Then, of course, there was “The Balloon,” one of Barthelme’s most reprinted and celebrated stories, which assembles roughly five pages of public commentary on the appearance of a non-specifically described balloon that appears above Manhattan’s 14th Street (“the exact location of which I cannot reveal”) and “expanded northward.” And while the balloon elicits much “public con artiest op dating websites warmth” from “ordinary citizens,” the critical reaction bristles with complications:
The meaninglessness of personal life extends everywhere-into ilies, careers, cities, politics, and even the sky-across which Barthelme’s balloon-image of everythingness soars free from everything except human interpretation. His characters go looking to meet women at Manhattan loft parties where they encounter King Kong being groomed by his girlfriend, Cynthia Garmonsway. (“Cynthia formerly believed in the ‘enormous diversity of things’; now she believes in Kong.”)
And they often find themselves losing ground in systems of relationships that seem like surreal versions of musical chairs-every time the music stops, there are either fewer chairs or fewer players
In “City Life,” he charts the multitudinous relationships that come spinning out of Elsa and Ramona’s arrival to “the complicated city,” which involves their potential partners Jacques and Charles, a fireman named Vercingetorix, and a blues singer named Moonbelly, who achieves some commercial success with his hit record, “Cities Are Centers of Copulation.” When Ramona gives birth to a boy, she avoids the problem of assigning paternity by claiming it’s just “an ordinary virgin birth.” And yet however much Ramona tries to “soft-pedal” the idea, people “persisted in getting excited about it.” In Barthelme’s stories, love isn’t an act between two people; it’s a sort of sociopolitical riot.