Sunday, February 17, 2013

Enemies of the Balloon


I read Donald Barthelme's "The Balloon" aloud to my class last Monday, part of an ongoing thing I'm doing to figure out how great short stories work and feel when they escape your brain and go out into the atmosphere.  In a compressed yet voluminous manner, Barthelme's tale builds not through scene or character but pure rhetoric, as if the story is a speech at some dreamworld political convention.  It's absurd but grounded in a space inside your mind where all the bull-shit of being an upstanding citizen in an overly informed republic lingers and sprouts into narrative/non-narrative, a story that moves forward without moving.  As I read it I felt the students get a little unnerved, but then the whole room began to understand:  it's a joke.  But right when the joke gets good, the joke transforms into a proverb.  The titular balloon gathers meaning and blankness simultaneously.  It is a potent symbol and a huge piece of crap filling our lives with mystery and boredom.  Nothingness becomes the engine by the end.  But the final words let you know there is no ending really:

It was also argued that what was important was what you felt when you stood under the balloon; some people claimed that they felt sheltered, warmed, as never before, while enemies of the balloon felt, or reported feeling, constrained, a 'heavy' feeling.