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Book Review Melissa Farnand

The Balloonists
Eula Biss  
Hanging Loose Press, 2002 ($13)

Mikhail Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, addresses the narrative bridge an author constructs between his or her world and that of the reader.  He asserts that an “unresolved conversation begins to sound in the image itself; the image becomes an open, living, mutual interaction between worlds, points of view, accents […] a continuation of the unresolved argument embedded in it.”  A weighty introduction to Eula Biss’ The Balloonists, no doubt, but entirely justified.  The text explores the intense relationships between the narrator, her mother and father, and her lovers.  It begs the question: how much of our relationships have been informed and affected by our parents, our pasts, and our silent fears of repeating our parents’ pasts?  Narrating personal vignettes, Biss meditates upon the intersecting tensions between marriage and divorce, captivity and freedom, manipulation and happiness, self-sacrifice and creativity.  In a style that subtly reflects Woolf and Chopin, she sketches a brief, but deceptively vivid portrait of herself and her parents, as she searches to find the precarious balance between following one’s bliss and accommodating others’ needs. 

Her mother straddles the line between Victorian feminine stereotypes: the “Angel in the House” and the “Madwoman in the Attic”.  Biss’ narration of her own fears and anxieties reveals the existing tension within her mother; and it is this very friction which provides a point of identification between mother and daughter.  Exploring the relationship between her parents, she draws a parallax (to use her metaphor) to her own life.  Biss uses the concept of a parallax, or “the difference in [the] apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points not on a straight line with the object,” not only to illustrate the nature of human interactions, but also to form her guiding theories of writing and representation.  She directly addresses her mother’s apprehension regarding her portrayal: “My mother is telling me that I am not a liar; but that she is not what I write about her.”  Biss’ literary representation is not her mother, nor is it the image we, as readers, envision.  The gap between the real and these levels of representation form the parallax of the text. 

Biss interrupts her own narration to interject these larger thematic theories and meditations.  This provides an interesting oscillation between her own experiences and a larger, more formulaic approach to narration.  The telescoping from the micro to the macro allows the reader to engage directly with her history, while maintaining a certain amount of intellectual distance (provided by the moments of narrative theorizing).  The effect is that of Bakhtin’s “unresolved conversation,” and “an open, living, mutual interaction between worlds”— those of Biss and the reader.  Even the layout lends itself to this separate-yet-interconnected flow: the broader narrative queries are presented in a larger, italicized font, boxed in and cordoned off (yet connected by a horizontal line that suggests continuity between these moments).  Although kept separate from the detailed vignettes, which compose the remainder of the text, the two elements remain in dialogue.  Biss sonorously twines together both dynamics, a nice complement to her interest in harmony: whether it is through the concept of a sonata she associates with her lover or the tense parallax experiences of mother and daughter.

In a beautiful blending of narrative styles (dialogue, brief anecdotes and narrative theory) Biss navigates her narrative through complex relationships, re-mapping previously charted territory, however, with one important distinction—she offers no set destinations and no pre-drawn conclusions.  Instead, The Balloonists is a continuation of life’s “unresolved arguments”.


Bakhtin, M.M.  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981