The Floating World

The Floating World

by Cynthia Gralla

Paperback(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345452924
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 309
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Cynthia Gralla is studying for her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where she focuses on Japanese, English, and Spanish literature. She has written articles for She lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt

ONE Serving Bodies
Sashimi, ginger, wasabi. Breasts, legs, slightly bent knees. Thousands and thousands of dollars.
Her act of serving is a haiku of nourishment.
She is laid out like a sacrifice on a long, low-to-the-ground dining table, her naked body littered with sushi wrapped in seaweed coils.
Far more seductive than any nightclub of the moment, this restaurant is in an area of Tokyo not often frequented by the glitterati. Very close to the Zenpokuji-gawa ("the river of the temple of happiness"), in an old neighborhood called Horinouchi- literally, "within the hole," as if referring to one of the Inferno's more unmentionable rings-this place can only be found by those who know the way. But unlike most exclusive places, the key to this realm is neither wealth nor power; nor fame, talent, notoriety. Instead, the people who find their way here are somehow chosen, marked from birth, or, more likely, by too many nights of unsettled dreams. Having money is only incidental, but the prices are flabbergasting, even for Tokyo. Not even the hostess bars of Ginza or Akasaka, where would-be foreign models and struggling Japanese starlets serve drinks with swan-smooth dives of the arm, would dare charge so much.
But that is part of the beauty of an admissions policy that has nothing to do with financial solvency (unlike the Ginza clubs, which would slam the door on a pauper if one were so foolish as to approach their gilded lanterns). Because the people who find their way here will return regardless of the price, and no matter what their means-they will find a way to pay, even if it is by gambling or theft or murder or the sale of their very organs.
Suchthings have been known to happen, even in the few short months that this place has been in existence. The pull is that strong, the hook that sharp and sure and deep.
1990s, Yokohama, Japan. Oshima Kenzo was beaming with a mischievous, transported smile breaking it only to shout "Don't move! Don't move!" The near-centenarian dance master raised his arms with frantic jerking motions, as if he were conducting an orchestra of mythical animals with make-believe instruments. Despite his commands to stay put, his assistant put on his state-of-the-art sound system the most beautiful music: songs by French boys' choirs, the hymns of Arvo Pärt, arias by Maria Callas-all of which compelled the students to dance ever more physically, fervently, and thus in the opposite direction of his wishes. It was always dif- ficult to get things right at Oshima's studio-I found that out right away.
Eyes ancient and ageless, full of distance, a saint's glance. Face pale and wrinkled, but hair still dark gray. Limbs whispering that despite his ninety plus years, his was a short tenure on this planet. The co-creator, in the late 1950s, of the avant-garde Japanese dance form known as ankoku butoh (translated into English as "the dance of utter darkness"), Oshima was captivating in his Yokohama dance studio, a one-room structure just across a colorfully tiled alley from the house he shared with his wife; his fifty-seven-year-old son, Hideo (a fellow dancer and co-conspirator); and his son's wife.
In this place, he urged his motley group of students to create the impossible over and over again.
In the corner, trying to be, like always, as mysterious as possible, I moved against a flock of costumes stilled in their lace-winged flight across one wall, counting on my fingers and toes my luck at being in this very place, in the presence of a living legend, an undesignated cultural treasure who I and all the other dancers-Japanese college students, Brazilian artists, worldly French vagabonds, German street urchins, itinerant Australians, and curious Americans-had the fortune to embrace.
Still, I would have admitted how strange it was that my entire life had hinged on something called the dance of utter darkness: an art apophatic, often defined only by what it is not. The practitioners of this dance, their faces and bodies painted dead-white, were known to shave their heads, shed their clothes, dress in drag, speak in tongues (while distending their own), flail their limbs, contort their faces, spit roses, dance on glass, hang from buildings, spend hours without moving, rehearse by night, go mad by day. And it was just this dance that had made me abandon my too-safe life at Princeton University and come to Japan. It had seemed the one thing that might be outrageous enough to save me.
Whether or not I can find anything of use to me here, I thought as I danced, it was worth it to come. It is worth it if I can bathe in the overwhelming strangeness of it all, the foreignness, the dark twists and trapdoors whose paths and breaks I do not know by heart, not yet.
1926, Tokyo, Japan. A department store in Ginza: not as shiny as the prepack- aged, multistoried, city-block-long, whole-wide-world-within-one-building department stores that dominate Tokyo by the end of the twentieth century, but obviously reflective enough, for in one of its mirrors a twenty-year-old man from Hokkaido-Japan's equivalent of the American Wild West, though it's an island to the north-happens to catch his reflection. Like a cat who cannot understand that the image he sees is of his own body, Oshima Kenzo stares at it, taking inventory of its unknowable contours and lines, and a feeling flickers within him that this terrain is something he owns but has not explored. At that moment, the determination to make it completely his own takes root in him, along with the inkling that dance might be the solution to the anxiety created by his own body.
Having been in Tokyo only a week and a half, I remained throughout the day in a constant state of wonder over the turns my life had lately taken. With only a year left at my university, I departed (with no promises as to when I would return, because I always liked to keep people guessing) for Japan-a region I had been marginally studying, it's true, as part of my comparative literature major, but somewhere I never thought I'd actually live. It had happened suddenly. The possibility and the decision overcame me almost simultaneously, and I left a few weeks later, at the beginning of June. I had never been out of the country before, though people often assumed I'd lived abroad-at the very least they never guess that I'm from Florida. I have always been far too dream-lost for my own good; people sense that right away-it makes me seem foreign to them somehow. And I've always liked that.
During my first week or two in Japan I often remembered a conversation I'd had with my ex-boyfriend Michael before I left, one that was burned into my mind because the pain of our breakup was still raw when we talked (and now). When pressed for details by my friends, I said that our split was mutual, but perhaps this just masked a truth I didn't want to face. True, I had tired of his insistence on seeing me and my desire for intensity as neurotic (even if that's what it really was), and he had tired of my constant alternations: one week pulling away from him in fits of insecurity, and the next week clinging close. What neither of us had tired of was our shared sense of humor and maddeningly perfect physical compatibility, the memory of which rang through both of us, I could tell, during our last conversation before I left America.
On that day he accosted me as I was taking shelter from a sudden end-of-May rainstorm in the spacious archway of one of the campus's oldest buildings, site of decades of a capella performances. We were the only two people in that dry nook of the campus, and our voices ricocheted across the curved stone walls, in a space left free of falling rain but which re- tained barely inaudible traces of all songs sung there over the years.
Before the storm's interruption I'd been in the middle of returning my last library books and vacating my dormitory so that I could return home briefly to Florida and then leave for Japan the following week. Shyly, Michael asked about my plans for the summer, so I explained what I was doing, both this summer and probably for at least the next year as well. But I found it difficult, mostly, it occurred to me, because what I would study-dance, and particularly, this kind of dance-was so physical and intimate. In describing it to him, I felt as if I were trespassing on some taboo that existed between us now, by emphasizing the body and the physical-those things we yearned to share again but couldn't. I knew that at some level Michael had felt guilty about our extreme sexual compatibility, taking it to mean that our relationship could never transcend a passionate affair to become a comfortable, lasting relationship. I had felt nothing of the sort-at least I thought I hadn't. But now, explaining to him that I was going to be studying dance in Japan, I felt suddenly self-conscious and uncomfortable, as nostalgia for our physical joy seeped through my limbs.

