Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3818
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 contribute both conceptually and stylistically to an organic life of the whole. Like Malamud's Pictures of Fidelman, Funhouse is a story sequence that approaches the form of a Künstlerroman, recording the search of an artist for a viable mode of fiction and shaping that search into a significant and balanced action that is, indeed, emblematic of Barth's theme.
Three stories that concern themselves with a character named Ambrose afford the most immediate key to the sequence, for they are ordered chronologically and trace the growth of a vocation to art. In "Ambrose His Mark," the first story of the three, the title character is an infant for whom an appropriate name has not yet been found. When a swarm of bees settles upon him, he is named for Saint Ambrose, the fourth century bishop to whom a swarm of bees imparted the power of honeyed speech. At the end of the story, we understand that Ambrose has been "marked" by the bees and that he is destined to be a word-man. In "Water-Message," the second story of the three, Ambrose is a fourth grader, alienated already from other people by his special sensibility. He spends his time spining fictions to impress a younger boy and to rationalize his extreme timidity, for his life outside of the fictions is a constant embarrassment to him. At the climax of the story Ambrose opens a bottle washed up by the sea and finds in it a paper inscribed with an address at the top ("To whom it may concern") and a complimentary close at the bottom ("Yours truly"). Suddenly, we are told, Ambrose's spirit "bore new and subtle burdens," and we understand that it is Ambrose's destiny to write on the blank lines of the paper. His vocation as a word-man, then, is specifically to literature. In "Lost in the Funhouse," the last story of the three, an adolescent Ambrose tries unsuccessfully to mimic the attitudes and passions of ordinary men on a family trip to the Ocean City boardwalk. When he becomes lost in the funhouse, he envisions himself telling stories for the rest of his life, a constructor of funhouses for...
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others, "though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed." The call to literature is heard, then, and accepted reluctantly. Ambrose will become a storyteller.
A stylistic evolution in this set of stories suggests that Ambrose is already developing as a storyteller and that he is consistently, in fact, the teller of his own story. While his personal narration of the first Ambrose story is apparently replaced by more objective modes of narration in "Water-Message" and "Funhouse," we note that the ostensibly detached narrators of those stories have an interest in Ambrose's emotional states and difficulties that grows with Ambrose's incresing self-awareness. Furthermore, we note that the later narrators show a passion for phrase-making that keeps pace with Ambrose's developing passion for language. In the second story, for instance, the omniscient narrator is much more interested in Ambrose's point of view than Ambrose is himself in the first story, and he begins to italicize phrases such as "more weary than exultant," suggesting a delight in verbal postures equal to Ambrose's own delight at that stage of his development. In "Funhouse," the narrator identifies so closely with Ambrose that the narration is almost a stream of consciousness; the narration is thick with italicized, quoted, and pat phrases; and the narrator of the story is so adolescently self-conscious that his identity with Ambrose is almost certain. Ambrose, it seems, is becoming a literary sophisticate and is developing his fictions about himself from a calculated detached viewpoint.
The stories with which the three Ambrose stories are alternated both complement and develop this Künstlerroman structure. The first story of the sequence, "Night-Sea Journey," is a wonderful tour de force in which an Existential sperm meditates eloquently on the meaning of a strange impulse which drives him on to "Her who summons." Its position at the head of the Ambrose stories suggests that "Night-Sea Journey" dramatizes the prenatal period of Ambrose's life, and this impression is reinforced when the voice of the sperm reflects a deeply literary consciousness: the sperm elaborates a whole series of fictions about the night-sea journey, for instance; he is capable of such an elegant accentuation as "my drownéd friend"; and "A poor irony" is the literary sort of observation that comes easily to him. Furthermore, when the sperm declaims "I am he who abjures and rejects the night-sea journey!" he postures verbally in the same manner that Ambrose is to develop in "Funhouse" and subsequent stories. Thus, it seems natural to understand "Night-Sea Journey" as an integral element of the Künstlerroman, depicting the storyteller as vocationally determined in his prenatal existence.
The third story of the sequence, "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction," is another tour de force, capturing a fiction in the process of composing its own autobiography, free for the nonce of both authorial and mechanical manipulation, and yet ironically unable to end itself. "Bear in mind," the fiction has been instructed, and it does exactly that, dramatizing in its very donnée that fiction tends necessarily to a life of its own and to an inordinate degree of self-reflection. The dramatization of these tendencies anticipates the self-conscious story telling of "Funhouse" and it prepares us for Ambrose's later attempt to become so very mannered that the conventions of storytelling will displace him as both speaker and central subject. Appropriately, the fiction of "Autobiography" wonders if it is "still in utero"—still "hung up in delivery," for "Autobiography" creates the illusion of Ambrose's autobiography stepping out prolepticly and beginning to tell itself. Although Ambrose does not make an obvious appearance in the fiction, then, the theme of "Autobiography" is a structural clue to the developing fictions of his autobiography, and it is an integral part of the total Künstlerroman that his fictions become.
