The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst examines the aftermath of Katrina through the life of a family shattered by the event. While reading it, I thought of Kai T. Erikson’s famed “Everything In Its Path” about the Buffalo Creek Flood that destroyed a small community in West Virginia and his research identifying the collective trauma as post-traumatic stress disorder. In a large part, this book is about that collective trauma and its effect on the Boisdoré family.
There are five members of the family we follow. The oldest is the grandfather Vincent who is suffering from dementia. He had been living in a nursing home until evacuated by his son ahead of the flood. He is often living in his childhood. He was a famed cabinet maker from a long line of skilled artisans. Then there is Joe Boisdoré, the father, and his now estranged wife Dr. Tess Eshleman. He is an artist and she is a psychiatrist. They have two daughters, Dolores (Del) and Cora. Cora is deeply depressed. She refused to leave New Orleans during the evacuation and it was three weeks before her family found her. Her family does not know what happened during those three weeks, but they blame each other for allowing it to happen, which is why Tess and Joe have separated. Del had moved to New York and watched the flood on television, but she is no less touched by the trauma of losing home and a solid foundation.
I felt sympathy for each person on their own, but not together. The mother, Tess, is white and so oblivious to privilege. She thinks Joe is a coward because he was turned away by the Blackwater security forces keeping people out. She has no understanding of how privileged her assessment is. His own grandfather was lynched as the adult Vincent surely saw through the lie of his drowning when he grew older and understood the significance of that kerchief around his neck. A guard mock shoots him with a finger-gun, making the point that he could easily kill him with impunity. Joe understands that, but Tess cannot and cannot forgive. Instead, she sees this tragedy as a way to regain the life she wanted when she was in high school, an infantilist regression to an easier life. She even imagines if she had married a white man, she would have easier children. There is so much that appalls me about Tess, even when I feel empathy for her fears about her daughter Cora.
Cora is going through her own hell, deeply traumatized and confused. Del is trying to be supportive and help her but cannot help feeling impatient and sick of it, too. She has her own life to figure out.
The is a lush beauty to the writing in The Floating World which makes me wish I liked it better. I was often struck by beautiful imagery and rich descriptions, but the story itself felt jumbled and chaotic. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice, mental illness is often chaotic and jumbled and navigating through it can make one feel lost and confused. The story jumps from one person to the next, a fairly common narrative technique. However, the transitions are disjointed and disruptive. They seem designed to unsettle the reader more than further the story. These breaks give the story a hallucinatory feeling at times that may be a deliberate effort to evoke the confusion and alienation of trauma, but for me, was simply annoying. Babst is clearly an excellent stylist, I just wish she did not work so hard to confound her readers.
I received an e-galley of The Floating World from the publisher through NetGalley.