Lost in the Funhouse John Barth
The following entry presents criticism on Barth's short story collection Lost in the Funhouse (1968). For further information on Barth's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 27.
One of Barth's most widely-read books and first attempts in the short story genre, the metafictional Lost in the Funhouse is often construed as a demonstration of Barth's claim that postmodern writers need to regenerate fiction by productively acknowledging its thematic and formal "used-upness." A carefully-ordered, interrelated sequence of stories, the collection reflects Barth's interest in using new technologies to present and rejuvenate fiction—several of the stories were meant to be heard as tape recordings, or as performances encompassing both taped portions and live readings. In addition to manifesting Barth's awareness of media innovations and contemporary fiction, Lost in the Funhouse reveals his knowledge of mythology and classical literature. Barth draws on myriad disparate sources to craft multiple analogies for the metaphysical concerns that unify the work thematically. Foremost among these concerns are his interest in the mutual dependence of readers and writers, and his conviction that foregrounding fictional artifice disquiets readers because it reminds them of the fictional status of their own lives. Thus, while it is often deemed one of Barth's most accessible books, Lost in the Funhouse is also considered among his most experimental.
Plot and Major Characters
Lost in the Funhouse comprises fourteen short pieces. The first, "Frame-Tale," contains only the words, "Once upon a time there / was a story that began" printed along the long edge of the page; instructions direct the reader to construct a Möbius strip out of the ten words. Commentators have noted that the resulting loop in which the words twist back upon themselves infinitely, with no certain starting or ending points, is emblematic of the way characters, themes, images, and phrases recur throughout Lost in the Funhouse. For example, "Night-Sea Journey," a mock-heroic epic, is told from the perspective of a sperm en route to a mysterious "Shore," or egg; it is assumed by many critics that this egg, upon fertilization, will develop into Ambrose Mensch, the protagonist of several later stories, including "Ambrose His Mark." This tale, the third in the collection, is told in retrospect by the title character and recounts the protracted period during which his family could not settle on a name for him. In "Autobiography," the fourth piece, a tape-recorded story criticizes its parents—its mother being the tape machine, and its father, Barth—and laments its unrequited existence, citing parallels to Oedipus. Noting the relationship between author, text, and audience, the story relates its attempts to foil the creative process, even asking the reader to turn off the tape recorder or stop reading the page, thereby terminating its existence. Ambrose reappears in "Water-Message," which describes his schoolboy terrors, his uncomfortably burgeoning sexuality, his limited knowledge of the sexual act, and the social leverage he derives from refusing to disclose the contents of a message he finds floating in a river. Unbeknownst to his peers, the note reads only, "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN … YOURS TRULY." The sixth story, "Petition," is a letter written to the King of Thailand by the more cerebral of a pair of Siamese twins, who begs "His Most Gracious Majesty" to sever him from his loutish brother. The title story, which is frequently interpreted as a parody of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), finds thirteen-year-old Ambrose on a trip to a seaside amusement park where he ends up vying with his brother for the favor of Magda, a teenage girl to whom both are attracted. Employing an omniscient third-person narrator—variously interpreted as Ambrose in different guises, Barth, or some other author or storyteller—who comments on the development of the plot, "Lost in the Funhouse" relates the teenage Ambrose's attempts to engage in a sexual relationship with Magda. Plagued by self-conscious thoughts, he remains frustrated in his ability to enjoy a sexual encounter and, becoming separated from Magda, eventually loses his way in the funhouse. Structured to re-create the disorientation and fear that characterize a trip though a funhouse, the story provides explication of literary conventions used throughout the tale and includes repeated and distorted images that continually draw attention to the self-conscious and, at times, inhibitive nature of storytelling. The piece concludes with the protagonist resolving to become a writer, or a constructor of funhouses, "though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed." Like "Autobiography," Barth's eighth story, "Echo," was written to be recorded and played back. This piece purports to offer the voice of the mythological figure Echo. No longer able to speak on her own, she repeats stories told by Tiresias and Narcissus, but the reader/listener cannot determine whether Echo is relaying their stories accurately, manipulating their words to express her own feelings, or being manipulated by Barth to achieve his own effects. "Two Meditations," a two-paragraph story, invokes the Oedipus myth to suggest how secret faults can engender violence in the most quotidian settings. The narrator of Barth's tenth story, "Title," rejects several false starts before encouraging readers to participate in his narrative. In "Glossolalia," another brief segment, each of six figures speaks one paragraph. Although the voices are diverse—mythological, biblical, and anthropomorphic—the paragraphs are metrically identical and share the same structure as the "Lord's Prayer" provided in the King James Bible, which is considered a seventh, unspoken gloss on the piece. "Life Story" is narrated by another stymied author who reflects on the seeming impossibility of producing new fiction in the late twentieth century, lamenting that he can offer only "another story about a writer writing a story! Another regressus in infinitum!" In the penultimate piece, "Menelaiad," the Greek hero Menelaus recounts his life history, focusing in particular on his relationship with Helen of Troy. Describing his tale—which has been compared in structure to a set of Chinese nesting boxes—as yet "another regressus," Menelaus distinguishes past conversations from his present account by employing multiple sets of quotation marks. "Anonymiad," the final segment, relates the tale of a minstrel marooned on an island. In his isolation the minstrel writes stories and casts them adrift, inventing and revising narrative forms—forms employed in Lost in the Funhouse—until he believes he has exhausted all possibilities. However, the arrival of a message in a bottle renews his faith that others may also need to communicate: the world "might be astrew with islèd souls," creating a sea "a-clink with literature!"