"Petition," the fifth story of the sequence, purports to be an unsigned letter from a Siamese twin. In wonderfully formal diction, the author of the letter petitions the king of Siam to arrange for a separation from his brother on the grounds that his brother is trying to kill him and thereby reserve for himself the affection of a female contortionist with whom the twins have established a ménage à trois. Following as it does upon "Water-Message," the unsigned letter of "Petition" recalls the unsigned letter that Ambrose finds in a bottle and which, we understand, he is to sign himself. Indeed, in a very real sense Ambrose is the ultimate author of "Petition." If the twin feels threatened by sexual rivalry with his brother, Ambrose handles sexual matters awkwardly in "Water-Message" and "Funhouse," and his older brother Peter is an annoying rival in both of these stories. In "Water-Message," it is Peter's club that embarrasses Ambrose when he naively suggests that Tommy James and Peggy Robbins have been "smooching," and it is Peter who insists that Ambrose leave the clubhouse when a contraceptive is discovered. In "Funhouse," Peter is an overt rival for the affections of Magda G―, and he is annoyingly informed about walking through the funhouse with a girl. Given these similarities of structure and situation, "Petition" seems to be a projection of Ambrose's rivalry with his brother into an imaginative and very literary fiction, continuing the tendency in "Night-Sea Journey" and "Autobiography" for aspects of a Künstlerroman to become autonomous fictions. Just as Ambrose soothes his wounded vanity at the end of "Water-Message" by the discovery of the blank letter and of all the possibilities that it presents, so, we understand, "Petition" is a writing on that blank paper and an integral part of the total Künstlerroman. "Petition" shows a self-sufficient fiction at one level of Ambrose's consciousness, just as "Night-Sea Journey" shows the creation of various fictions by his prenatal consciousness.
"Echo" follows "Lost in the Funhouse" in the sequence, and recounts the legend of Tiresias, Echo, and Narcissus from a viewpoint that could belong to any one of the three characters and which flaunts that ambiguity. "Overmuch presence appears to be the storyteller's problem," the narrator remarks midway through the story, and so he withdraws into a Chinese box, announcing cryptically the regnant theme of the story: "None can tell teller from told." As its ambiguous title suggests, the story is itself an "echo," recalling to the reader that the narrators and subjects of the various stories are identical as early as "Autobiography," and that Ambrose as both teller and subject of the stories has created fictions that pretend to be their own teller and subject. "Echo" develops, then, a fiction emblematic of the ambiguities of narration in the first six stoires of the sequence. It gives dramatic shape and substance to that inversion of the storytelling process upon itself that is suggested by the Moebius strip of the "Frame-Tale," that is metaphorically figured in the title of the sequence, and that is formulated and traced in the stories. In the development of the sequence, it serves to crystallize the vectors of the Künstlerroman at the point where the fictions with Ambrose as their explicit subject give way to experimental fictions with Ambrose as their implicit subject.
"Two Meditations," which follows "Echo" in the sequence, is composed of two brief fictions subtitled "Niagara Falls" and "Lake Erie." "Niagara Falls" records a series of bizarre correspondences, and "Lake Erie" records a series of equally bizarre consquences. While the inherent interest of these fictions is not great, their position in the sequence makes them richly suggestive. Following upon the dilemma of a narrator's "overmuch presence" in "Echo," they ask to be understood as fictions "stripped down" in an effort to eliminate authorial presence. Interestingly, and importantly, the type of fiction they represent corresponds to a type of fiction already devised by Ambrose. When Ambrose walks on the boardwalk in Ocean City, for instance, he composes a fiction in which soldiers on leave in a penny arcade shoot at miniature German submarines as a German U-boat commander squints through his periscope at American ships silhouetted by the glow of the arcade. The correspondence between Ambrose's fiction and the types of fiction in "Two Meditations" helps the reader to appreciate the latter as a further manifestation of Ambrose's Künstlerroman, as achieved and self-sufficient fictions with Ambrose as their determinedly effaced author. This understanding of "Two Meditations" is the key to understanding all of the subsequent stories of Lost in the Funhouse. "Two Meditations" inaugurates a series of fictions all of which are properly understood as attempts to write fiction, given the difficulty that fictions tend reductively to Künstlerroman, the artist and his conventions always peeping through with "overmuch presence." Because Ambrose is effacing himself so vigorously, it is wholly proper that he make no overt appearance in the remaining stories. Indeed, he has no need to. The blending of "Autobiography," "Petition" and "Echo" into the series of Ambrose stories has prepared us to understand the last five stories of the sequence according to a similar process of blending.
"Title" (which Barth calls a "triply schizoid monologue") takes as a fiction exactly the opposite tack of "Meditations." A type of authorial frenzy is implied by this dialectical arrangement of the two fictions, and the authorial strategy of "Meditations" appears retrospectively futile in consequence. Indeed, the strategy of "Title" is characterized by an attempt to implement as much self-consciousness as possible and to expel self-consciousness by an inundation of consciousness. "To write this allegedly ultimate story," the narrator says, "is a form of artistic fill in the blank, or artistic form of same, if you like. I don't." By overwhelming us with the narrative processes of which he is a victim, and by continually disparaging them, the narrator attempts to salvage at least a sense of superiority to the processes that betray his presence. As in "Autobiography," however, a strong sense of taedium vitae colors the narration; and, in his desperate attempts to call a halt to this mode of fiction, the narrator discredits his own strategy as surely as his turning to this strategy has discredited his tack in "Meditations." "O God comma I abhor self-consciousness," the narrator concludes. "I despise what we have come to; I loathe our loathsome loathing…." Clearly, this signifies that the fiction has once again turned back upon itself: sneering at the affectations of fiction is simply another variety of fictive affectation, and Ambrose is still lost in the funhouse.
