‘The Balloon’ by Donald Barthelme

Chosen by Carolina Alvarado Molk
‘The Balloon’ is as understated as a love story can get. A balloon appears one morning, covering miles of the Manhattan skyline, and remains without explanation for twenty-two days. The narrator talks us through the city’s varied reactions to the balloon, its speculation over its purpose, before revealing, in the last paragraph, that the balloon is “a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure,” a response to a lover’s brief absence. The subdued affect of the writing gives way, finally, to the enormity of feeling the balloon represents. I love the element of mystery in this story, the unassuming tone, both the relish and the fear of the balloon. There’s something almost claustrophobic about its descriptions – “There were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there” – that feels just right. Sometimes you miss someone, and the missing them clouds and shades everything.

First published in The New Yorker, April 1966 and available online here. Collected in Sixty Stories, Putnams, 1981
Carolina Alvarado Molk writes essays and short fiction, often about loneliness, motherhood, and immigration. She tweets at @caro_molk

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