THE FLOATING WORLD by Cynthia Gralla


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American coed abandons her “too-safe life” at Princeton to study dance and decadence in Tokyo.

Any book that opens with the image of a woman “laid out like a sacrifice on a long, low-to-the ground dining table, her naked body littered with sushi” clearly intends to shock, and Gralla’s debut tale revels throughout in extreme behavior. Narrator Liza comes to Japan to study butoh, “the dance of utter darkness,” because it seems “the one thing that might be outrageous enough to save me.” She gets a job at a hostess club, luring salarymen to buy overpriced drinks, and acquires a lover who declares, “I will chain you naked to the stone steps on my tower and torture you in the most intimate part of yourself.” Fellow hostess Maboroshi invites Liza to join a band of maiko, apprentice geishas who wear the traditional kimonos as they maraud through the Tokyo streets at night. It was Maboroshi on the table in the first scene, and soon Liza too is a live serving platter, though she herself has stopped eating. When her American boyfriend turns up, Liza bops him over the head with a vase, lets the maiko cut her arms with glass and watches them kill a club patron, then passes out at her butoh group’s dress rehearsal. It’s all supposedly very significant, with Liza pontificating about becoming a commodity, wondering which is her authentic self, and slathering on the floating metaphors. (The phrase “floating world” describes the walled quarters inhabited by geisha.) Hardly any of it is believable except the authentically detailed hostess club scenes (the author worked at one) and some interesting interpolations about butoh’s origins in the Tokyo student riots of 1959. Otherwise, the lurid developments seem merely the result of feverish invention, and Liza’s banal philosophizing (“my messier bodily fluids were blotted out by the paper-thin origami of my soul”) just irritating.

Pretentious and overwrought.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-345-45291-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2002