"Glossolalia," the next fiction of the sequence, represents a new tack in this series of attempts to overcome fiction's betrayal. It consists of six statements by six different speakers (Barth notes that they are Cassandra, Philomela, the man mentioned in I Corinthians 14, the Queen of Sheba's talking bird, an unidentified psalmist, and the author), and the statements are notable primarily for their metrical similarity to The Lord's Prayer. Ecstatic, impersonally shaped speech, then, becomes the next attempt to create acceptable fictions. It is not successful. The metrical gimmick is calculatedly sterile, "more dismaying than delightful" as Barth puts it, and it suggests a merely perverse attempt to impose impersonal form upon language—an attempt so perverse that it reflects actually a highly subjective imposition of form. And again, the authorial voice discredits the method. In the last of the speeches, the "author" suggests that "ill fortune, constraint and terror [all of which apply to his immediate situation] generate guileful art." Again, he remarks apropos of himself that "prophet-birds seem to speak sagely but are shrieking their frustration." The language of ectasy, like all other modes of speech in Funhouse, is formal gimmickery, then; it becomes an aspect of an ultimate Künstlerroman inasmuch as the artistic life of the author is inescapably reflected in it, and it is a part of our immediate Künstlerroman in that it betrays the continuing need of Ambrose to escape from himself in his fictions.
"Life-Story" follows "Glossolalia" in the sequence and attempts a synthetic solution, combining absolute immediacy of reference with a third person distancing. Thus, the immediate act of composing the fiction becomes the subject of the fiction, while the narrator speaks detachedly of what his "author" is doing. As one might expect, the narrator finds himself no more successful with this method of controlling his presence than with the methods of the four previous stories: he addresses the reader impatiently as a "dogged uninsultable, print-oriented bastard" and, disgusted with his fiction, asks, "Can nothing surfeit, saturate you, turn you off? Where's your shame?" Interestingly, the continual attempt of Ambrose to transmute into fiction is now complicated by the narrator's (Ambrose's, and, by clear suggestion, Barth's) uncomfortable suspicion that he is merely a character in the fiction, and "in quite the sort [of fiction] one least prefers." Although Ambrose might be disconcerted, this development is partially what he has struggled for in the four preceding stories, transforming the narrator's presence into a wholly integral part of the fiction. The authorial presence, of course, has not been assimilated into the fiction, and, in fact, it is more delinquent in this story than in any other in the sequence. The narrator acknowledges the authorial presence from within the fiction, but he has little sense of what his author is doing with the fiction. For all the narrator knows, he is involved in a Bildungsroman, an Erziehungsroman, or a roman fleuve ("!") Delightfully, Ambrose's frantic attempts to find a proper place in the funhouse by eliminating or integrating the "overmuch presence" that is an embarrassment to him in so many ways has involved him finally in the most familiar order of literary schizophrenia: as the narrator he is reduced to a simple character in the fiction and as the author he finds himself relegated to an unstable, uncontrollable, and eminently visible presence not wholly outside of the fiction. The Moebius strip has brought Ambrose back to approximately the stance of author and narrator in "Night-Sea Journey," and the difficulty of writing a fiction that does not reduce itself to a Künstlerroman has merely been confused en route. "Life-Story" effectively undercuts the narrator's attempts to rid himself of his overmuch presence by ingenious and esoteric strategies, then, and it represents the termination of that effort in Ambrose's Künstlerroman.
"Menelaiad," the penultimate story of the sequence, dramatizes Ambrose's attempt to deal with his presence in a more traditional way. His new tack is an Homeric-Conradian effort to obscure authorial presence by an intricate nest of speakers, modulated by an overtone of Joycean myth-grounding. But, as we might expect, the method betrays itself once again. As we listen to Menelaus relate to Telemachus what he had already told Helen he had previously related to Proteus with regard to what he had told Eidothea, our heads quite properly begin to spin, and when these nested speeches involve a quotational knot such as ["'(") ('(("What?"))') (")'"], the narrative method has clearly invalidated itself as a technique for masking authorial presence. As in "Title" and "Glossolalia," the effort to write "objective" fiction results in intolerably subjective gimmickry. And so it is that Ambrose steps in at the end of "Menelaiad" as, in frustration, he stepped in at the end of "Glossolalia," only to insist with cavalier logic that he is not dismayed. Repudiating all that he has struggled for in the previous fictions, he pretends satisfaction that he will survive only as a persona, as "Proteus's terrifying last disguise, Beauty's spouse's odd Elysium: the absurd, unending possibility of love." It is the possibility of love, we are preposterously asked to believe, that narrates the story. Ambrose's desperation has turned momentarily into either self-delusion or chicanery.