Lost in the Funhouse evinces Barth's erudite knowledge of mythic and epic conventions. He adapts many mythological figures and tropes to enact the structuralist premise that all fictions employ a limited number of characters and narratological possibilities. However, Barth also uses myth to demonstrate that old material can be reworked to produce new fiction. In its nonlinear development, his series draws upon the epic tradition, suggesting the possibility of endless, recursive cycles similarly evident in the Möbius strip. Lost in the Funhouse is further informed by an epic structure in that it can be divided into two distinct halves which roughly correspond to the segments scholars have identified in such works as the Odyssey, the Iliad, and the Aeneid. According to this schema, the first seven stories of Barth's series are more personal and biographical, while the latter pieces deal with more mythical materials. Lost in the Funhouse additionally incorporates a variety of contemporary influences. Trained as a musician, Barth had long been concerned with the sound of his prose, and frequent speaking appearances on college campuses following the publication of The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) encouraged his enthusiasm for oral fiction. When he began teaching at the University of Buffalo in 1965, he gained access to the campus electronics lab, where he prepared monophonic tapes of "Autobiography" and "Echo," and recorded "Title" as a debate conducted by stereo voices. Barth's awareness of his contemporaries' work is also evident in Lost in the Funhouse. Particularly stimulated by the metafictions of Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luis Borges, he felt it necessary to craft his own literary responses to the "felt ultimacies" of contemporary life. In Lost in the Funhouse, this effort takes the form of a self-reflexive inquiry into the creative process, the development of the artist, the creation of narrative voice, and the relationship between writer, reader, and text. The bildungsroman centering on Ambrose parallels the development of the entire fictional series, and Barth often uses metaphors which equate biological growth and sexual development with fictional maturation. All of the stories in the volume have been interpreted as self-conscious reworkings of the same theme: that of the artist who fears he has nothing new to say.
Lost in the Funhouse's integration of esoteric materials in a byzantine series has led critics to accuse Barth of academic elitism and to debate the relationship between the collection and Barth's seminal essay "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967). Written concomitantly with many of the pieces included in Lost in the Funhouse, "The Literature of Exhaustion" advances an aesthetics of postmodern fiction that describes the contemporary experimental writer as one who "confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new human work." This same essay also defends the artist as a "virtuoso" with "very special gifts." A majority of scholars subsequently view Lost in the Funhouse as a demonstration of the ideas about revivifying literature put forth in "The Literature of Exhaustion"; others, however, contend that to construe the stories in terms of the essay is reductive. Another ongoing debate concerns the presence of literary optimism in the stories. A number of scholars have interpreted Lost in the Funhouse as an anguished work, preoccupied with the loss of sustaining, redemptive faith among inhabitants of the postwar world. These critics perceive Ambrose as "overwhelmed and undernourished by a past he is unable to master." More recently, however, scholars have contested this reading, asserting that the volume's multifarious anxieties about originality do not overshadow the hope offered in "Anonymiad," which they construe as Barth's affirmation of the human need to communicate. This view is succinctly voiced by Jan Marta, who maintains that Lost in the Funhouse not only "mirrors the literary past," but "prefigures new directions for the literary future."