Copyright© 2003 by Cynthia Gralla

Table of Contents

1Serving Bodies1
2Secret Places27
3A Lighter Dance55
The Floating Chapter: Ending81
4Multiplied Indefinitely87
5The Concourse of Angels115
6The Art of the Outsider147
The Floating Chapter: Continuing171
7Slit Kimono179
8Selling Spring199
The Floating Chapter: Relentless237
The Floating Chapter: Beginning291

Reading Group Guide

I see you changing before my eyes, becoming something so marvelously new that I am enthralled beyond measure. . . . Forgive me for even trying to probe the most deeply scented corners of your soul.

A beautiful young American travels across the world, only to surrender to another culture's macabre nightmares. The Floating World transports us to present-day Tokyo, where avant-garde dancers twist their lives together with renegade geisha, and reality bleeds into fantasy like desire into flesh.

Liza leaves her Ivy-league life behind and escapes to Tokyo, a place where art, politics, and sex seep into each other, and the irradiated ghosts of World War II pulse beneath the neon nightlife. She intends to study butoh, otherwise known as the dance of utter darkness, with master teacher Oshima Kenzo. While working in one of Tokyo's infamous hostess bars, Liza meets the mysterious Maboroshi, leader of the maiko, a group of neophyte geisha whose expression is as violent as the dance of utter darkness itself. Liza's journey culminates in the discovery of the most exclusive restaurant in Japan, where men eat intricate delicacies directly off a naked human body. Descending into this midnight underworld, Liza becomes fragmented, delicate, lost: a stranger in her own skin.

From an exciting new voice in fiction comes a sexy, dark literary debut steeped in the rich customs and rituals of Japan. As tempting and tactile as folds of silk, The Floating World is an evocative novel of the flesh that will seduce readers with its sensuous prose. Like the dance that runs through it, the story is a hypnotic exchange: a movement of back and forth, open and shut, secret andrevealed.

