The Floating World by Cynthia Kadohata Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Floating World is Kadohata’s remarkable first novel that was greeted with great critical acclaim and found a substantial readership. Many of the individual chapters are based on short stories Kadohata had published in The New Yorker, among others. This gives the novel its episodic flair that perfectly reflects the prevailing theme of an insubstantial, transient world only loosely connected to the family of the protagonist who traverses it almost like in a dream.

The Floating World is told from the perspective of Olivia Ann, a young Japanese American woman who is twelve at the beginning of the novel. She is traveling along the West Coast with her family, three generations contained in one of the big cars put out by Detroit in the early 1950’s. She sits in the back with her three brothers, while her mother and stepfather each inhabit a world of their own even though they are sitting up front in physical proximity. Olivia Ann’s grandmother, always referred to by her most formal Japanese name of Obasan, is both an anchor and a point of vexation for her grandchildren. While Obasan smokes, has a biting tongue, and pinches or boxes the ears of the misbehaving children, she is also ready to defend them with her life when outsiders appear threatening.

The outside world of rural, small-town America with its motels, gas stations, fast-food diners, and endless highways appears indeed to float by the family traveling through it. There is a poignant irony in the book’s title, for as Olivia explains, The...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

The Floating World Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Floating World deals with the theme of identity at two levels. The narrator, Olivia Osaka, a girl of twelve at the beginning of this episodic novel, is like all adolescents trying to understand the world around her. In her case, the problems normally associated with growing up are further complicated by the fact that her parents are of Japanese origin. Thus Olivia has to find her place not just as an adult but as an American of Japanese descent.

The experiences recounted by Olivia take place in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The internment camps for the Japanese Americans had been disbanded soon after World War II, but the effects of their dislocation were still discernible. The title of the novel comes from the Japanese word ukiyo—the floating world—the world of gas station attendants, restaurants, and temporary jobs encountered by the Osaka family. Charles Osaka is constantly on the move with his wife and four children—Olivia and three sons—to seek better opportunities.

Olivia discovers that Charlie is not her biological father and that her charming, graceful mother still mourns the loss of her first love. Olivia is baffled by her mother’s unhappiness, for she cannot understand why the love of a decent man like Charlie is not enough for her mother. Like all children in families with marital tensions, Olivia wonders if she and her brothers are responsible for the unhappiness of their parents.

Obasan,...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

The Floating World Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Olivia Ann’s unusual 1950’s adolescence is one without a permanent address; she lives in a series of motel rooms and rented houses as her father moves from job to job. Her family consists of parents, a cranky grandmother, and three younger brothers. With the exception of intermittent marital problems between her parents, the family unit offers her a stable and loving environment in an otherwise “floating” world. Obasan, her feisty grandmother, taunts and harasses her but also protects and loves her in a hardened and unorthodox way. Her younger brothers are her best friends and allies, playmates who find the constant moves an opportunity for playing games and exploring new sights.

Morning hikes and afternoon drives with Obasan are the children’s routine. They encounter a threatening man at a gas station, buy apples from a field worker, and play tag outside their motel room. To avoid her grandmother’s taunts and pinches, Olivia Ann locks herself in a bathroom at one point, and her grandmother tries to bribe her to come out. After Olivia finds Obasan dead on the bathroom floor, and the family brings her body to Wilcox, California, to be buried next to her third husband, they then head south for Los Angeles. An accident in which a bus hits a car acquaints them with death for the second time in the same trip.

Flashbacks illuminate the characters, revealing how the three older children live with Isamu and bond in both serious and humorous ways, how Olivia gains respect for Obasan despite the pain Obasan causes her, and how she comes to develop a close relationship with Charlie-O, her stepfather. A frustrating detour to try to locate the “second father” of Olivia Ann’s mother leads to aborted petty thievery on Olivia Ann’s part. Later, she vows to try to be good “for a whole week.”

In Gibson, Arkansas, the family rents a house and enjoys their...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

The Floating World Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Olivia Ann Osaka, or Livvie, says that she did not like her maternal grandmother, Hisae Fujiitano, who had died in a motel bathroom when Livvie was twelve years old. While remembering her grandmother’s life, Livvie also reflects on how the names in her own family reflect assimilation in the United States through the generations. When her grandmother had emigrated from Japan to America, her father had chosen a new last name—Fujiitano—for good luck. During World War II, all the children got American first names in addition to their Japanese ones. Livvie’s mother’s name, Mariko, for example, was changed to Laura. Livvie herself does not have a Japanese first name, but she always uses the formal Japanese term obsan (“grandmother”) when referring to the formidable old woman tormenting her, even after death.

Obsan uses the term ukiyo, Japanese for “floating world,” when referring to the world of Livvie and her parents and three younger brothers. Originally, the term had applied to the pleasure quarters of old Japanese cities. For Livvie, the floating world means life on the road in the Western United States, as her family travels from menial job to menial job in many small towns, and the highway is her constant companion. Livvie believes that her family is steady, and the world floats around them.

Livvie has an ambiguous relationship with Obsan. The seventy-six-year-old, cigar-smoking woman had had three husbands and seven lovers; the last one died just three years ago. Obsan requires chores of Livvie and boxes her ears if she is slow at those chores, but when a strange man threatens Livvie in a town, Obsan chases him off with a stick that is so hard, her palm gets bruised, showing her love for Livvie.

Livvie is out in the field with her eight-year-old brother, Ben, the outgoing one, and her six-year-old brother, Walker, the silent one, all accompanied by Obsan; two-year-old Peter stays at home. The grandmother scolds the kids for being bullied into buying apples from a white farmer. She also pinches Livvie’s wrist.

Later at night, Livvie discovers her grandmother huddled on the bathroom floor of the motel room where the family is staying. Obsan repeatedly pleads with Livvie to get her mother. Livvie knows her grandmother is dying, but she ignores her pleas and goes back to sleep. In the morning, Obsan is dead, and Livvie feels guilty. None of the four grandchildren...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)