A Floating Life

“At one point, curious about Pecheur’s name for the shop, I discovered that the floating world was about far more than illicit pleasure. Called ukiyo in Japanese, it grew out of the Buddhist concept of a world filled with pain and came to mean the transient and unreliable nature of our world, how fleetingly it floats in the illusion of time.”

I come to the conclusion of A Floating Life with the same emotions I do when I end a work of Haruki Murakami’s: awe mingled with confusion. I am filled with images I long to sort, to grapple into some kind of meaning.

Tad Crawford has filled his novel with bizarre events, opening with our unnamed protagonist interviewing for a sous-chef position with a one-eyed man. He then goes to a party where a woman he doesn’t know tells him how she wrote a letter trying to explain why the relationship she had with her man was no longer working. Is what she wants impossible? Who can say? But, when he gets home he finds a letter from his wife on his dining table. In it she explains she’s leaving him.

The chef has left him with the address of a man he should see, a man named Pecheur who builds models of ships. The scene of his shop is the most fabulous imagery in the book to me. Along his walls are vessels such as “barks, windjammers, frigates, junks, brigantines, catamarans, dhows, galleons, schooners, prams, ketches, and more.”

Pecheur asks, in answer to the question how much the models cost, “Which of the ships excites you the most? Which ship could carry you across the boundaries of the known world and take you to foreign lands? What adventures might you have in those latitudes and longitudes?”

I don’t know,” I said to him at last.

I’m not surprised,” he said, coming to join me again. “After all, what is the source of attraction? Isn’t it concealed within us waiting for the moment of its discovery? You can look at boats, but understanding what makes you desire one thing or another is more elusive.”

And from here the adventures our nameless character undergoes are more unusual. He meets bears in Central Park who elaborate on how they hibernate in caves all winter, going so far as to take him to one. He looks for an apartment where he must choose between different shaped designs; does he want to start with a simple triangle? Or, perhaps he can move up to a trapezoid connected to a rhombus. He finds himself in a cage with gold bars, valuable bars of real gold, which is perhaps the home we all live in. A home of great cost, with great barriers.

If a person is indeed defined by their surroundings, what can this mean for those who have chosen to live in a circle? Or, a cave? Or, even within a vessel which floats on water…

I am interested by the very brief connections to the Bible. The first, of course, is the name of Pecheur which can mean both sinner and fisherman. The second is when a baby of three months is drawn from the water by a group of women, clearly in reference to Moses (Exodus 2: 1-10). Then, there is a reference to Jesus who orders the waves to be calm. Near the end of the novel we read one sentence where it is suggested one of the characters could have been named Jonah. But the connection which is most interesting of all, to me, is that of Moses.

One of Moses’ most significant sayings, to me, is “I have become an alien in a foreign land.” (Exodus 18:3) I find this to be in tandem with A Floating Life. What can we call home? Where are we safe? How do we define ourselves within our surroundings? Perhaps we are all following our pleasures, “floating first with one desire, then with another”, until hopefully we arrive safely at our destinations.

I loved this novel through which, I suspect, I will discover more meaning in each rereading.