From the Hardcover edition.

1. Why is this novel called The Floating World? In what way is
the notion of "floating" significant here?

2. Is Liza a likable character? What qualities does she exhibit
that you admire? What are her flaws? What do you think her
family life was like?

3. Why does Liza go to Japan? Liza admits that there are "a
couple of teachers in New York I could have studied with."
What is she searching for? Does she find it?

4. How does Liza change during her time in Japan? What is
the evidence that she has changed? How is she different at the
end of the story?

5. Does this novel have to be set in Japan? Could it have
worked if Liza never left Princeton? Where else might the
author have chosen to set this story?

6. Many symbols emerge in this novel. What is the importance
of "water" as a symbol? What about "food"? How does the
author use water and food to convey meaning beyond what is
written on the page? What other symbols do you think are
important in this story? Why?

7. Liza says, "In giving food from my own starved body, I become
more than I had ever been before, more than I could ever
have imagined being." Why has she been so transformed by this
act? What has she become? Liza vows that she will continue to
serve from her body, even if it costs her her sanity or her life.
Why is she willing to risk so much to serve herself up in this way?

8. Why do you think dance is so important to Liza? What is it
about ankoku butoh as a form that is so riveting to her? We are
told that Liza's life hinges on this dance, which is "defined by
what it is not." What does the author mean by that? In what
ways is Liza's life similar to butoh? Can you think of other
things that are "defined by what they are not"?

9. Radiation is a significant theme in this book. In what ways
would you say the people with whom Liza comes into contact
are "radioactive"? Why is the penultimate chapter called "Halflife"?

10. What does Liza get from the maiko? What do they get from

11. Carlo refers to Liza as "Lady Dulcinea." At one point he
tells her, "I am glad you are leaving the ghost of Liza far behind
in your jewel-carpeted travels. When I first met the lovely Liza,
I knew immediately that she was too conflicted and melancholy
to remain consistent for very long." What change has Carlo
identified? Is it a real change? Why does Liza endure the treatment
she gets when she is with Carlo?

12. Are any of Liza's relationships with the male characters in
this novel healthy? Is she capable of love?

13. Maboroshi's name means "illusion." What illusion does
Maboroshi represent? Is Maboroshi a character to be feared,
pitied, or embraced? Why?

14. Another powerful theme throughout this book is anorexia.
Liza says she looked toward the saints as a role model, "for in
them I found a starvation that was a not a dead end but a deathin-
life leading to greater things: a floating, a freeing, a leaving of
the body. And this, I hoped, could allow me untold treasures in
dance and love." Why do you think Liza intentionally chooses to
starve herself? What is she getting out of this deprivation? Can
it be said that anything positive comes out of the experience?

15. Why is the moment that Liza drugs Michael so significant
for her?

16. Is Liza complicit in Kajiwara's death? Why do you think the
maiko attack and kill him? On that final night out with the
maiko, Liza admits, "Endings I can manage. That's all this
place is--a world floating in its own end, suspended in the irredeemably
riveting beauty of its own detonation." What do you
think she means?

17. At the very end of the novel, Liza is in Buenos Aires. Imagine
that you were going to write another chapter to finish this story.
What would happen to Liza? What is she doing in Buenos Aires?
She looks out the window at a fruit hawker and bends to scratch
her knee. What would she do next? Where would she go? Why?

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The Floating World 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Well-ReadNeck on LibraryThing 2 days ago
Universally disliked by book club.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had already read a highly flattering review of The Floating World by Publisher's Weekly when I came across the Kirkus review on this site, and I decided to purchase the book for myself to learn just what had bothered the latter reviewer so much. Instead of a 'pretentious' and 'lurid' novel, I found a richly detailed and fascinating story about a woman's dissolution and recovery in a foreign culture. After being bombarded with so many redundant books on female breakdowns in Western settings, it was a delight to discover a story about a young woman that was intelligently written and drew its readers into a provocative, highly imaginative world. Does it describe disturbing and erotic things in a thoughtful way? Yes. Is it sensationalist and pretentious? No. The only thing that disappointed me somewhat was that Kirkus' book review, in its curious attempt to discredit the novel, had given away essential plot details. A very promising literary debut.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cynthia Gralla has created a realm, not unlike the dream visions of David Lynch, in which the boundaries separating cultures, political views, artists, and lovers, bend and twist until the many themes she explores merge into a beautiful world of intense imagination. Her intelligence, breadth, and skill as a writer show through in this exciting novel. Best recommendation.