You Say the Swimming Pool’s Half Empty, I Say the Swimming Pool’s Half Full

By Geoff NicholsonApril 18, 2012

You Say the Swimming Pool’s Half Empty, I Say the Swimming Pool’s Half Full

John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings by John Cheever
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
Backyard Oasis by Daniell Cornell and Dick Hebdige
The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard by J. G. Ballard
Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography by J. G. Ballard
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The Saint Marquis. Four o'clock. Sunset Boulevard ... As soon as I step out of the car, I look at the pool and wonder if anybody has drowned in the pool.

— Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

Off to my left there was an empty swimming pool, and nothing ever looks emptier than an empty swimming pool.

— Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye


I WAS AT A PARTY AT A HOUSE on the very crest of the Hollywood Hills. It felt like a movie: the house was midcentury, the crowd spilled out onto the cantilevered deck talking about studio deals, there were "starlets," and there was a swimming pool, actually an "infinity pool," where the water seems to stop on the edge of space, with no deck or walkway around it. Obviously you know there's a retaining wall, that you couldn't in reality flip over the edge and go tumbling into space and crash down the hillside, but when the pool happens to be on the very crest of the Hollywood Hills, the illusion is all too convincing.

A few of us walked gingerly around the three solid sides of the pool and said we were terrified, and we began to devise the opening of a movie. There's a girl and a guy in the pool, maybe two girls, maybe a guy and two girls, and they're naked and whooping it up, and suddenly there's a deep rumbling sound, but the kids in the pool don't hear it, and a moment later the whole hillside shifts and slides, the walls of the infinity pool crack, then split wide open. Boys, girls, water, concrete, now really do go tumbling into space and crash down the hillside. The pool, the deck, the midcentury house, the Hollywood Hills are all left in ruins.

We poolsiders liked the sound of that. And why wouldn't we? A swimming pool sends all kinds of messages about money, success, leisure, good times, good bodies. But you also know it's too good to be true, you know something bad has to happen. A cracked pool, an abandoned pool, a ruined pool, that's what we're looking for. When the pool gets ruined the people get ruined too. And don't we essentially reckon they deserved it?


Not long after that party I was at the Palm Springs Art Museum for the exhibition "Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography 1945-1982," part of Pacific Standard Time, running till May 27th (and also published as a book by Prestel). If it seemed I was putting a little too much symbolic weight on that Hollywood Hills infinity pool, the curators of this exhibition would have told me I didn't know the half of it. According to the catalogue, the pool is "a visual analogue of the ideals and expectations associated with Southern California" and the images "an integral part of the region's identity, a microcosm of the hopes and disillusionments of the country's post-World War II ethos."

The show is large and diverse and includes architectural photography and quite a few still lifes, with arrangements of garden chairs, cactus, garden hoses, and so on. There are also pinups, male and female, some fashion, and a few "candids," including a couple of great ones by Garry Winogrand.

Many of the photographs show celebrities, generally adjacent to rather than actually in a pool: I guess that would have spoiled their hair and makeup.  Sometimes, as in the cases of Olivia de Havilland or Esther Williams, it's their own pool at their own house; other pools are in more public settings: Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe at the Racquet Club, Mamie Van Doren at the Biltmore. Sometimes the boundaries between public and private are blurred.  Liberace and a friend are seen grinning and roughhousing in a surprisingly homely backyard, but it's the kind of grinning and roughhousing that's done for the sake of the camera. And this seems to be something that a pool and a camera often forces on the human subject.

The majority of the people in these photographs look just a little too happy: they seem to be performing their happiness rather than experiencing it.  You can appreciate their dilemma. Hell, here they are in the sun, in California, in a pool: they damn well ought to be happy, but maybe they're not quite as happy as they think they ought to be. Are they contemplating death and destruction?  Well, I certainly would be.


Personally I can't imagine a more picturesque and poetic way to go than being found floating in a swimming pool. Think of Joe Gillis's corpse in Sunset Boulevard (1950, directed by Billy Wilder), seen from the bottom of Norma Desmond's pool, and Gillis doesn't look bad at all: natty suit and tie, face not in the least bloated, scarcely a hair out of place. 

Given the magic of the movies he even gets to comment on himself in the third person. "The poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end he got himself a pool, only the price turned out to be a little high ... two bullets in the back, one in the stomach."

As proved by Wilder (and many others), the corpse in the pool is profoundly, perhaps quintessentially cinematic, but it has plenty of literary mileage, too. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, had Jay Gatsby die in a swimming pool.  The Great Gatsby was written in 1924, a couple of years before Fitzgerald ever visited Hollywood, but evidently he already understood the requirements of a good cinematic death scene.  

