The Balloonist

Written by MacDonald Harris
Review by Jasmina Svenne

It’s seldom you read a book that’s both funny and terrifying, deeply unsettling and deeply satisfying, all at once. The Balloonist is such a book.

In 1897, a daft Swedish scientist undertook to reach the North Pole in a helium balloon. On this unlikely ground, MacDonald Harris erected a stunning fictional dissertation on the intellectual struggle at the heart of our age. His fictional scientist and narrator, Gustavus Crispin, is incapable of knowing the world in any way save as an object to be measured and mastered: Harris’s unpacking of this personality is hilarious at times, especially when he is dealing with sex. Then Luisa, a splendid woman, or maybe she’s a man, falls in love with him and assaults his castle of numbers: she seduces him, tries to shoot him, traps him in a crevasse until he promises to take her on his disastrous balloon trip to the North Pole.

MacDonald Harris is the pseudonym of the late Donald Heiney, and The Balloonist is a reissue; the novel was nominated for the National Book Award, back in the days when that meant something. It’s a pleasure to see a forgotten masterpiece brought back into print, and I want everybody to read it immediately.