Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Problems facing the narrator as storyteller are complex and everywhere expressed. The narrator questions whether thirteen-year-old Ambrose is capable of thinking the thoughts being attributed to him. The narrator discusses plot structure and wonders how in the world the story he is telling can be graphed along Freitag’s Triangle, representing exposition, complication, rising action, climax, and denouement or resolution. The narrator talks about literary symbols and mentions that, for example, diving into a pool would make a suitable symbol. He questions the relevance of the war to the story and inquires of himself whether there should be fireworks. He discusses the use of italics, inverted tags, and first-order and second-order metaphors. He worries over whether he is providing sufficient sensory detail to render the texture of the experience.
At the same time that the narrator discusses these elements of fiction, he puts them to work. For example, in the paragraph in which he discusses the use of italics, he italicizes five passages. When he analyzes the appropriate use of point of view, he points out that the closer authors are to a character, the more they need to distance themselves from that character. Consequently, if the narrator is Ambrose, he would appropriately use the third-person point of view that he does.
Though a description of the contents of “Lost in the Funhouse” suggests a tone of high seriousness, such is not the case...
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Literature of Exhaustion
In 1967, Barth published a now famous essay describing what he believed to be the state of literature at the time and sketching out some theories that he finished developing in a 1980 essay called ‘‘The Literature of Replenishment.’’ Because the essay was written at approximately the same time Barth was working on the volume that included ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse,’’ readers can assume a close relationship with the major theoretical points of the essay and the experimental form of the story.
The essay’s main argument, according to critic Charles Harris, is that contemporary writers, facing what Barth called the ‘‘used-upness of certain [narrative] forms and or possibilities,’’ must (in Harris’s words) ‘‘successfully combine moral seriousness and technical virtuosity.’’ What Harris calls ‘‘passionate virtuosity,’’ Barth had defined as the duty of the modern writer to use all his or her technical abilities, all the techniques, but still ‘‘manage nonetheless to speak eloquently and memorably to our still human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done.’’
The year that ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ was published, 1967, was an especially tumultuous period in American social history, and Barth, as a writer and an intellectual with a faculty position, was right in the thick of it. As the Vietnam War escalated and...
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Barth’s use of metaphor in ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ is anything but subtle. On several occasions the self-conscious narrator comments on the metaphoric and symbolic elements in the story. In the opening lines, for example, the narrator announces that Ambrose ‘‘has come to the seashore with his family for the holiday, the occasion of their visit is Independence Day, the most important secular holiday of the United States of America.’’ This is an invitation to consider Ambrose’s adolescent struggles as a move toward independence, from his family, from his paralyzing self-consciousness.
The dominant use of metaphor in the story, however, is the funhouse itself, an exceptionally rich and fertile device for Barth. According to critic Gerhard Joseph, ‘‘The funhouse becomes the excruciatingly self-conscious symbol for the many distorted perspectives from which he [Ambrose] views his troubled psyche, a barely disguised reflection of the authorial narrator’s own disintegrating self.’’ Just as Ambrose envies Peter and Magda’s unconscious ability to ‘‘find the right exit’’ the narrator laments his inability to lead us through the maze: ‘‘We should be much farther along than we are: something has gone wrong; not much of this preliminary rambling seems relevant. Yet everyone begins in the same place; how is it that most go along without difficulty but a few lose their way?’’ The narrator,...
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Topics for Further Study
Although Barth abandoned his early formal study of music, he remains interested in it. In fact he said in an interview that as a writer he still thinks of himself as an arranger, ‘‘a kind of re-orchestrator.’’ What about ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ strikes you as musical and why?
Investigate the effects World War II had on the social and economic lives of Americans. How is the wartime setting significant to the story?
What other characters from literature you have read remind you of Ambrose? How has Barth presented the old story in new ways?
Barth has said that he believes that ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ ‘‘would lose part of [its] point in any except print form.’’ Nevertheless, can you imagine a way that the story could be told on film, video, or the stage? What about a hypertext version for the computer?
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What Do I Read Next?
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1964) by Irish writer James Joyce is a classic coming of age story about a young man and is considered one of the benchmarks of modernism as well as one of the inspirations for Barth’s Ambrose.
‘The School,’’ (1976) by Donald Barthelme, is a postmodern story in which dim-witted teachers are completely unable to understand reality while third graders speak like eloquent college professors.
Pale Fire (1962) by Vladimir Nabokov is a unique work of satire about literary scholarship. The novel, an interesting experiment in narrative technique, includes a 999-line poem with accompanying exegesis.
Love in the Time of Cholera (1988) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Latin American magic realism by one of Barth’s favorite writers.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Bowen, Zack R. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Fogel, Stan, and Gordon Slethaug. Understanding John Barth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Morrell, David. John Barth: An Introduction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
Schulz, Max F. The Muses of John Barth: Tradition and Metafiction from “Lost in the Funhouse” to “The Tidewater Tales.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Scott, Steven D. The Gamefulness of American Postmodernism: John Barth and Louise Erdrich. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
Waldmeir, Joseph J., ed. Critical Essays on John Barth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
Walkiewicz, E. P. John Barth. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Ziegler, Heide. John Barth. New York: Methuen, 1987.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Cassill, R. V. Review of Lost in the Funhouse. Book World, Sept. 15, 1968, p. 16.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press, 1990
Davenport, Guy. Review Lost in the Funhouse. New York Times Book Review, Oct. 20, 1968, p. 4.
Harding, Walter. Review of Lost in the Funhouse. Library Journal, Sept. 15, 1968.
Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth, University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Joseph, Gerhard. ‘‘John Barth.’’ In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.
Morrell, David. John Barth: An Introduction, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1972.
Plumley, William. An interview with John Barth. In Chicago Review, Fall, 1994, Vol. 40, p. 6.
Walkiewicz, Eric. John Barth, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
Bowen, Zack. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth, Greenwood Press, 1994. This excellent and up-to-date introduction to Barth’s work provides background, context, biographical and critical information.
Fogel, Stanley. Understanding John Barth, University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Another updated introductory critical text that contains an excellent bibliography and index.
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