Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In writing “The Balloon,” Barthelme intended that readers not familiar with metafiction would duplicate the confusion of the citizens when they first encounter the balloon. Conventional fiction usually relies on a sequence of episodes, sustained by cause and effect, that lead through a series of complications, culminating in a climactic event and resolution of the action. Barthelme deliberately dispenses with these devices to subvert a reader’s expectations. In his minimalist approach, he uses a truncated narrative that presents only the essentials of the story with very little comment on the action by the author. By foregrounding the form of the story, he develops a metaphor, a critique of how to read, challenging common assumptions about what constitutes a story.

His style is playful; his plots turn more on chance than design. Details accumulate arbitrarily, composed of what Barthelme has called “drek,” the leftover tidbits that litter contemporary life. In an interview with critic Joe David Bellamy, Barthelme states that in using drek he creates a collage that combines unlike things to make a new reality. This collage effect in “The Balloon” is constructed from surface details, advertising slogans, political jargon, and common elliptical phrases, all enhanced with irony. The implausible—the appearance of a huge mysterious balloon in the heart of New York City—is depicted with a calm, detached, matter-of-fact tone that belies the fantastic nature of the event. This ironic treatment of an unrealistic event in a realistic manner underscores Barthelme’s attempt to reinvigorate worn-out fictional forms and hackneyed language. By exposing the profound ordinariness of life, Barthelme offers imaginative transcendence through his faith in the creative process of art.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Klinkowitz, Jerome. Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme’s Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Olsen, Lance, ed. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11 (Summer, 1991).

Patteson, Richard F., ed. Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

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Stengel, Wayne B. The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Trachtenberg, Stanley. Understanding Donald Barthelme. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Waxman, Robert. “Apollo and Dionysus: Donald Barthelme’s Dance of Life.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Spring, 1996): 229-243.