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 Floating World refers to the Japanese term of ukiyo. This can mean the traditional pleasure quarters of Japanese cities with their licensed brothels, teahouses, and theaters, and is also the Buddhist term for the transient world inhabited by humanity in which life is as evanescent as a cherry blossom and full of change and impermanence. In Kadohata’s novel, the United States itself has become a floating world through which Olivia’s family glides in their illusionary quest to put down some roots as strong as their own family bonds.
Even though Obasan dies after the first few chapters of the novel, her presence is felt strongly throughout the narrative. For instance, once Olivia’s parents have settled in rural Arkansas among a local Japanese American community, working as chicken sexers, Obasan’s diary provides Olivia with useful guidance for exploring her own developing sexuality.
Readers have been fascinated by Kadohata’s deadpan description of the arcane world of the Japanese American chicken sexers working in Arkansas hatcheries. As these hatcheries are interested only in raising egg-laying hens, the ability to determine the gender of a newborn chicken cuts costs, as male chicks are drowned immediately rather than fed even one further day in a life considered worthless. Conditions at the hatcheries are clearly exploitative, but the Japanese American experts take a near unbelievable pride in speed and accuracy of their backbreaking job.
Olivia’s first boyfriend, who deflowers her, is a young chicken sexer, but she leaves him behind as she moves to Los Angeles in her later teenage years. Alone in the metropolis, Olivia appears to have moved into just another room of her floating world. Working in a lamp shop and saving her salary to buy one of the more expensive lamps for her own flat, she acquires a Chinese American gangster boyfriend who wrecks cars for insurance fraud purposes for a living. By the novel’s end, Olivia’s future appears as open ended as the backcountry roads she is traveling, servicing a chain of candy vending machines. It is here that her biological father appears to her as a ghost, before her real stepfather meets up with her, providing some sense of closure to the first part of Olivia’s peripatetic life.
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...
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