A Floating Life by Tad Crawford
Arcade Publishing, 2012
Tad Crawford’s debut novel, A Floating Life, is a scattering of narrative puzzle pieces that fit together unexpectedly. They do not complete a single storyline image, but they are very satisfying to play with and seek points of connection.
An unnamed “everyman” character finds himself in a difficult job interview in an unlikely place. Unaware of his prior interest in the position, the details of his application, or the likely details of the job, he follows a hairy one-eyed man into a steam room to conduct the interview, naked, under the foggy gaze of the company’s head. We learn, along with our man, that he is interviewing to be sous-chef in a mafia-run enterprise, and he realizes he actually wants the job. His lie about cooking on a cruise ship imperils his candidacy, however, as the mafia boss detests water and anything related to it. He departs regretful, accepting the contact details of a friend from the kind-hearted chef.
Next, he finds himself at a party – unsure who the party is for or who he is speaking with. His female companion speaks incessantly about the failure of her marriage and the fact that she’s left a “Dear John” letter for her husband. Our man wants to escape this boring woman, but ultimately only does so when he later finds himself drunkenly vomiting in the host’s bathroom, and being put in a taxi. He returns home to find a “Dear John” letter from his wife. The woman enters the apartment, confirming her identity to both the reader and our man, and she demands a divorce. Our man must move to the guest room, and hide when the wife brings her dates home.
So far, the plot has been sprinkled with oddities in the life of an unreliable narrator. By the time our man goes to meet the one-eyed chef’s “contact” in his magical model boat shop known as The Floating World, unreliability has expanded well beyond our narrator. Many scenes that follow fracture realities further. Dogs talk, dancing bears hibernate in man-made Central Park caves and ascend for a jamboree with formal invitations, and the model boat maker, an elderly Dutchman, Pecheur, hires our man to help research the harnessing of water as a powerful resource against its own destructive nature. Through the relationship with Pecheur, our man becomes interested in historic ships and explorer Cheng Ho, who’d been a captive Mongol eunuch serving the Chinese. Our man questions Cheng Ho’s lack of sexuality and its possible results.
But what of sexual desire? Had that been lost to him irrevocably? Or had Cheng Ho’s sexual pleasure become diffuse, spread over all his skin, into his organs, to his bones? The blind hear with such intensity. Wouldn’t the skin of a eunuch be one hundred times more susceptible to pleasure than it was before the cleaning?
Our man visits doctors to cure his own erectile dysfunction. Oddly, he later awakens aboard a medical ship upon which he has apparently given birth and is breastfeeding his own son. Here it seems he has answered his own question – just as a blind man’s other senses are known to heighten and develop, our man’s inability to express his sexuality seems to have opened the door to the ultimate result of fully functioning sexuality in his sustaining a pregnancy and giving birth.
There are numerous references to the possibility of a man channelling his own sperm inward, his own flow of urine back into his body, fornicating with himself anally… suggestions that an ultimate goal of independence is indeed conceivable – if only for a time – and desirable.
What if I were both man and eunuch… wanting to enter myself, I would be willing to be entered… to experience both the pleasure of receiving and the pleasure of releasing.
The novel ends with a graphic example of our man saving his own life aboard a raft lost at sea, when he slits his wrist and drinks his own blood, slaking a terrible thirst. Our narrator may be unreliable, but he’s certainly resourceful, and he does indeed keep himself afloat.
To try to compare Crawford’s imaginative novel to those of other writers might do them all a disservice. Each vignette is unique. The relationship between Pecheur and our man is certainly reminiscent of Paul Auster’s Moon Palace. So too, the Central Park caves. The fantasy plumbing of depths and instability of the narrative experience is much like Haruki Murakami’s writing in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Even the beginning of the story, triggered by the main character’s failing marriage, is reminiscent of Murakami. The references to ancient Chinese and Japanese history – and more current history in these two cultures also earns Crawford a Murakami-fan’s respect. The many plays of light and dark, wanderings and boat journeys under night skies, add to the dream-state sequences our man seems to take in his stride. The archetypes of myth and Jungian tradition are found throughout. Crawford has also been compared to Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Kafka.
In one short vignette, seemingly unrelated to other scenes, our man finds himself desperate for a men’s room in a large school. Evidently he is being reviewed by a panel. The men’s room, when he finds it, is a large open room with many toilets, all of which has an obese, partially clad woman seated there. The women’s room is the same. He meets a youth and briefly discusses his theory of education – placing value on a learner-centric model and creativity – which the youth advises our man not to mention to the review panel. Our man ignores the warning and is slated by the strictly practical panel. The youth then helps our man find a toilet in the terrible school – laughing at the possibility that he may get caught, as has happened in the past.
I ran away. First they expelled me for poor attendance. Then when months went by and I didn’t show up, people got really upset.
It might be argued that this one ironic scene is Crawford’s direct message to any critics who’d accuse his narrative of being too unwieldy to serve the purpose of the novel. Indeed Publishers Weekly found the novel disjointed. Kirkus and Booklist, though, were considerably more open-minded — just what our man, the talking dogs and bears and elderly soldiers and magical light-bearing women and Tad Crawford might request.