THE FLOATING WORLD
We often imagine the narrative of storms like Hurricane Katrina as a single catastrophic event. Perhaps it is true that there is more to examine in the aftermath, the haphazard way tragedy rearranges us. Sometimes the story buried in the detritus reveals the damage that happened long before we knew what to call it.
C. Morgan Babst’s The Floating World unflinchingly examines the wreckage of one New Orleans family’s life in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This visceral debut also pays close attention to the personal depressions that sent the Boisdoré family into a spiral. At first glance, the story is preoccupied with the fate of Cora Boisdoré, who chose not to heed the city’s mandatory evacuation. Cora’s parents, Tess and Joe, are trying to help their adult daughter through a trauma she cannot name while navigating their damaged marriage as they walk around the magnolia tree lodged in the kitchen of their home. Each Boisdoré must decide which familial relationships to salvage from the rubble and which to surrender to the preexisting rot. The family’s struggles become a metaphor for their beloved city.
Perhaps the most unexpected jewel in
The Floating World was the author’s compassionate depiction of mental illness. Cora represents the eye in the storm her family endures after Katrina; we first encounter her nearly catatonic, with her parents and sister circling her with worry. Her depression and post-traumatic stress disorder make her the quietest character in the book. Despite her relative silence, Cora is the one who speaks the loudest about the courage it takes to seize your autonomy with mental illness. The Floating World offers frighteningly real answers to questions people seldom think to ask: What happens if you have a mental-health crisis in the middle of a natural disaster?
More than just an account of an embattled family facing a storm, The Floating World shows us New Orleans beyond the magic of Mardi Gras. It is not the grotesque “N’awlins” of tourists’ construction. In Babst’s hands, the Big Easy is a three-dimensional character in its own right whose natives sometimes navigate race, class, and history with difficulty. Through the affluent Boisdorés, we see the various wards of New Orleans in heartbreaking contrast: the wealthy ones on higher ground and the poor ones submerged beneath 10 feet of water. It’s clear why certain neighborhoods filled with Black and Brown people bore the brunt of Katrina’s wrath. And in the novel’s final pages, Babst gives us a glimpse of the growing New Orleanian diaspora who stay away because they have nothing left to rebuild.
The novel’s description of post-landfall New Orleans is intimate and precise without veering into trauma porn. The Floating World aches with loss as it depicts the “bathtub ring around the city” that Hurricane Katrina left behind. Like New Orleans, the story is not easy to digest, but nothing so beautifully complicated should be. The city sits ever dignified and asks that you sit with it without turning away from the muddy parts. Sometimes, as Babst deftly reveals, a storm merely exploits the fragility that already existed in the infrastructure of a city, of a marriage, of a family, of a mind.
The Floating World aches with loss as it depicts the “bathtub ring around the city” that Hurricane Katrina left behind.