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