The Influence

Every time musician Ben Lee revisits Donald Barthelme’s short story ‘The Balloon’, it reminds him what art is for. By Kate Holden.

Ben Lee

American author Donald Barthelme at his New York home in 1964, and Ben Lee (below).
American author Donald Barthelme at his New York home in 1964, and Ben Lee (below).
Credit: Ben Martin / Getty Images (above), and Byron Spencer (below)

Ben Lee has been making and releasing music for nearly 30 years. He began at age 14 with his band Noise Addict, and later built a robust solo career. Eleven albums later – and after many years of living in America – he returned to Sydney, and his new album, I’m Fun!, is on tour at the moment. Among his best-known hits are “Cigarettes Will Kill You” and “We’re All in This Together”. He’s regularly successful at the ARIA Music Awards, the Triple J Hottest 100 and the AIR Awards. He also starred in the 2003 Australian film The Rage in Placid Lake alongside Rose Byrne and Garry McDonald.

He chose to speak about “The Balloon”, a 1968 short story by American writer Donald Barthelme, in which a giant balloon mysteriously covers many blocks of Manhattan.

Tell me about choosing this influence. Not a musical work or a performance, but a short story? How do you know this one?

I went to university for two weeks – it didn’t take. But two things happened simultaneously. I was given the short story “The Balloon” in a writing class. It blew my mind, and I had no context for it. Then I asked a friend in New York who has really good taste and he said, “Oh, here’s the king”, and he gave me one of Barthelme’s books that had that story in it, called Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. Is that not the best title ever for a book of short stories?

I’ve literally met only a handful of people who’ve come across Barthelme. I’m not sure why. There’s a postmodernism in his approach that’s deconstructing the very act of reading as you’re reading him, and there’s something about that that’s supremely uncomfortable. That might be why he doesn’t have broader appeal.

I reference him a lot. In my song “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” I have this lyric: “It gets harder, dead father”. I changed it to “my father” – my dad had died and I’d read a book by Barthelme called The Dead Father. It’s about these 40 brothers who have to carry their father, who’s a mile long, through the desert, and it’s about their co-ordinated attempt to drag the dead father. The psychological symbolism of this story is so good!

What did you think of “The Balloon”?

There was a sense of a competent, deliberate composition, but also a kind of wonky, mischievous fantasy. It’s a solemn discussion of analytics, then, at the end, a sudden love story. Extraordinary.

It’s so moving. I think partly why it has stayed with me is because I don’t understand why it’s moved me so much. Donald Barthelme is one of the few writers who writes philosophy in this moving way. For him ideas are sensual and sexy and emotive. I don’t think there’s an answer to what he’s trying to say in many stories. I remember in high school when we read Jane Eyre or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “What are the themes? What does it mean when he releases a dove?” As if symbolism is a poetic device employed by the conscious mind. Whereas someone like Barthelme allows his symbolism to spring forth from the unconscious mind: you feel he’s having something revealed to him as he’s writing, too. You might say he’s a magic realist, or someone like Richard Brautigan: there’s almost a psychedelic approach to things. It’s not hippie writing, but it appeals to that same idea of “let’s bend your mind and see what happens”. The rules of the world can change from one sentence to the next. Which is a lot like a pop song.

And there really is no one answer to what the balloon is. I’ve thought of the balloon as: it’s God; it’s capitalism; it’s revelation of some kind; it’s the unexpected nature of life; it’s art; everything that you have to grapple with. You realise how everyone in the story is struggling to interpret the balloon, which is the story itself. There’s a refusal to decide, but there’s also an honouring of the different interpretations. As a performer, that’s something you can get caught in – allowing the audience to actually have their interpretations is hard. I think that’s why Bob Dylan occupies the space he does in our culture. He refused to explain himself. He crafted these mazes and just said, “Walk through them”.

Barthelme has an essay called “Not-Knowing”, about something similar to the negative capability that Keats conceived. He writes about recognising that solutions can be offered, but he insists that we respect the mystery.

To be an artist who creates puzzles for people, not in a way designed to torture them but as a gift... Our lives have become so effective, so convenient and so organised: what role does abstraction play? But in order for an artist to develop the capacity to gift their audience that abstraction they have to be able to tolerate the anxiety of the abstraction itself, too. That’s why we look up to authors like Donald Barthelme, because we know that while they don’t have answers, they have made themselves at home in a space that is not easy to be in. They’ve developed altitude training. They’ve gone further up into the mystery and it’s further into the not-knowing.

With songwriting or making records I now know enough – I don’t mean just tricks, I mean craft – I know enough craft to approximate magic. But it doesn’t make it magic. You can make the thing seem like a thing that brings you to your knees, but that doesn’t mean it actually brought you to your knees. Increasingly – with 30 years of making things behind me – I crave genuinely being brought to my knees in the act of creation, genuinely not knowing where something’s going to go. I think of that Laurence Olivier thing, saying, “Lord, grant me the power to surprise myself” before he walked onstage.

Do you have a lot of chats about mid-century American literature and mystery? I’m enjoying this.

I think talking about art and ideas is – well, it’s like the balloon. It gives you a lens to talk about anything. Art is a beautiful place to express what our values are. On my new album there’s a song called “Like This or Like That”, and it starts with all the binary choices in art: are you a Beatles or a Stones fan? Nirvana or Pearl Jam? And how it seems silly. But it’s also not silly, because in some ways we express our most profound values in the way we love, and the way we hate, art. Some people say, “Oh my god, they’re both brilliant, why can’t we just appreciate both?” My answer is that we were never talking about the Beatles and the Stones, we were talking about you and me. And I don’t want to ever end that conversation. How much have we talked about in this conversation today, just by discussing a short story? It’s a jump-off point into eternity. So it’s the best stuff to talk about.

We’re all fans. There’s no way you become a musician or a writer without being profoundly moved as a fan. I love when you hear someone you admire speaking about what they admire – it reminds you how unending the reaching is. I hear a Leonard Cohen song and hear him touching places I’ll never be able to go, he has special access to special places, as we all do. And then you know that for him there are artists who could go places he couldn’t go. It’s part of all being interconnected and none of us having the whole picture; we can only appreciate the balloon in one sense. It’s like the Buddhist parable about the elephant: hard to take in the complexity of the whole thing.

The first encounter with a Barthelme story is an intense moment. And more recently?

Oh, I read it every year, at least. It’s my favourite short story of all time. It’s the only short story I go back to. And I don’t mean in some kind of ritual, “Oh, it’s time to read ‘The Balloon’.” At least once a year something comes over me and I’m like, “Oh, I want to read ‘The Balloon’ again.” It’s everything I need a short story to be. It does the whole job for me. It’s spiritual! It puts me in contact with the not-knowing, which is all I want out of art. It does it, it touches something in me that nothing else has. I just want to be punched in the face. Even the most tender or beautiful things: they should awaken something in you that you didn’t realise was asleep. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Ben Lee".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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