to latch onto, the stillbirth also shows the backwoods artist how meaningless life can be: “The baby died, we had nothing.” Laski’s earlier answer to life’s purpose, “so that love might come into the world,” has been nullified. With the absence of something to hold onto as meaningful, in this case a child, nothing remains for Laski. He begins to run out of illusions and feels as empty as the coffin he builds, “as if he were transparent and the day was passing through him.” The last three pages of this uncompromising novella contain none of Laski’s usual little epiphanies, in fact, no ‘extra language’ or ‘thought’ at all. Everything is reduced to mere events.
William Kotzwinkle’s vision of a world without meaning is full of the real, tangible horror that lies behind our everyday fantasies. It’s worthwhile to follow that journey into darkness, if only to draw back from it into our own comforting illusions.