To be absolutely correct, Gatsby is found dead on the pool rather than in it. He's the "accidental burden" of a "pneumatic mattress," which is between him and the water, and we don't know how many shots he received, or in what part of the body. He doesn't vocalize from the dead to tell us. In the 1974 movie with Robert Redford, the shots penetrate the body and the mattress, and both sink. 

Gatsby lives on the East Coast, and the weather has turned autumnal by the time he's killed. Earlier that day the gardener has said,

"I'm going to drain the pool today, Mr. Gatsby. Leaves'll start falling pretty soon, and then there's always trouble with the pipes."

"Don't do it to-day," Gatsby answered. He turned to me apologetically. "You know, old sport, I've never used that pool all summer?"

And yes indeed, we feel that Gatsby is right to be apologetic. If a well-used swimming pool suggests an excess of free time and disposable income, an unused one suggests waste and dissipation. Nobody really needs a pool, but if you're privileged enough to have one, then you damn well ought to use it.

And how different Gatsby's death would have been if he'd let the gardener go ahead with the draining. He'd surely still have ended up dead, but his body might have been found at the bottom of the empty pool. No doubt there are those who would say that death in an empty swimming pool is even more poignant than death in a full one.


There's a short story by J.G Ballard, "The Voices of Time," in which we encounter a character named Whitby "and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.  An inch deep and twenty feet long, interlocking to form an elaborate ideogram like a Chinese character, they had taken him all summer to complete ... carrying away the cement chips in a small canvas bucket." I have some trouble visualizing these "strange grooves," and I'm not much wiser when Ballard tells us that the ideogram "at first glance appeared to represent a huge solar disk, with four radiating diamond-shaped arms, a crude Jungian mandala."         

However, a couple of references spring to mind: first, those ripples David Hockney uses to depict water in some of his early paintings, and that he later painted on the bottom of actual pools. The other thing is that I can't think of swimming pools and cement without being reminded of the "cement pond" in The Beverly Hillbillies: "So they loaded up their truck and they moved to Beverleee… Hills that is, swimming pools, movie stars."

Hockney first visited California in 1963, claiming John Rechy and Bob Mizer as inspiration, rather than Jed Clampett. His first painting containing a pool was California Art Collector, dated 1964. The pool in that picture is small, distant, and empty of people though full of water. It wasn't long, however, before Hockney was painting inhabited pools, and perhaps most famously he painted pools that look both inhabited and uninhabited at the same time.  In A Small Splash, The Splash (both 1966), and A Bigger Splash (1967), the splashes appear causeless, they're the kind of splash made when someone jumps or dives into a pool, but in this case there's no sign of jumper or diver.

Ballard's "The Voices of Time" was first published in 1960 in New Worlds magazine. He had never visited California at that time, and the story's action takes place in a science-fiction no-man's-land, though one that has more in common with California than Britain. Then again, Ballard had other swimming pools to refer to.

He was a child living in Shanghai when the war broke out. His parents moved into the temporary safety of a rented house inside the French Concession. In Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography (2008), Ballard writes, "Curiously the house we moved to had a drained swimming pool in its garden. It must have been the first drained swimming pool I had seen, and it struck me as strangely significant in a way I have never fully grasped ... I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away ... I think now that the drained pool represented the unknown, a concept that had played no part in my life."

Is there nothing a swimming pool can't symbolize?


There's an autobiographical essay by Steve Erickson, first published in Science Fiction Eye, Summer 1993, under the title (I kid you not)  describing his childhood in the San Fernando Valley. He writes, "When I was five years old we moved into a tract house that was part of a new tract neighborhood in the northern part of the valley ... Ten years later the neighborhood was gone. Ten years after the dirt and dust of the valley had given way to lawns and pools, a freeway was built and the lawns and pools gave way back to dirt and dust ... Later when I went back to see the house where I grew up, the house was gone but our swimming pool was still there, having missed the boundary line of the freeway and been given by the county to our former next-door neighbors whose house also remained."

As I read this, of course I recognize how strange and unsettling it must be to have the solidities of your childhood so easily eradicated, given to some undeserving neighbor. I can see that's got to hurt. At the same time I can't help thinking, "The lucky bastard grew up with a pool! What's he got to complain about?"           

Of the many deprivations we experienced in postwar England, the lack of swimming pools was pretty low on the list. However, I did have a mother who was a fan of Doris Day, and she took me to see the movie The Thrill of It All (1963, directed by Norman Jewison). The Doris Day character has a sudden rise from housewife to TV personality (as spokeswoman for Happy Soap), and one day while her husband (James Garner) is out at work, her bosses install a swimming pool in the backyard, right where the garage used to be. When hubbie comes home, he drives his Chevy convertible straight into the water. I absolutely loved that, found it painfully hilarious.

