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Review of The Balloonists by Eula Biss, Hanging Loose Press.

[First published in Rain Taxi, summer, 2002.]

Written as a series of brief, self-contained prose poems, Eula Biss's memoir-as-fiction/fiction-as-memoir advances by fits and starts, giving a glimpse here, a sideglance there, until it accumulates its story. This is much the way life itself develops--not in a smooth trajectory but in daily, disconnected installments. Biss's story revolves around her parents, whose troubled relationship and eventual divorce still color her own relationships with men. "Are we going to keep living the same stories our parents lived?" Biss asks at one point, the central question in her engaging, absorbing narrative.

Biss particularly succeeds in examining the similarities between fictional narrative and autobiography, how the stories we call our lives are, in fact, a form of fiction, and how we can unwittingly find ourselves living a story not our own. "What if an entire generation were to reject their central story line?" she wonders. Her book's ambiguity as to genre serves to keep the narrative on a tightrope, nimbly balancing itself between truth and fiction, while always calling into question the reality of both concepts.

An example of Biss's writing: "Once I went to a concert with my mother and my father was there. In the same room. They had four children together." Notice that first sentence, how on first reading it you momentarily assume she went to the concert with both parents, only to realize that no, her father just happened to be there. And the sentence fragment in the middle, how much this awkward snippet says about her parents' strained relationship. The final sentence has a flat, informational quality without any apparent emotional value. But carefully placed right there, that deadpan sentence does have emotion. Such is the seemingly casual yet painstakingly choreographed writing Biss exhibits in this impressive book.

--Thomas Wiloch


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