The Floating Opera (novel) 1956; revised edition, 1967
The End of the Road (novel) 1958; revised edition, 1967
The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1960; revised edition, 1967
Giles Goat-Boy; or, The Revised New Syllabus (novel) 1966
"The Literature of Exhaustion" (essay) 1967; appeared in journal The Atlantic
Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (short stories) 1968
Chimera (novellas) 1972
Two Narratives for Tape and Live Voice (recording) 1974
LETTERS (novel) 1979
"The Literature of Replenishment" (essay) 1980; appeared in journal The Atlantic
The Literature of Exhaustion; and, The Literature of Replenishment (essays) 1982
Sabbatical: A Romance (novel) 1982
The Friday Book; or, Book-titles Should Be Straightforward and Subtitles Avoided: Essays and Other Nonfiction (essays) 1984
The Tidewater Tales (novel) 1987
The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (novel) 1991
Once Upon a Time (novel) 1994
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SOURCE: "John Barth's Artist in the Funhouse," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. X, No. 4, Fall, 1973, pp. 373-80.
[Kiernan is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, a small portion of which was included in CLC-3, he discusses the story sequence of Lost in the Funhouse as demonstrative of a Künstlerroman.]
In the "Author's Note" that prefaces the first American edition of Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth maintains with wonderful solemnity that the book is "neither a collection nor a selection, but a series." It is sometimes difficult to know when such instances of Barth's solemnity are to be taken seriously, but this seems to be one of them. At least when reviewers of the book tended to disregard the note and to see the volume as unified only in a loose manner by Barthian humor and by an intermittent concern with literary "exhaustion," the author developed a seven-point addendum to his original note, the first point affirming that his claim for a serial structure "means in good faith exactly what it says." His regnant intention in Funhouse, he maintains, is to turn "as many aspects of the fiction as possible … into dramatically relevant emblems of the theme." Although the critics have not generally conceded it, Barth's claim for Funhouse is not excessive: at the same time that the individual units of the book are generally self-contained, they...
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SOURCE: "Seams in the Seamless University," in John Barth: The Comic Sublimity of Paradox, Southern Illinois University Press, 1974, pp. 91-104.
[Tharpe was an American critic and educator. In the excerpt below, he offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of Lost in the Funhouse.]
Despite its disconcerting form and its content, Lost in the Funhouse generally presents the pattern of the life of the traditional hero. Barth's acknowledged reading of [Joseph] Campbell only helped to crystallize what was forming in his mind in great part as a result of what was occurring in Western culture. As archaeologists and others, such as Lord Raglan and Otto Rank, wrote syntheses of their discoveries about the old myths, novelists of various sorts were dealing with heroism. Joyce may have inspired Barth to his treatment of the artist as a young man, but Western culture was generally interested in defining heroism.
Lost in the Funhouse is a portrait of the artist as hero. The themes are art and love, and the fusion of formula and content promulgates a metaphysics as well as an aesthetics. Though Barth is master of language, he appears to find the mystery of language overpowering. Words accomplish so much that they ought to compose a holy word. Yet something appears to be lacking. Craftsmanship and creativity in perfect union are insufficient to produce the final holy utterance. The result...
(The entire section is 4111 words.)
SOURCE: "Ambrose Is Lost in the Funhouse," in John Barth: An Introduction, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976, pp. 80-96.
[Morrell is a Canadian educator, nonfiction writer and novelist. Highly acclaimed as a science fiction and fantasy, action, and western writer, he is perhaps best known to popular audiences as the author of the books on which the "Rambo" films starring Sylvester Stallone were based. In the essay below, Morrell discusses those stories in Lost in the Funhouse originally written for tape or live performance. He maintains that although the nonprint media stimulated Barth's interest in oral narrative, Barth ultimately relies on text-based innovations to rejuvenate contemporary fiction.]
The experience of writing two novels so long as The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy had been a great strain on Barth. Together they accounted for almost nine years of his life. Giles alone had taken him more than five, and after that effort, he told an interviewer, he was "not interested in writing another very long book, at least for a while." Instead he wanted to try something quite different, he explained: to compose several small pieces, what he called "fictions." They would have to be arranged in a volume because they would take resonance from each other. But for full effect—and this is what would set them apart from anything else he had written—many would...
(The entire section is 7214 words.)
SOURCE: "The Novelist as Topologist: John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 83-97.
[In the following excerpt, Vitanza analyzes the properties of the Möbius strip from "Frame-Tale," arguing that the story contains the framework for the entire collection and supports Barth's attempt to generate new meaning out of exhausted literary forms and themes.]
