A Debut Novelist’s Elegy for Post-Katrina New Orleans
THE FLOATING WORLD
By C. Morgan Babst
370 pp. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. $26.95.
Following a grim hurricane season, C. Morgan Babst’s powerful debut novel, “The Floating World,” revives our memory of what seemed at the time like the mother of all storms.
The novel follows the members of a New Orleans family immediately after Hurricane Katrina, alternating among their perspectives. There is Tess, a white doctor who comes from money, and her husband, Joe, a Creole artist. They have two grown daughters, the distressed Cora and the willful Del. Cora is the only one to stay for the storm; Del is away in New York and the others evacuate. Though Tess will eventually come to her daughter’s aid, and Del will return, Cora sees something in the 25 days she’s without her family that leaves her even more frazzled than before.
Unlike Jesmyn Ward’s powerful Katrina novel, the National Book Award-winning “Salvage the Bones,” most of this story takes place after landfall. And with visions of the storm sneaking into even the most discordant scenes, inescapable loss permeates each page. At one point, the perfection of a Tollhouse cookie in the imperfect city brings tears to Tess’s eyes. At another, Del gets a “feeling in her chest like water straining against a door” when her friend-turned-lover says I love you. Sometimes — especially in Tess’s, Del’s and Joe’s sections — the sense of loss becomes almost oppressive. In reality the storm’s impact was unrelenting, no doubt, but Babst is most effective at conveying the emotional weight of the tragedy when she presents it alongside vibrant characters and story lines.
One of the most vibrant is the family patriarch, Vincent, whom Babst brings to life in a portrayal that’s impressively unrestrained, even Faulknerian. Because of his memory limitations, we see his whole life stream forward as if in the present tense, outside of the storm’s temporal confines. We taste the stuffed crab and pocket pies he ate on a street the city has since replaced with an interstate he doesn’t remember. We feel the comfort of his mother’s rocking chair, the relief of his dog come back to assure him everything will be O.K.
Babst also shines in her depiction of Cora. The book’s short middle section ingeniously tracks back to before the storm, and Cora glimmers on the page: a fragile, naïve yet thoughtful woman reminiscent of Laura in “The Glass Menagerie.”
Any novel of the South has to grapple with race at least implicitly, and “The Floating World” doesn’t shy from the subject. Cora is romantically involved with Troy, an African-American restaurant worker whose sister, Reyna, is mentally ill. Though Joe identifies as Creole, and Cora and Del are biracial, they are economically privileged. So it was wise on Babst’s part to introduce the poorer Troy and Reyna to a book about Katrina — a storm that touched so many poor African-American lives, after all. Unfortunately, Reyna rarely rises above stereotype, either sentimentalized by Cora or demonized by Troy. And her fate is too often and too superficially linked to Cora’s story, without recognizing her independent significance as a mother of two, or just as a complex character. She feels like a missed opportunity to pay authentic attention to the plight of the people who arguably saw the worst of the storm.