The Balloon by Donald Barthelme, 1968

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by Donald Barthelme, 1968

One of the targets in Donald Barthelme's second collection of short stories, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, is society's blind gropings for truth. The author probes the problems, if not the impossibility, of discovering meaning both in the external world and in one's own consciousness. Words, he seems to conclude, are our only connection with the inner and outer worlds, but they are seductive in making us believe we can traverse the gap between question and knowledge. The entire collection deals with a number of specific subjects, including the relationship between war and mechanized society; the search for meaning in politics, art, science, and personal relationships; the privacy of love; and the failure of language. One of Barthelme's richest stories from this volume is "The Balloon." Funny, complex, and replete with verbal and visual acrobatics, it incorporates all but the first of the themes just described.

The plot is simple. A balloon suddenly appears in New York, covering the area from 14th Street to Central Park. Had it a name like "Goodyear," those who saw it could have handled it and thus placed it into perspective—into a category of mind. But because the nameless balloon is merely suspended, for 22 days, it is treated as a situation. Such a state—a state of the unknowable, the unclassifiable, the mysterious—evokes a variety of responses.

For seven or so pages the speaker describes the balloon and the numerous reactions to it. Some people find it fascinating and argue about its meaning. When these intellectual discussions prove unsatisfying some decide to physically enjoy the balloon, and they jump, stroll, race, and bounce on it. Others—and every response is dependent upon one's basic, innate temperament—are timid or hostile; they are frustrated by the balloon. One group performs secret tests to try to make the balloon go away. All, however, "interpret" it according to their own frames of reference, and Barthelme has a heyday tracing the gamut of responses. In the end most people cope with the balloon pragmatically, and it becomes a meeting place. As Barthelme puts it, "marginal intersections offered entrances."

The speaker, however, warns: "Each intersection was crucial, none could be ignored." In other words, for each person his or her own intersection or "reading" was as valid as any other one. Finally "it was suggested" that the virtue of the balloon, given all these intersections, was its "randomness." That is, it offered people any number of possibilities and hence the possibility of the "mislocation of the self," a way of getting out of a rut.

Only later does the speaker explain: "I met you under the balloon, on the occasion of your return from Norway; you asked if it was mine; I said it was … a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation." The speaker, so it would appear, has subsequently removed and stored the balloon, "awaiting some other time of unhappiness, sometime, perhaps, when we are angry with one another."

On close reading and rereading (which most of Barthelme's fictions demand), it becomes clear that from the beginning the balloon—like one's story, or one's words, or one's comprehension of life—has been controlled by the speaker. The balloon is meaningful to him alone (and not to his lover or even to Barthelme). He admits at the start: " I stopped it." He continues: " I asked the engineers to see to it." The reader's pleasure in the story lies in Barthelme's playfulness toward the human need (but frequent failure) to understand signs and in his parody of social science jargon. For instance, with his usual satire on the experts and wordplay on "inflation" he writes: "Now we have had a flood of original ideas in all media, works of singular beauty as well as significant milestones in the history of inflation, but at that present moment, there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there."

Barthelme does something extraordinary here, only suggested in the volume's other excellent stories "Indian Uprising" and "Me and Miss Mandible." Here, in this metafiction—another story about writing stories—he takes Stephen Dedalus's definition of the dramatic artist in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and pushes it as far as he can. Joyce defines the dramatic artist as standing totally aloof from his creation and "paring his finger-nails." Barthelme here writes a story, a "distraction," that really has no need for the reader as interpreter. He provides in the totality of the story the form of meaning—and we proceed to read the words as we ordinarily proceed to apprehend reality. But Barthelme has done this without any fixed, definable material behind his structure. What he illustrates is how form is only form rather than meaning. In other words, the meaning of the balloon is that the balloon has no meaning. It is all air within a structure or a covering.

And yet the deeper irony is that the story ultimately does mean something. As the balloon is to the speaker so is the story to the balloon. Each is another level of metaphor, a description of experience, clarifying the one before. First the balloon is the emblem or externalized symbol of what the speaker—not Barthelme—is feeling, and this is totally personal to the speaker. The narrator gives it only the most general (sexual) significance, and both the reader and Barthelme remain in the dark as to its precise significance. It is the speaker's balloon. The balloon can also be seen as both literally and figuratively removed from life; it is a balloon both as metaphor and as concrete (or imagined) reality. Finally the balloon, like the story, like all words, and like life, expands and connects, and in its state of infinite movement it elicits (or means) as many things as one can attribute to it. It lacks an absolute and fixed meaning as it simultaneously elicits a variety of responses and significations. To paraphrase Barthelme, it offers the possibility and the process of interpretation, where at "any intersection" one can react in any number of ways. The participant—the reader, like the lover-narrator—becomes the ultimate artist or creator, and depending upon his or her system, grid, or frame of reference, constructs, or manipulates, or rejects, or simply plays with whatever responses the balloon elicits. These then inevitably color the reader's experience. We are left with the same internal contradiction about the meaningful/meaningless nature of words, roles, and experience itself.

—Lois Gordon