Even at the time, I didn't believe that Doris Day movies were a strictly accurate portrayal of American social realities, but the very idea, even as improbable farce, that people might suddenly have a pool installed in the backyard suggested there were things going on in America that were utterly inconceivable in England. If you'd asked me where The Thrill of It All takes place, I'd have said Southern California, and I'd have been half right. Checking IMDB, I see that although it's ostensibly "set" on the East Coast, in and around New York, it was filmed on the backlot at Universal.

Of course, the scene with James Garner and the Chevy convertible would have been a good deal less hilarious if there'd been no water in the pool. One of the most striking and droll images in "Backyard Oasis" features an empty swimming pool. It's a photograph by Bill Owens, showing a couple seated at a garden table that's been placed at the bottom of a waterless pool. Their single-story home is visible above them at ground level, their dog silhouetted against it. They're dressed in vaguely cowboy gear, they both have tumblers raised to their lips, and the caption reads, "He's a typical Californian who doesn't know how to relax."

The exhibition also has photographs by Craig Stecyk showing the Dogtown Z-Boys who have appropriated, or I suppose misappropriated, empty swimming pools to use as skateboard parks. But my favorite empty swimming pool in the show is in a photograph by Loretta Ayeroff, titled Abandoned Pool, California Ruins, Perris Valley. It shows a fenced, gray, empty swimming pool, drained but now partly filled with rainwater. It looks intact and potentially usable, but it's hard to believe anyone will be swimming in it in the foreseeable future. Beyond the fence is a large, inscrutable clapboard building, industrial rather than domestic, also abandoned but not wrecked, not yet anyway, and beyond that is a stretch of scrubby semi-desert leading to mountains.

The picture is from a series Ayeroff shot in the seventies and early eighties, under the title "California Ruins." What Ayeroff describes as a "director's cut" of images can be found at her website. The pictures are all resonant and beautifully melancholy, but I think none of them speaks quite so eloquently about transience and loss as that image of the swimming pool. It seems to refer to a malaise that is far deeper and broader than the souring of some optimistic postwar American idyll.

Which brings us inevitably to John Cheever's "The Swimmer," a 1964 short story that strikes me as performing a perfect literary tightrope act between the naturalistic and the mythic. When Neddy Merrill first observes the string of swimming pools that will allow him to "reach his home by water," it seems to him, and to the unwary reader, that he's simply setting off on a lark.  By the end of the story, just a dozen pages later, he's adrift in time and space, a washed up Everyman who has lost everything, not least his own house, at which (if I read the story correctly) he never actually had a pool.

In the course of his swim, Neddy encounters just one empty swimming pool, belonging to the Welchers, who have gone away and put their house up for sale. "This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream." It's a hint of worse to come, but he shrugs it off and continues.

The Burt Lancaster movie version of The Swimmer (1968, dir. Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack) makes a complete hash of this. Now the empty pool that Neddy encounters is tended by a small boy, and the two of them have a balls-aching conversation about the nature of reality. "You see," Neddy insists, "if you make believe hard that something is true, then it is true for you."

According to Scott Donaldson's biography of Cheever, the original intention had been to write "a simple story about Narcissus. But it seemed absurd to limit the tale to a tight mythological plot." Of course in broadening the story, Cheever now invokes Odysseus as much as Narcissus. 

The spirit of Narcissus, and indeed Freud, and indeed Ovid, hang over a novel published just a couple of years after "The Swimmer," Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966); and frankly, if you set your novel in a place called San Narciso and have a heroine named Oedipa who checks into the Echo Courts Motel, you deserve all the Freudian trouble you get. Naturally, the motel has a pool "whose surface that day was flat, brilliant with sunshine," and although it plays only a minor part in the novel, the cover of the 1982 Bantam Windstone edition features a photo-realist painting of the motel sign, and a swimming pool.  The artist is uncredited, but I think we can safely say he knows his David Hockney.

I'm not going to make vast claims for "Thomas Pynchon the novelist of the swimming pool," but his writing contains at least one truly memorable reference to a pool. It occurs in his L.A. noir novel Inherent Vice (2009). In the wake of the Manson murders, fear is abroad in the city. "It spreads, like blood in a swimming pool, till it occupies all the volume of the day. And then maybe some playful soul shows up with a bucketful of piranhas, dumps them in the pool, and right away they can taste the blood. They swim around looking for what's bleeding, but they don't find anything, all of them getting more and more crazy, till the craziness reaches a point. Which is when they begin to feed on each other." Cinematic? You bet.      

And finally, from The Paris Review, "The Art of Fiction" interview with J.G. Ballard, Winter 1984:

INTERVIEWER: But drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels - aren't you inviting the worst sort of psychoanalytic interpretation?   

BALLARD: Ah, drained swimming pools! There's a mystery I never want to penetrate ...

I so wish he hadn't said "penetrate."

LARB Contributor

Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His books include the novels Bleeding London and The Hollywood Dodo. His latest, The Miranda, is published in October.


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