"Anonymiad" is the appropriate conclusion to the sequence. Invoking a goatherd as its speaker, it affects a return to the very dawn of written composition and simply refuses to become embroiled in the problems that are the subject of the sequence. Clearly, however, the speaker of "Anonymiad" is a sort of composite Ambrose. Like the Ambrose in "Petition," he is in love with a Thalia. Like the Ambrose in "Water-Message," he finds a blank message that might be his own washed up by the sea. Like the Ambrose of "Funhouse" and "Life-Story," he is intensely conscious of literary technique and provides a running commentary on his own devices. Like the Ambrose of several stories, he goes through a period of contriving "a precarious integrity by satirizing his own dilemma," only to reject "whimsic fantasy" ("Petition"), "grub fact" ("Two Meditations"), and "pure senseless music" ("Glossolalia"). "Adversity generates guileful art," he comments, playing upon his terminal remarks in "Glossolalia" and making evident the continuity of voice in the sequence. The Ambrose of "Anonymiad" has a new contempt for the esoteric problems of literature, however, and a new fervor for simply getting the thing done. At the very beginning of the fiction, for instance, the speaker open-mindedly parallels ending his life, commencing his masterpiece, returning to sleep, and invoking his muse. The four understandings of fiction suggested by these processes are neither distinct nor the same, we are given to understand, and we are free to understand this fiction as evidencing any one and any combination of them. Again, the speaker cannot take seriously "the pretension of reality" any more than he can take himself seriously. He is "the contrary of solipsistic," yet he is surprised when the kings and queens of his fiction correspond to actual kings and queens. The real drama of fiction, he insists, "is whether he can trick this tale out at all." Electing henceforth to use the first person anonymous as his point of view, he no longer questions if such a viewpoint is a contradiction in terms and a betrayal of his presence: the only thing that finally matters to him, as he makes clear in the climactic last paragraph, is that the "Anonymiad" gets written.
The Künstlerroman ends, then, with Ambrose disdaining his earlier attempts to understand and master the funhouse of fiction, and the Moebial involution is complete with his return to a simple making of fiction. The storyteller must remain "lost in the funhouse," continually embarrassed by his suspicion that the real operators are looking at him through peepholes, that old-timers at the entrance have counseled him falsely, and that older brothers and wiry little Seamen who have never contemplated a theory of funhouses are healthier and more expert for their ignorance. Fictions are not the escape from personality that Ambrose (and Eliot before him) would like them to be, for all fictions are finally Künstlerroman, things very like funhouses, and no place for the adolescently sensitive.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1723
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."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4111
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 is that something is always left to be said, and everything is to be said all over again. Thus, one seeks for sense in nonsense, as in "Glossolalia"…. Lost in the Funhouse is an attempt to see whether the medium can possibly serve as the message.
The floating opera becomes the funhouse, with its labyrinths, distorted mirrors, secret passageways, peepholes, loopholes, and general crazy construction—probably with the author's awareness that even a funhouse that is completely disorganized and chaotic had a deviser—a mind that deliberately created chaos. But the funhouse is also the ivory tower of the artist, including the structure of his own works, the method of his narrative technique, and the relationship between the artist and his works, particularly insofar as the works resulted from the artist's need.
When one does form the Möbius strip of Barth's "Frame-Tale," the strip reads continuously in script writ large: "Once upon a time there was a story that began once upon a time…." One begins reading at any point on the strip, and the possible distortion of syntax is unimportant. With the reader's inclination to punctuate and interpret, what he finds will depend on where he begins. And Barth of course articulates the case also of the idiot's sound and fury, telling a story that goes on forever without either end or accomplishment.
The symbol of the Möbius strip allows the numerous distortions of time sequence that occur in the volume. Both Ambrose and the narrator of "Anonymiad" can invent fiction. The strip also symbolizes the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny when someone begins the process of gaining the wisdom of the world over again….
The Möbius strip is also a symbol of the labyrinth of the funhouse from which even the extra possibilities of movement allow only cosmopsis, a realization of limited possibilities, whether one deals with the physical universe, the relativity of time, or the house of fiction. One may attempt technique, for example, without ever really being father to oneself or unmoved first cause or the literal deviser and creator of language. The strip perfectly represents the increase in possibilities that relativity theory has provided, while it at the same time shows limitations of the complex maze. The universe is unbounded but finite. Whatever "unbounded" means, "finite" does not mean infinite. If the mind escapes madness in the awareness of the complex paradoxes, it still must shy from the possibility that beyond the finite is a chaos that is both unbounded and infinite. To escape, one goes on with the story.
The speaker of "Night-Sea Journey" is a sperm cell on its way to fertilize an ovum, and it is the lone survivor of the millions of its fellows spurted through the canal in the one emission. Barth has ironically set a microscopic spark of life to write the whole account of the mystery of existence. The result is a brilliant summation of the history of philosophical speculation about ontology. Beyond this point, the sketch is so clear an exposition that comment on the content is mere detraction. More pertinent is the observation that Barth confines the content to speculation within a limited set of known conditions. Whatever the state of the sperm's knowledge, the reader knows that since it speaks it lived and met its destined She. The story is an exposition of Spielman's Law, which "showed the 'sphincter's riddle' and the mystery of the University to be the same. Ontogeny recapitulates cosmogeny—what is it but to say that proctoscopy repeats hagiography?" (Giles Goat-Boy). Among other meanings, Barth may be reversing and punning on Shakespeare's observation that some divinity shapes our ends. But the narrator of "Night-Sea Journey" requests his coming self to be heroic and reject the new love and thus break the continuity of eternal recurrence that Spielman's Law states. Though he protests against the instinct that leads him to accept his union with She, the avatars that follow him all feel the instinct helplessly—even Narcissus, who uses the concept of the Möbius strip to turn the instinct upon himself.
The ontogenic articulator must receive a name, a ritual that occurs in "Ambrose His Mark." Naming also refers to the knack for calling things by their names, which requires recognition of them. This ability is that of the man of knowledge and especially of the poet. But while others christen babies in the church service, Ambrose derives a name from a secular incident occurring in a black magic ceremony that takes place during the church ceremony. He gets a saint's name in a Protestant community.
