The Balloon by Donald Barthelme, 1966
The magic trick:
Dramatically shifting the story’s central symbol’s meaning in the final paragraph
A weekend double for you from Donald Barthelme, and both stories are about balloons.
Of course they are.
“The Balloon” maybe predates Barthelme’s “I Bought A Little City” with our narrator’s tendency to play god. It also maybe predates “The School” in the way its meaning pivots toward the personal suddenly in the last paragraph.
After five pages of metaphor and symbolism, things change very quickly. Actually, I should say they continue along the metaphorical and symbolic route in the final paragraph. It’s just that those metaphors take on a new meaning when we learn that this balloon project was never the narrator’s top priority but instead only a stopgap while waiting for a loved one’s return.
And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.
People began, in a curious way, to locate themselves in relation to aspects of the balloon: “I’ll be at that place where it dips down into Forty-seventh Street almost to the sidewalk, near the Alamo Chile House,” or, “Why don’t we go stand on top, and take the air, and maybe walk about a bit, where it forms a tight, curving line with the façade of the Gallery of Modern Art –”
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