Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth
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What is the function of parody and metafiction in John Barth's postmodern novel Lost in the Funhouse?

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Barth's story is crammed with metafictional devices from the first paragraph on. These devices are a kind of running commentary on his writing technique and on the technique of others. In the midst of his narrative, he breaks into declarations about the standard ways of doing things in fiction, such as telling us how italics are used, but also telling us that in manuscript (at the time of his writing, when authors still had to use typewriters instead of computers!) this is accomplished through underlining. Barth talks about the method by which writers introduce characters and describe them to the reader. The impression is that he's teaching a literature class, but not necessarily one in which the students are sophisticated enough to know the basic elements of writing. He quotes a popular song of the 1940's and has the need to tell us it's a popular song (something most "conventional" fiction writers leave us to figure out on our own) and also telling us didactically that it is feminine-rhymed. He mentions Joyce's Ulysses and has the need to explain in simple terms the unique qualities of it.

This last point is especially interesting. If the principle of metafiction is to provide an internal commentary on the writing—in effect destroying the conventional illusion of a fictional narrative as of something that really took place—Barth does so in a deliberately obvious or even unsubtle manner. This does suggest parody, a parody of the self-consciousness and the avant-garde nature of modernism. Barth also parodies some elements of pre-twentieth century fiction. It was typical of authors before 1900 to be deliberately unspecific about dates and place names, for instance. Barth mimics this convention, saying his story takes place in the year "19—". In this case, like those modernist composers who, in their music, recreate or quote Romantic music from long ago, Barth creates a cumulative type of fiction that seems to straddle both modernism—creating his own type of post-modern fiction—and the traditional narrative fiction of his time and ours, which has survived the onslaught of change.

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As you know, postmodernism sees "art" in very open, flexible, and fluid terms: it is very self-conscious (metafiction), a mix of several styles and media, even if means art as a blatant rip-off of another work (parody).  Most notably there is an element of globalization and mass (mass media, mass communication, mass consumption, etc...).

Lost in the Funhouse, like other metafiction short story collections like The Things They Carried, uses embedded narrators, frame stories, shifts in chronology, and multiple personas.  Barth has admitted that his style is meant to...

‘‘shaking up bourgeois notions of linearity and connectivity and ordinary, realistic description of character, ordinary psychological cause and effect.’’

in order to...

‘‘begin with the assumption that art is an artifice, that it has an element of artifice in it. And so far as wanting our reader to forget that they are reading a novel, we are more inclined . . . to remind them from time to time that this is a story, not that this is only a story, but whatever else it is, it is a story. You’re enthralled, you’re spellbound, if we are doing our work right, by a storyteller, and do not confuse this with reality. Art ain’t life.’’

So, Barth uses a nesting of stories, each parodying the others, even parodying mythological stories (like Proteus), all in an attempt to break down the fourth wall between the speaker and audience.  His recursive style echoes all other stories as it echoes its own and, therefore, becomes connected by its own disconnectedness.

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