Linguistic motifs link the stories and the stages of the youth's development. The phrase "vessel and contents" of "Night-Sea Journey" suggests the idea of form and content, while also being a sexual metaphor. It also suggests the bottle that Ambrose finds and the jugs of wine that "inspired" the writer of "Anonymiad." The narrator of "Night-Sea Journey" is also "tale-bearer of a generation," that of his immediate companions who perish in their vessel….
[Likewise] Andrea's breast in "Ambrose His Mark" ironically anticipates Helen's test of "Anonymiad" and those of the Muses, jugs from which the writer drinks and whose mouths he uses for his Oedipal complexities…. The blank replacing Ambrose's last name [similarly] anticipates "Title," which also deals with a blank and a name. Ambrose is designed to deal with the spoken, honied word; and he will do so in the "Autobiography" of which his tale of naming is a part.
"Autobiography" shows the child lost in the funhouse of linguistic ambiguity where words express vague intuitions of creativity of both life and story, sex and sublimation. Ambrose of "Water-Message" is lost in the funhouse of adolescence. He is particularly caught between fact and fancy, as he begins to mature. He intuits the knowledge that major secrets exist but does not know the extent of his ignorance. He already prefers fancy, both because he is an imaginative adolescent and because he is a fledgling artist with honied tongue, though the bees that gave him articulation also gave him a complex about bees.
The wealth of facts is in The Cyclopedia of Facts, as also in the Book of Knowledge of "Ambrose His Mark," the story in which Uncle Konrad persistently gives information. Facts About Your Diet tells of the physical organism. But even Nature's Secrets, ironically, fails to provide Ambrose with the knowledge he begins to want about both his own nature and the nature of sex.
One of the results is escape to fantasy. The story is a version of the collection of tales, wherein the stream of consciousness that is Ambrose's narrative at the first level includes the series of stories that he imagines. Ambrose is an avatar of the inventor of fiction. His mark is the phylogenic curse, referring to the ambiguity of states and kinds of knowledge. He begins to know of art and love. Thus, he begins to know of knowledge and consequently begins to lose his innocence, like Todd and Ebenezer [protagonists of The Floating Opera and The Sot-Weed Factor]. At the end of the story, Ambrose discovers a fact about the composition of paper, a bit of wisdom about the nature of secrets and an intuition of more to come. He has begun to feel the wide knowledge of ignorance that his progenitor of "Night-Sea Journey" had. Some of his knowledge came from the sea in a bottle from anonymous, the original goat's hide having turned to paper made of wood.
"Lost in the Funhouse" is a record of awareness. It has two main, disparate, connected themes, art and love. But the point is the point that Barth finds inescapable—awareness of awareness, self-consciousness about roles. The artist-hero who is lost in the funhouse is thoroughly aware of what he does. He knows he is lost. He knows he is in a funhouse with deliberately constructed deception; but he also knows that it is a funhouse. He knows everything that it is possible to know. He knows that he perceives the situation, conceives of the situation, creates the situation, and re-creates the situation in writing an account of it. And, finally, he is aware of his control over some aspects of the account. He may not know the ultimate source of his material, but he can observe himself forming his material. He can observe himself lost, aware of being lost, and aware of the deliberate attempt to discover himself.
He is also aware that, despite all his awareness, he really is lost in something he calls a funhouse. It obviously operates on a principle. Deliberate chaos requires as strict a rationale as any rationalism. But also the operator who appears through the crack is asleep or oblivious. One counts on him for nothing except an absurd floating opera. It is all quite a whirl. Barth should have put his funhouse on a roller coaster, though the distorting mirrors and the uneven floor serve nearly the same purpose.
"Lost in the Funhouse" also deals with the themes of art and love; and if the end is trustworthy, Ambrose, the sensitive youth, chooses to tell stories instead of making love, as Ebenezer also does. The choice is forced on him by his awareness that a choice exists. Peter, interested only in earthly paradise, does not know of the choice. Peter is comparable to the gross twin of "Petition" and is the Peter of "Water-Message," whose name is quite likely a sexual pun; or possibly he is really Ambrose's incarnation of a fantasy about his sexual being.
The funhouse is everything. The term refers to the universe, ramshackle and run-down, fragments of illusions and bad dreams of days past. But the funhouse is also both palace of art and palace of pleasure. One reference is to the tunnel of love of Magda's anatomy, incarnation of the She of "Night-Sea Journey." Ambrose feels the curse of the narrator of that story, who gave him a heritage of urge against the instinctive. Thus, Ambrose is like the twins of "Petition," instinctively ambivalent. His instinct is phylogenically to the tunnel of love and the funhouse, while he also instinctively seeks to prevent that instinct from operating, in consonance with the appeal made by the sperm of "Night-Sea Journey" from which he came. All the dark places are symbols of the cave—the jungle, the hut, the funhouse passageway, the space under the boardwalk. The "little slap slap of thigh on ham" appears to be the only explanation of the principle on which the funhouse operates, as Todd and Jake [protagonists of The Floating Opera and The End of the Road] recognize in their observations on coitus. Possibly even the artist's work is the result of that principle's operation.
