Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In “Lost in the Funhouse,” the author, John Barth, writes a story about someone, a narrator, who is himself writing a story about Ambrose, a boy of thirteen. In writing the story about Ambrose, the narrator also comments on the techniques of fiction and the problems and concerns that confront a writer of fiction who is trying to write a story. To complicate the matter further, the narrator may or may not be Ambrose. If the narrator is Ambrose, then Ambrose is writing a story about Ambrose writing a story about Ambrose.
“Lost in the Funhouse” is from a 1967 collection of related stories (also titled Lost in the Funhouse) that constitute a short-story cycle. As frontispiece to the collection, Barth provides the printed makings of a M_bius strip and directions for readers for cutting and assembling it. Should readers follow the directions to fashion the Mobius strip, the strip itself would read in an eternal cycle: “Once upon a time there was a story that began” once upon a time there was a story that began, and so on. This continuing cycle or pattern of infinite regression is similar to a series of mirrors reflecting one another or to the kinds of reflecting mirrors one finds in funhouses. The funhouse is where the narrator/Ambrose is, and, in reading the story, readers, too, are lost in the funhouse that Barth creates.
Though all of this sounds very complicated, and may be on a first reading, Barth provides for the uninitiated a more or less traditional narrative about Ambrose that has all the conventional elements of fiction, including setting, characters, conflict, foreshadowing, suspense, symbols, and...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The most experimental of Barth’s works, Lost in the Funhouse employs an extreme narrative self-consciousness and the manipulation of narrative voices to dramatize Barth’s continuing concern about values, action, and the absence of sustaining order in the world. At one point, Barth considered including a tape of his readings of these short narratives along with the book itself; this idea was abandoned, but it does suggest the extent to which Barth was exploring the limits of written narrative in the late 1960’s. Lost in the Funhouse is a series of short narratives designed to be read together, like a novel, in the order that they are arranged. This notion is graphically represented by the first narrative, a Möbius strip titled “Frame Tale,” which, when cut and pasted according to the instructions, is emblematic of the cycle. As the protagonists grow older in this series, the actual settings recede into the past, from twentieth century Maryland to classical Greece to the Homeric Greece of the Trojan War. The quest to understand the self and achieve a basis for value and action, however, remains a central concern.
An early series in Lost in the Funhouse describes the childhood experiences of Ambrose Mensch in Maryland immediately prior to and during World War II. Ambrose is a sensitive child whose keen awareness and nagging doubts recall the disposition of Ebenezer Cooke in The Sot-Weed Factor, and three stories...
(The entire section is 410 words.)