A Hot Air Balloon, more or less, is at the mercy of the winds in which it finds itself. And Son Bo-mi’s story of the same name demonstrates the many different directions in which Hot Air Balloons, and by extension our lives, may fly.
Hot Air Balloon is Part of a loose trilogy (this information from one of the completely awesome appendixes that all these books feature) that must be understood to completely understand Balloon itself. The loose trilogy includes Blanket and I’m Leaving Too, Liz. Blanket follows the same two characters (a father and his son) and its title refers to an actual Blanket lost at a K-pop concert that ends up with the son – the narrator of Hot Air Balloon – shot to death at the concert). After this death Jang (the dad) from then on takes the blanket with him wherever he goes.
In the reality of Hot Air Balloon, the event at the K-pop concert is also tragic, but it is merely the blanket, and not a life in the family itself, that merely lost.
In I’m Leaving Too, Liz the narrator (an author hears this from a co-worker Han), writes a story about it, and has a falling out with Han over it. Eventually Han dies and at his funeral the narrator meets Jang , who tells the narrator of Liz that he has since given the blanket to a cold couple he meets on duty(he’s a constable?) and this allows the author to begin writing again, not surprisingly, a “book about a blanket.” Hot Air Balloon, while mention the blanket, discards it as an item of importance.
Which is a lot of introduction, but there you are.^^
Clearly, Son is intentionally playing, with Hot Air Balloon and the other two books, with the nature of chance, options, and if you really wanted to get scientific about it the nature of choice and the possibility of infinite universes.
The story begins quickly and crisply, introducing a father and son (the mother is dead) on their way to a horrible vacation even thought the father says “we’re in luck,” a phrase that goes on to have more meaning than it might seem. The father and son both go to a Parcel (a fading pop group) concert at which an explosion kills several and wounds the father. The son continues along in his average way, eventually marrying and becoming a translator.
The first sign that things are not as they seem, or that realities may contradict or conflict comes in the fact that one of the narrator’s translations is a work called on I’m Leaving Liz, Too (the name of one of the other books in Son Bo-mi’s loose trilogy) and the translator finds that work “tedious.” (one would have to have read Son in Korean to know this).
Then, without a completely flat affect, we discover we are in a very similar but different reality than the one we know. This is a different (but possible) reality in which Babe Ruth, who in fact made three Hollwood movies, is known as a movie star and not as a baseball player – having played baseball for only five years and then spent the rest of his life as a matinee idol.
The narrator has an ugly girlfriend who breaks up with him while he is doing his mandatory army service and his letter in response (never sent, but he keeps it) includes the line “I think it was me who should have died then,” the meaning of which seems kind of unclear to both reader an narrator
He recovers to lead an “average life.” He goes to Chicago, becomes a translator, marries a journalist has a kid but after burning 5 copies of a translation he is working on and nearly setting fire to the house ends up divorced, labeled a possible arsonist, and heavily limited as to when he can see his daughter.
Returning from hearing the news that his ex-wife is remarrying, he sees 7 UFO’s in the sky that distract him from his series of thoughts. In fact Son, as both critics note, is parsimonious with plot details (partly because they are meant to be inferred from the other two works, but also as a stylistic matter) within each work, in this case cutting short the scene with the thought, “As he was about to remember a more loaded scene.”
Then, moored in mediocrity, our author sees a single UFO one night and walks towards it. He thinks, in fact knows, that if he enters the UFO none of the “bad” things in his life might have happened with one stunning personal difference that I will leave it to the reader to discover. The UFO opens to reveal light (don’t they all?^^), and repeats words his father had used to mumble in his sleep at night along the lines of “don’t get in, don’t get closer.”
The narrator’s choice with respect to entering the UFO or not explains why the narrator’s father once said (as it is reported at the end) “We were lucky,” (Even though what the father actually said was ‘we are in luck.). The narrator comes to an understanding of what the father actually meant, and Son neatly ties together the story in a philosophical way, suggesting that there is a kind of line, perhaps even a line of luck, that allows us to find peace with the lives we have lead, and a kind of insanity/stupidity aligned with obsessing over past opportunities or paths.
The book concludes with an excellent essay by Son on how the story proceeded, as well as how writing itself affects Son. There are also, of course, the typical bizarre quotes from Korean critics and a very useful commentary (which covers in depth some of the relationships between the three books mentioned here).
A very interesting meditation on how we get where we are, the consequences of choices we make, what choices are made for us, and perhaps even the madness life we would undergo were we able to go back in time and “change” things.
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