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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #17 (April 22-28, 2003), page 12.

The Floating World sinks under its own self-indulgence

The Floating World

By Cynthia Gralla

Ballantine Books, 2003

Hardcover, 304 pages, $21.95

By Joseph Eaton

Cynthia Gralla’s debut novel The Floating World, is a study of a woman who comes unhinged after taking too deep a dip in an exotic locale. A female-narrated "Heart of Darkness" set partly in the underbelly of Tokyo’s pleasure districts, the novel is the fictionalized fruit of Gralla’s own experience as a serving girl in Japan.

Liza, the book’s protagonist, is a young Ivy League graduate student who leaves Princeton for Tokyo to study butoh, a form of avant-garde dance born out of the horrors of World War II. Once in Tokyo, she quickly finds a job working in a Ginza district hostess bar, where red-cheeked company men come to drink expensive whiskey and sing Karaoke in the paid company of flattering women.

Liza meets a long list of shady characters and innocents in Tokyo. She juggles bizarre love affairs with Mark, a naïve political radical, and Carlo, a woo-woo New Age artisan who wanders around in the clothes of a monk and insists on calling her "Princess Amida."

Most importantly, she meets Maboroshi, a Geisha dropout who works at the same hostess bar and also has the curious job of serving sushi off her naked body at an exclusive restaurant where customers give their fortunes (and their very souls, the narrator would have us believe) for the experience. Soon Liza is also supine, serving sushi from her belly and running around with a gang of Geisha-in-training who seem to have learned their ultra-violent chops from studying A Clockwork Orange.

With its soft-core prostitution, flesh tables, and gangs of the pleasure district, The Floating World could easily be a frolicking romp of a page-turner or an accusatory portrait of modern life in Japan. But Gralla’s touch, a hodge-podge of academic blather and self-loathing of the type not seen since middle school kids rubbed tattoos into their arms with pencil erasers, weighs it down. The Floating World promises a wild ride through dangerous territory, yet it sputters along like a Volkswagen in need of a valve job.

Liza’s destructive story is about herself, and how she gets dragged down into the Tokyo muck, but it could very well be the muck of the author’s living room for the lack of description. The Floating World is very much a novel of the head, and it’s a head whose thoughts are usually rather hard to follow. When Liza first takes her clothes off and serves up sushi, the reader, like the diners, is full of expectation. Instead, Gralla gives us a passage that falls off into abstract nonsense.

"Falling back against the hard table I transcended categories of submission and domination, adoration and subjugation, and simply became a woman among the saints — one of those who could turn water into wine, flesh into bread. Once the waiters had arranged the food in intricate, well-planned patterns on my body, I served it up from my various valleys, and invisible wildflowers opened up their mouth to share the nectar."

Huh? Wildflowers? What nectar? What about the restaurant, and the men glaring down with drool hanging out the sides of their smiles, chopsticks at the ready? What about the sushi? Is it cold? Sticky?

By the middle of the novel, Gralla’s Liza is so far gone and full of herself that the only person who could feel sympathy for her is a paid therapist or the smitten guy from home who comes to her rescue. When she begins to come out of her fog, the reader is almost sad, wishing instead that she had thrown herself off some tall building, stuck her head in an oven, or swam too far out to sea. And no reader wants to feel that barbaric.


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