The Floating World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Floating World is Cynthia Kadohata’s first novel. It details the impressions of its narrator and central character, Olivia Ann, as she travels by car with her Japanese American family in the Far West, settles with them in Gibson, Arkansas, and strikes off on her own in Los Angeles. The mostly episodic plot is organized around these three phases in the narrator’s growth from childhood to young womanhood.

The floating world, or ukiyo, refers to the unsettled life that Olivia’s family leads until they settle in Arkansas, to the “fears, resentments, necessities” that unite them, and to Olivia’s crucial experiences as she matures, including her relationship with her grandmother, Obasan (Hisac Fujutano).

Olivia’s family history is a record of displacement. Her great-grandparents moved from Japan to the United States, and her grandparents to Hawaii. Also, her grandmother Obasan had three husbands (as well as seven lovers), and her mother Mariko, to some extent, is similar to her. Mariko has an affair with a married man, “Jack,” by whom she becomes pregnant with Olivia. Shortly before Olivia is born, Obasan arranges Mariko’s marriage to Charlie-O (the “0” stands for Osaka), but after that, Mariko has an affair in Oregon with Taro Nagasaki, or “Shane,” as he is called.

Charlie-O is as unlucky in work as he is in marriage; he must move from job to job, taking his family (which includes Obasan and Olivia’s three younger brothers) from house to house, motel to motel. Not until Olivia is twelve, and after Obasan has died, does Charlie-O manage to settle the family in Gibson, Arkansas, where he has become part owner of a garage.

The character who has the most influence on Olivia is Obasan. They are enemies, perhaps because they are so alike. Olivia is willful, and her grandmother irascible. Obasan picks on Olivia at every turn, pinching her wrist or boxing her ears. At times, Olivia defies her. On one occasion, for example, Obasan, who always seems to have money in her “magic purse,” buys apples from a farmer, and Olivia, against her grandmother’s orders, starts to eat one. She locks Obasan out of the house in which the family is staying and continues to eat, ignoring the old woman’s plea to let her in. Obasan hits her for this later, but the following night, during one of the drives on which her grandmother sometimes takes her, Olivia is approached by a stranger while Obasan is urinating in the bushes. Olivia is convinced later that the stranger, who owns a nearby farm, would have killed her had Obasan not returned in time to drive him off.

Obasan is protective of her family when the need arises—thus helping to keep it together—and generous to Olivia when the whim strikes her. All in all, however, Olivia’s dislike of her is such that when she sees Obasan dying on the floor of a motel bathroom, she fails to rouse her parents. The guilt she feels for letting Obasan die is one of the reasons that she remains tied to her afterward.

Olivia’s mother gives her a strand of Obasan’s hair for a keepsake. Olivia also has access to Obasan’s diaries, which she consults to learn about sex and to discover how her grandmother viewed life. In the house in Arkansas, a photograph of Obasan in her twenties is hung on the livingroom wall; it is Olivia’s job to put fresh water and a fresh rice ball in front of this shrine each day, which keeps Obasan alive in her thoughts. When Shane, Olivia’s mother’s former lover, visits, Olivia, seeing her mother’s hands shake, detects her grandmother’s “soul” in the family.

Obasan was a tyrant,...

(The entire section is 1498 words.)