A. Nathan West “The Balloon”

2006 Ojiya Balloon Festival (2006年おぢや風船一揆)
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This story reads oddly having just seen Up.  It is about an older man whose wife dies and he slowlys slips into a dementia, or at least his children think so even though his grandson disagrees at first and then blames the siblings for the slips.  The end of the story is shocking as the children take their father into the country, put him into a hot air balloon and then release him.  It is an act that, at first, I read as ultimate kindness.  A granting of the self-effacing wish, but then I reread the passage and it is instead the opposite.  The old man was terrified and the children were selfish.  More importantly, however, is how the grandson feels shame for not refusing to participate in the plan.

I wonder then if Up is not better read as a fanatsy of the main character.  What if instead of the adventure he is instead sitting in his rocker in the nursing home wishing the remainder of the moie is what he shoudl have done instead?

The other striking aspect of this story is the clarity of description West captures for simple events.  The first example is West’s ability to capture the plight of the moody man and also the response from the older confused parent:

‘Good God, you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to, just leave it in the damn corner.  I just bought it because I care about you and I don’t want you to hurt yourself.’  My father was incapable of moderating the rages that could explode from within him – I never once saw him simply angry or annoyed – and he left the room murmuring obscenities, letting George feel selfish for having defended his own dignity, his eyes staring through the room in search of a consoling detail…” (146-7)

I wish there was more time spent on the fetishistic disavowal hinted at by West.  It is precisely this shallowness that makes me wonder about West’s story though.  Even though there are some observations and he explains with such clarity that they become easily recognizable even without a shared experience – “[a]s though to fulfill his duty, George began to display not long afterward the mental defects Melissa and my father had complained of.” (147) – they remain shallow observations.  West does not probe but instead merely blames and accuses.

West is a clear writer but does that make writing quality?  Is writing which is easily digested and clearly reflective like a newly polished mirror the mark of quality.  Or should writing instead inspire and instead of reflect back at us make us want to instead reflect back at it?  I doubt this story prompts people to do that.  Even those of us who may be mean to our parents or who may be witnessing our parents being mean to our grandparents may not see much of ourselves in this story.

West, A. Nathan.  (2006.)  The balloon.  McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, 21, 143-50.

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