"Echo" is also a presentation of an epistemology, even a metaphysics, in parable form. The artistic process is at such a point of importance that the real subject finally is how art works—aesthetic that is a metaphysic. Knowing the shortcomings of language, being obsessed with the need to be accurate, and having a desperately keen awareness of the impossibility of being accurate, one employs elaborate metaphor that turns language back upon itself and makes it work in reverse or like a Möbius strip, or like an unbounded universe that derives its limitlessness from turning back upon itself like a doughnut. The parable is the metaphor, a statement of the case, aesthetic or metaphysical, in a language that deliberately substitutes words for the words that might apply. The point is to escape language through the use of language; instead of getting caught in the attempt to find the exact words to state the case, one deliberately chooses other words to state the case. Then one begins over.
The cave of "Echo" has several meanings. As echo chamber within the context of the phylogenic sea-journey, the cave is chamber of endless cycling and repetition, all occurring in the dark. Echo is symbolically an ultimate—a sound without a voice. The sound is somewhat like Fat May's voice, from an unknown source in a funhouse that is all confusion and secrecy. Notes from underground are echoes from a funhouse. Besides, Echo is the voice of silence. She is also the call to art and possibly just the vague call of the gnostic religions. Only Echo has tempted Narcissus "caveward." The cave and the "dark passage" are echoes of the channel of "Night-Sea Journey" and of the tunnel of love in "Lost in the Funhouse," as well as the hut and the jungle of "Water-Message." Ambrose is both Narcissus and Echo. Because Echo is "afflicted with immortality she turns from life and learns to tell stories with such art …"; the words anticipate the choice of art that Ambrose makes at the end of "Lost in the Funhouse."
The motifs here are the rejection of love for art and the concern with finding the self among the possibilities, distortions, avatars. The hint of death may be to Barth's point too: at least unpleasantness is, for at Donacon, Narcissus will discover that self-knowledge is bad news, since "the gift of suicience is a painful present…."
The main significance of "Echo" is that it is placed directly at the midpoint of the volume. Thus, the outer two pieces, both by anonymous narrators, echo into the middle of the volume, deep into the cave, amidst the funhouse wherein they are all lost. Both anonymous narrators are, in their wisdom, types of Tiresias, the knowledgeable one, and of Narcissus, the innocent who stumbles about, muddled, in the real world, or somewhere between two worlds. All three reject love—and after this point, one of the main themes is the conflict between art and love, isolation and involvement, themes which are, however, anticipated in the stories immediately preceding, wherein the sexual impulse is troublesome. Narcissus thus represents early manhood, the point where the youthful artist chooses his mistress. "Anonymiad" with the story of Merope echoes the theme of "Echo," the sublimation of sexual energy to produce art.
"Title" indicates the difficulty "To turn ultimacy against itself to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new." The title of "Title" probably means that the piece has no title but that its title would go where "Title" is placed on the pages. Thus, the story has no title. The title (lack of title) thus suggests the content, as titles traditionally have: for the story deals with "the blank," and with the blank—the blankness—the end, rather than beginning or middle. The story itself, however, making use of its own theory of using paradox to escape contradictions, comes to an end with a sentence requiring "end" that is left unspoken. When words must go on forever, resolving one paradox into another, even when that end is silence, there is neither "end" nor end—only silence, then one again begins; for, paradoxically, when articulation is so necessary because it drives off despair, there is no possibility of silence. "Glossolalia" tells of silences and miscommunication, but uses words, then a nonsense tongue, which, however, utters; and then "Life-Story" begins. Meanwhile, "Everything leads to nothing," as the narrator says at the beginning of the story, which itself begins at some point "waiting for the end."
Barth probably has tried to divide the bulk of his "Menelaiad" into two equal halves, wherein the seventh level ironically is the largest portion, symbolically comparable to the length of the whole tale. That is, if the universe really does turn back upon itself, the utter ideal would be to have a central inner story that has precisely the same length as the frame tale and all its inner tales. Two infinities would overlap. Inner and outer would be the same. And it seems more than likely that Barth does, in fact, intend his narrative technique here to present and symbolize a metaphysics or at least a cosmology.
In the series of tales, "Menelaiad" occurs at a particular point within a collection of tales roughly designed as the autobiography of the artist; which in turn derives in at least some way from an autobiography of the artist who composes the stories. Farther outside this framework is the narrative "frame tale." Outside this circle is the "author's preface," outside which is the devising author, who is a real man in a real world. In this situation, however, the author conceives of the possibility that he is a fictional person in a real world, or a fictional character in a fictional world that may or may not be of his own making. He may be a series of masks like Todd or a series of moods like Jake and thus never consistently anything, either real or fictional, precisely because recognition of a series of changes prevents exact definition. Consistency is never sufficient for definition ever to be complete. No one could ever say what a man is, and this idea is probably one of those that Menelaus has in mind both when he goes through the narrative levels representing earlier stages of his life; and when, in the central story, he chooses a succession of disguises for the purpose of eventually forcing Proteus to provide the information that makes the return voyage possible. Here is an example of regression to silence or a state of exhausted possibilities.
While "Menelaiad" is about love, "Anonymiad" is about art and the lover of the mistress art. In the interview called "Algebra and Fire," Barth suggests that the narrator is the anonymous inventor of fiction. Anticipating the technique of the ["Dunyazadiad" of Chimera], he is, however, also Barth, who presents various details of his own career. The narrator says, for example, that he "sang a sprightly goat-song, fully expecting that the Queen herself would hear and call for me." His singing did bring him a mistress.