"Like the mathematician … the novelist makes things out of concepts."
—William H. Gass, "A True Lie-Minded Man"
"Was there any new thing to say, new way to say the old?" This question, asked by the character Anonymous in the final section of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, reveals the central concern of the novel. Barth considers essentially the same problem in the essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," written contemporaneously with many of the sections that compose Funhouse, when he says that in modern literature writers generally feel there is a "used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities." Barth does not see this problem as a reason for despair, however, for he believes it possible for the modern writer to realize that literary forms are exhausted and still continue to write successfully. To illustrate his point, he cites the work of Jorges...
(The entire section is 6325 words.)
SOURCE: "'A Continuing, Strange Love Letter': Sex and Language in Lost in the Funhouse," in Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth, University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 106-26.
[Harris is an American educator and critic who specializes in modern American literature. In the following excerpt, he analyzes the relationship between sex and language in Lost in the Funhouse.]
One of John Barth's major concerns is the mysterious relationship between sex and other forms of human experience. While implicit in Barth's fiction from the beginning, this relationship receives its first explicit reference in The End of the Road when Jacob Horner makes the following observation:
If one had no other reason for choosing to subscribe to Freud, what could be more charming than to believe that the whole vaudeville of the world, the entire dizzy circus of history, is but a fancy mating dance…. Who would not delight in telling some extragalactic tourist, "On our planet, sir, males and females copulate. Moreover, they enjoy copulating. But for various reasons they cannot do this whenever, wherever, and with whomever they choose. Hence all this running around that you observe. Hence the world"?
Ambrose, the narrator/protagonist of Lost in the Funhouse (1968), reaches a similar conclusion. Reflecting upon the funhouse...
(The entire section is 6999 words.)
SOURCE: "Empty 'Text,' Fecund Voice: Self-Reflexivity in Barth's Lost in the Funhouse," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 460-81.
[In the excerpt below, Woolley argues that self-consciousness in Lost in the Funhouse presents an affirmative interpretation of narrative reflexivity.]
In contemporary criticism a myth has emerged, wherein narrative literature, released from its bondage to novelistic convention and mimetic tradition, becomes the freeplay of language speaking to itself, infinitely reflecting and rewriting its own structures. The "text," figured in the critical mythology as "parafiction," "surfiction," "metafiction," écriture, "antinovel," nouveau roman, nouveau nouveau roman, and so forth, is envisioned as an "absence" undercutting the sense of presence that language evokes. Thus, according to [Phillippe] Sollers, a text "n'apparaît que pour s'effacer et réciter apparition qui s'efface ("appears only in order to erase itself and to recite this apparition which erases itself"). By constantly playing upon the tension between words as signifiers and words as signs, the "text" purportedly denies any dimension beyond language. Drawing upon an ethical vocabulary of oppositions such as pure and impure, free and fixed, new and old, fluid and rigid, the criticism substitutes a heroics of text and language for the older heroics of creative genius...
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SOURCE: "Water-Message," in John Barth, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 84-109.
[In the following excerpt, Walkiewicz maintains that the Möbius strip "Frame-Tale," which opens Lost in the Funhouse, serves as an analogy for the entire collection, which cycles back to its beginning in the final story, "Anonymiad."]
[The] structure of Lost in the Funhouse, we are led to believe, is a closed loop. Its "Frame-Tale" is a kit for constructing a Moebius strip which the reader is free to regard as "one-, two-, or three-dimensional." Once it is completed mentally or physically, the loop becomes an emblem of the "Law of Cyclology" and all its corollaries, including the propositions that make up the "monomyth." As a continuous tape, it not only reminds us of the Grand Tutor's "endless tapes" but also suggests the means of presentation of many of the pieces in the book, and it is thus emblematic of Barth's recycling of elements of his own fictions and of the oral-literary tradition. This connection with the tradition is further reinforced by the nature of the message that is both conveyed by and inscribed on the "Frame-Tale." For in joining headpiece to tailpiece, the reader helps to bring into being a story that reads "ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN ONCE UPON A TIME …" (ad infinitum), serves as midwife at the birth of a headless, tailless, and at least theoretically endless tale that may...
(The entire section is 9791 words.)
SOURCE: "The Nihilist Deus Artifex: The Short Fiction of John Barth," in God the Artist: American Novelists in a Post-Realist Age, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 145-66.
[Gorak is an English-born critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he examines Barth's focus on the individual in a godless world in Lost in the Funhouse.]
