Review of Eula Biss’ The Balloonists by Leah Zacate
“What if an entire generation were to reject their central story line?” asks Eula Biss in The Balloonists, a book that is part poetry, part creative essay. Biss draws heavily from her own life in creating this assembly of anecdotes of both her life and her parents’ lives. Her content and the structure of the thematic story come to a head in an attempt to reflect the difficulty of navigating one’s uncertainty. Biss’ articulation of her life is scattered on the page, but intentionally so. She intends the material to feel to the reader as scattered, out of place, disjointed, and disconnected.
Biss breaks apart what seems like a long essay and scatters its pieces throughout the book. It doesn’t read like a normal poetry book, but more of a series of fragmented stories, leaving the reader to yearn for answers and crave a solution to the repeated problems throughout the book. She takes small fractured pieces of memories, observations, and second hand stories and makes them speak to one another—plane crashes, her breaking relationship, and her parents’ divorce. She creates a space for her stories to intertwine and connect on a level that makes sense. Because of its scattered structure, its metaphoric value makes the reader connect with the fact that this story mirrors life’s experiences. Life isn’t easy, it isn’t timed, and it isn’t easily solved. But sometimes it is ironic, and it is painful.
The theme of irony plays a big role within her writing because she subtly allows the reader to find instances of irony within her life and her relationship with her parents. Her mother, a writer, ran away with a man who was a poet. It is shortly referenced within the book, but it is evident why she divorced her father, because he wanted her mother to forget the poet. And yet here Biss is, writing in poetry about how her mother sought someone to love her craft, her artistry, her love for writing, and Biss seems to be following the same path. Irony takes several different storylines by surprise as the reader makes connections with the past and what seems to be the present.
One of the story lines follows her parents. When Biss talks about her parents’ relationship, structurally, it’s fragmented and broken into pieces. Ironically, that was the same when it came to the fundamentals of her parents’ relationship with each other. Her mother, a closeted writer and artist, couldn’t find happiness [or heart] with just being a [stay-at-home] mother to a man that was stern, stubborn, in need, and in love with the idea of having a house wife. Their broken marriage had taken its toll on Biss in a way that made her question everything that came after their divorce. Was every relationship she had with another person going to reflect the same story of her parents? Was she purposefully sabotaging her own relationship, or was her parents’ divorce an excuse for her to flee from connection? These are the questions that she asks herself and a reader might ask themselves when they are engrossed with her raw and unfiltered story about her relationship with relationships.
With Biss’ craft, it is evident that certain words are repeated throughout her book. Words such as “writing, hands, water, pictures, wedding, and marriage.” These words are thematic when it comes to their purpose because in each story thread they have a purpose and a way in connecting the stories when they finally come together at the end. Her last excerpt is as follows.
So many fairy tales have been changed. They have been adapted for movies. The stories have been rewritten so that the woman who steps out of the ocean, perfect and naked, does not slip back into the skin of a seal. Cartoon fairy tales end in a shower of flower petals falling over a wedding as credits begin. They should end with the woman disappearing into the sea.
The excerpt addresses everything her whole book is expressing. The inequivalent ideals and ideas of what love is within our head and within the media; the institution of marriage and where it belongs in a woman’s life; the theme of writing; and the short reference to water. Whether she does this purposefully or not, it shows that life is ironic, scattered, and almost uncontrollable. But the best thing is to find connections in things that seem unconnected, because stories are what we pass down. Stories are what we live through. We can choose not to remember a story, but then it’s not a story, right? Because it wasn’t remembered, and it wasn’t spoken. “Stories are only true if we believe them. Or if we live them. It is unclear where our parents’ stories end and where our stories begin.”
Leah Zacate is a graduate of Bethany Lutheran College where she received her BA in English and Multimedia Writing. She enjoys writing fiction and creative nonfiction. She is also working on creating a database for the Bethany Lutheran Seminary Archives and hopes to attend graduate school for Library Science.