These difficulties with love echo other stories, particularly "Lost in the Funhouse," "Title," and "Life-Story." The "bee-sweet" name of the girl of his dream recalls Merope and the naming of Ambrose as well as the Genie's friend in "Dunyazadiad." The "one tale I knew" recalls "Echo" and its idea that the same tale is told again. The "terror of her love" is what drives Menelaus from Helen. The ironic remark "I'm no Narcissus" means he is willing to share his experience with others. The remark is ironic because of course the narcissist is also the egoist who delights in displaying himself. The decision to combine tragedy and satire is to invent tragicomedy or farce as the most realistic genre. The "wish to elevate maroonment into a minstrel masterpiece" is autobiographical in being a statement of Barth's idea that one's performance derives in great part from his isolation in a universe that he cannot understand. All the narrator's work is a "love letter" deriving from sublimation.
"Anonymiad" contains numerous puns connecting sex and art—production and composition. Other technical flourishes include the typographical display that mixes poetry and fiction. The artist works in poetry but thinks in prose and gradually uses prose for expression. Clio "could hold more wine than any of her sisters without growing tipsy" because history is long and full. The "Headpiece" makes the epic's conventional invocation to the Muse. At least one epic simile occurs: the farmboy. As inventor of fiction, the narrator tells the early fables, "of country mouse and city mouse." Part One-and-One-Half quotes from an unfinished Part One; and to compensate, Part Three is omitted, presumably because the artist had nearly run out of space and so put a tailpiece on to the tail of Part One. Thus, Part One-and-One-Half summarizes the uncomposed Part One. Part Two opens with an opening to Part Two about Part Two. The rest of Part Two combines retelling and recounting Part Three, in a hopeless attempt to "get to where I am." Part Three becomes one of the blanks of "Title" and of the water message, though already existent in Part Two, which Part One-and-One-Half has replaced. Combining the inspirations of Clio and Thalia—history and comedy—and seeing the overloaded amphora sink are humorous references to his own work. The note "anon I forgot it" in reference to his name, is a half-pun. The idea "to give up language altogether and float voiceless in the wash of time" suggests the technique of earlier pieces as well as Barth's logical conclusion about silence, despite which both he and Anonymous write on. Finally, "Anonymiad" is the story of composition of "Anonymiad," and "Wrote it" means the word was spoken down and that the silence came upon him and the waters. The phrase also refers to the epistle of "Night-Sea Journey" and to the blank message that Ambrose found.
"Anonymiad" also echoes many of the themes of other pieces in Lost in the Funhouse. It begins both the poem and the fiction in medias res, as epics conventionally do. "Middle" recalls "Title" and "Life-Story," both of which are being told over again, in the echo that is "Anonymiad," which also is an echo of "Echo," which pre-echoes the accounts of "Title" and "Life-Story." Here the "honey" is Merope, as well as the words of love and song. Merope is an avatar of Thalia of "Petition" as well as Helen of "Menelaiad." The tale also winds on a Möbius strip in and out of illusion and reality. A version of the narrative's origin is interwoven with the narrative that the narrator tells of his past. The minstrel's reply is an ambiguous riddle resembling those of the youthful wit. Ironically, while he gets the position in great part because he sings of love, his art begins to usurp his time for love soon after he arrives at court. The inventor of fiction is a goatherd who sings a goat song of satire and tragedy, rather than a shepherd who sings of Daphnis and Chloe.
"Anonymiad" suggests that the anonymous note of "Water-Message" is a message from the self to the self in some recurrence that leads the artist to conceive of himself as a ubiquitous spirit that utters a message in moving over the face of the waters. Perhaps also, the artist who involves himself with his fiction and finds himself fictional, as he does in "Life-Story," is so dispersed—fragmented—as to be merely anonymous. He is no man, no name. The artist's odyssey is over. He is "first person anonymous," a character in his own fiction. To the question "Who are you?" the perfectly audible echo is "I am nobody." The hint of the answer that Odysseus, another wanderer imprisoned in a cave, gave to the Cyclops is probably intentional.
As exemplification of "Frame-Tale" (Möbius Strip), "Anonymiad" tells of a sea journey just as "Night-Sea Journey" does. The book begins and ends with anonymity, and the ending is as insignificant as the beginning. The book throughout has no character except Ambrose, who vanishes in the labyrinthine funhouse of fiction.
Barth exemplifies his concept of the seamless university in his detailed orchestration of Lost in the Funhouse, as he does in Chimera later. So many linguistic conundrums appear that explication would be far longer than the original, and no discussion of content would be exhaustive.
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The Floating Opera (novel) 1956; revised edition, 1967The End of the Road (novel) 1958; revised edition, 1967The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1960; revised edition, 1967Giles Goat-Boy; or, The Revised New Syllabus (novel) 1966 "The Literature of Exhaustion" (essay) 1967; appeared in journal The AtlanticLost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (short stories) 1968Chimera (novellas) 1972Two Narratives for Tape and Live Voice (recording) 1974LETTERS (novel) 1979 "The Literature of Replenishment" (essay) 1980; appeared in journal The AtlanticThe Literature of Exhaustion; and, The Literature of Replenishment (essays) 1982Sabbatical: A Romance (novel) 1982The Friday Book; or, Book-titles Should Be Straightforward and Subtitles Avoided: Essays and Other Nonfiction (essays) 1984The Tidewater Tales (novel) 1987The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (novel) 1991Once Upon a Time (novel) 1994
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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 have to be performed on a stage or else recorded on a tape, rather than printed on a page.