When Barth's Lost in the Funhouse appeared in 1968, critical responses were often sharp. Barth's reviewers have always been tempted to regard each of his books as worse than the last; Lost in the Funhouse, a labyrinthine combination of pop mythology, multiple allusion, and electronic voice games, appeared to invite these very responses. Accordingly, Guy Davenport found the book "thoroughly confusing" while the Book World's critic dismissed it as "blitheringly sophomoric," a verdict echoed by the Library Journal's reviewer, who damned it as "pseudo-Homeric" [Guy Davenport, "Like Nothing Nameable," New York Times Book Review (20 October 1968); R.V. Cassils, "The Artist as Art," Washington Post Book World (15 September 1968); Walter Harding, "Fiction," Library Journal (15 September 1968)]. But it was Tony Tanner, in what remains the best criticism of Barth, who argued that the book's underlying theme was anguish, and that Lost in the Funhouse was "a story of loss, a demonstration of how we lose what we don't...
(The entire section is 4159 words.)
SOURCE: "Who Gets Lost in the Funhouse," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 80-97.
[In the essay below, Slaughter discusses the subject-object relationship as presented in Lost in the Funhouse from a Cartesian-Kantian perspective, asserting that Barth moves beyond the paralyzing postmodern concern with epistemology to propose narrative as a source of meaning.]
Any story, any section of story, will do. This one:
There's no point in going farther; this isn't getting anybody answhere; they haven't even come to the funhouse yet. Ambrose is off the track, in some new or old part of the place that's not supposed to be used; he strayed into it by some one-in-a-million chance, like the time the roller-coaster car left the tracks in the nineteen-teens against all the laws of physics and sailed over the boardwalk in the dark. And they can't locate him because they don't know where to look. Even the designer and operator have forgotten this other part, that winds around on itself like a whelk shell. That winds around the right part like the snakes on Mercury's caduceus….
Now the trick is to get hold of it, hold on. Try it. Identify the character(s), the voice(s), the plot(s), theme(s)—identify fact, fiction, implications, significance if any, truth if. The story moves under your hand, changes. It's Proteus...
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SOURCE: "Funhouse Reflexes: Lost in the Funhouse," in A Reader's Guide to John Barth, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 51-65.
[Bowen is an American educator, critic, and editor who frequently writes on James Joyce and the literature of the Irish Renaissance. In the following essay, he argues that in Lost in the Funhouse Barth associates the problems of identity with the difficulties of composing fiction, identifying the maturation of the protagonist—in all his various guises—with the development of the collection's story line and major themes.]
Lost in the Funhouse has a lot of James Joyce in it. Jan Marta, among others, has long recognized the self-referentiality in the two halves of the book as resembling both the Küntstlerroman and Bildungsroman prototypes of Portrait ["John Barth's Portrait of the Artist as a Fiction: Modernism through the Looking-Glass," Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 9, no. 2 (June 1982)]. However, Barth's volume of short stories and Joyce's Dubliners also bear striking resemblances. Like Dubliners, Funhouse is, according to Barth,
a book of short stories: a sequence or series rather than a mere assortment … strung … together on a few echoed and developed themes and … circl[ing] … back upon itself: not to close a simple circuit like that of Joyce's...
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Appel, Alfred, Jr. "The Art of Artifice." The Nation 207, No. 14 (28 October 1968): 441-42.
Review of Lost in the Funhouse, praising Barth's erudition and his use of parody and involution.
Bell, Steven M. "Literature, Self-Consciousness, and Writing: The Example of Barth's Lost in the Funhouse." The International Fiction Review 11, No. 2 (Summer 1984): 84-9.
Discusses Barth's emphasis on self-consciousness in Lost in the Funhouse, focusing on ways in which language play can assuage existential despair and doubt. An excerpt from this essay appears in CLC-51.
Bienstock, Beverly Gray. "Lingering on the Autognostic Verge: John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse." Modern Fiction Studies 19, No. 1 (Spring 1973): 69-78.
Studies the relationship between writer, reader, and text in Lost in the Funhouse, considering the Möbius-strip structure of "Frame-Tale" as emblematic of Barth's collection as a whole in which fiction is "an audience participation medium." A portion of this essay appears in CLC-3.
Davison, Richard Allen. Review of Lost in the Funhouse, by John Barth. Studies in Short Fiction VIII, No. 4 (Fall 1971): 659-60.
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