The first thing John Barth asks the reader to do when opening the cover of the book that contains his story ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ is cut out a little strip of paper on which the words ‘‘Once upon a time’’ appear on one side and ‘‘There was a story that began’’ on the other. If the reader follows Barth’s directions for connecting the opposite corners to each other, he will have made a Moebius strip, a continuous loop about stories about stories, a visual demonstration of the theory behind the stories in the collection.
The title story is the centerpiece of the book. First published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967, ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ has become not just one of Barth’s most famous pieces, but one of the most critically acclaimed short stories of the latter half of the twentieth century. While some readers are baffled or put-off by Barth’s interrupting and self-conscious narrator, others have been dazzled by his virtuosity and humor. Most agree, however, that he succeeds in his declared intent to present old material in new ways. In the words of critic Charles Harris, ‘‘Barth’s fiction reflects the grim if often comic—at times noble—determination to find new ways to express the old (which is to say fundamental, essential) significances.’’