Donald Barthelme fans experience infrequent hopes of a new resurgence of popular appreciation for the man, usually precipitated by other authors claiming his brilliance, originality, eccentricity and mastery. He will always, thankfully, be an enigma. There is probably no other author who was so prolific, ubiquitous: he was a regular New York Times contributor, three collected works (60 stories, 40 stories and Flying to America: 45 stories), four novels, a children’s book and various non-fiction publications; but still he is so markedly concealed from a general readership.
It’s not too difficult to understand though. His work is impossible to embody in one work. So many different Barthelme’s are writing that nobody knows which the real one is. That is disconcerting for many readers, they feel uneasy. Read The School and think, ‘ah this is Barthelme’ – but then you see a different author walk through the doors of your imagination when you read The Mechanical Age, Indian Uprising or The Balloon. It’s like getting friendly with someone and then every time you arrange to meet a complete stranger sits down opposite you. This is why I think Barthelme is so popular with other writers but largely ignored by a more general readership outside of America (where he is more popular, though still not as recognised as you might think).
Authors that have famously proclaimed his genius in the past have been Thomas Pynchon in his ‘Barthelmismo’ essay, his own attempt to bring Barthelme to a wider audience. George Saunders also recently highlighted the incredible workings of the authors thought process when writing ‘The School’ in his essay The Perfect Gerbil: Reading Barthelme’s The School collected in The Braindead Megaphone. Both place Barthelme firmly on a pedestal that only he could stand on, with a base big enough only for him, rungs customised for his eccentricity, a swivel function operable only by his magic hands.
But onto the story itself: The Balloon
To begin with there is no placement, we are not given any history of where the balloon came from, why it is there, if it served any civic function; all we know is that a large balloon is expanding across Manhattan: ‘The balloon, beginning at a point on Fourteenth Street, the exact location of which I cannot reveal, expanded northward all one night, while people were sleeping, until it reached the Park.’
The narrator is not a passive observer. We learn early on he is involved in its inception, as he instructs engineers to ‘see to it’ that the balloon is restricted to expand outward but not upward. It is inevitable that the reader/writer mind, fed so frequently on the proteins of symbol, meaning and pathetic fallacies, starts to wonder what ‘the balloon represents, what does it symbolise, what does it mean?’ It is a simple, contextually impotent but reasonable question. Barthelme even teases the question out:
‘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 moment, there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there.’
It is a key phrase there – ‘there was only this balloon’, and if I were delving into the realm of meaning I could probably sum the story up there, express that people are prone to think up ‘works of singular beauty… significant milestones’, when really there is nothing there at all, just ‘this balloon.’ But that is not really the point. And Barthelme lets us know in the very next paragraph that it would be useless to try and find meaning in the balloon:
‘There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the "meaning" of the balloon; this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena.’
So we can relax. There is no meaning. We can comfortably read without wondering what this balloon means. It doesn’t matter. For some, for the sort of readers and writers that cannot accept a work of art without the undercurrent of saying something else, a surface without a gaping hole that leads to infinite passages into infinite theories into infinite confusions, they will feel much as some of the residents felt: ‘the apparent purposelessness of the balloon was vexing (as was the fact that it was "there" at all).’ That it is "there" at all is what I enjoy most about this story. The balloons apparent purposelessness is enough to ignite myriad reasons for it to be there in the first place. It induces ‘ideas of "bloat" and "float" in the closing paragraph, it forces its Manhattan residents to understand it, some thought ‘what was important was what you felt when you stood under the balloon’, others, its detractors, claimed they felt ‘constrained, a "heavy" feeling.’
‘There was pleasure in being able to run down an incline, then up the opposing slope, both gently graded, or in making a leap from one side to the other.’
That is my closing quote. That is how I read Barthelme, without inhibition, without having to understand every word but simply leaping from one to the next, running down the incline of his pages – not wanting to understand, finding in him what Francis Bacon saw in his own work ‘sensation without the boredom of conveyance.’ You won’t be bored.
Listen to Donald Antrim read Don B.'s ''I bought a little city'' on the New Yorker Podcast here.