The idea had been with him ever since The Sot-Weed Factor was published in 1960. Although not a financial success, that novel had attracted much favorable attention on college campuses, and as a result he had received frequent invitations to read his work at various schools. Sometimes he read sections from the novels he had already published; other times he tested the reception of excerpts from the as-yet-unpublished Giles. But that fiction had been designed to appear in a book, and the more he read in public, the more he considered writing something especially for a voice and an audience. The project was a logical outcome of the determination he had shown in The Sot-Weed Factor to take up old narrative forms and rejuvenate them. After all, the oldest kind of storytelling is oral, and Barth found the virtues of such a medium rare, hence appealing, in an age of print: the dramatic quality of the human voice, plus the intimacy between the storyteller and his audience.
His interest in oral fiction was stimulated when he left Penn State in the fall of 1965 and went to teach at The State University of New York in Buffalo. The English department there had rented the music department's electronic laboratory, and in early 1966, once Barth had finished correcting the proof sheets for Giles, he took advantage of the laboratory to experiment with fiction recorded on tape. The device was ideal for his purposes; it offered a chance to overcome certain limitations of the oral medium as it existed before the twentieth century. For one thing, a tape recorder removed the necessity of having an actual storyteller in the room every time the story is told. For another, it enabled the listener to stop the story at any moment and play back whatever passages he felt like.
To an extent, Barth's goal from the outset of his career had been to concentrate on the sound of his prose. In 1953, when he applied for a position in the English department at Penn State, he summed up his fictional aims: "My object has been to explore sounds, rhythms and ideas more thoroughly, and to develop more rigorously disciplined eyes, ears and attitudes." And years later, speaking of The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, he remarked to an interviewer, "I think I can be allowed the statement that whatever the faults of my writing, it usually reads pretty well out loud, to the ear" [Alan Prince, "An Interview with John Barth," Prism (Spring 1968)]. All this was appropriate to a writer who had considered a career in music (playing drums and orchestrating) before he decided to be a teacher and a writer.
But what he had in mind now was not just fiction that sounds "pretty well" when read out loud, but fiction that works best when read out loud, that gains part of its drama from being read out loud. For example, he conceived of a story called "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction," in which the main character and first-person narrator is a story that speaks from a tape machine and talks about itself.
Mother was a mere passing fancy who didn't pass quickly enough; there's evidence also that she was a mere novel device, just in style, soon to become a commonplace, to which Dad resorted one day when he found himself by himself with pointless pen.
Dad, of course, is Barth, and Mother the tape machine (as Barth himself makes clear in a prefatory author's note). And when he presents the story in public, he is on stage in the guise of Dad and author, smoking, drinking coffee, and listening to the story in the machine complain to him about its hard lot. "I don't recall asking to be conceived!" it says. "I see no point in going further…. I'll turn myself off if I can this instant." But it cannot, so it implores Barth to end it. But Barth does not; instead he walks disgustedly off the stage, leaving the story to ramble on about itself until at last its tape flaps abruptly off the reel. The story's life is analogous to one possible view of our own: we did not ask to be born, our existence seems pointless, it goes on too long, we wish to kill ourselves but do not have the means (or if we do, we cannot overcome our instinct to remain alive), thus we drag on, lapsing into nonsense, finally silence. And completing the analogy, Barth, who ignores the plea of his story to end it, is like one fashionable view of God, who having created us has abandoned us, helpless and hopeless, to misery.
Barth underscores the failed nature of this story and its life by noting a partial resemblance between it and ancient heroes. Its conception was unnatural, it says. Its father tried to kill it young, but it survived, and now thinking of itself as blind and crippled, it would like vengeance on the father. "One [parent] hoped I'd be astonishing, forceful, triumphant—heroical in other words," but as the story admits, it turned out merely conventional. Even it "aspired to immortality," but instead of being a "crippled hero" it became a "heroic cripple," not the same thing at all. And that is another point of the story's story, of everyone's story. Our struggle almost makes us heroical, but almost is not good enough. We aspire, but we do not achieve what we intend. We start out hoping, as do our parents generally hope, that we are special, and end up realizing that we are pathetically ordinary. "A change for the better still isn't unthinkable; miracles can be cited. But the odds … aren't encouraging." "The story of our life," a character in a later story says.
Another fiction of this type Barth called "Echo." It too has a voice out of a machine, although this time Barth is not on stage with it. The plot of the story is similar to the myth of its namesake; Barth took most of the incidents from a well-known two-volume survey, The Greek Myths, compiled by Robert Graves. "In the myth, you remember," Barth told an audience at Harvard University on August 13, 1967,
the nymph Echo is raped by Pan and later becomes a master storyteller. Zeus employs her to entertain his wife with her fictions while he slips out and makes free with certain mountain-nymphs. When Hera [Zeus's wife] realizes she's been tricked, she punishes Echo (who hadn't known Zeus was using her) by depriving her of the ability to speak for herself; she can only repeat others' words, though the voice is still her own. Later on she falls in love with Narcissus, the son of Leirope and a minor river-god, and when he rebuffs her she grieves away until nothing's left of her but her voice: pure medium without substance or original content. Narcissus himself, of course, tries to embrace his reflected image and then also pines away for frustration until he becomes a blooming narcotic. Somewhat later the blind prophet Tiresias, who'd foreseen all these events from the beginning and had warned Narcissus's mother that her boy would lead a long happy life if he never came to know himself, meets his own death beside the same spring where Narcissus blossoms and Echo laments. To the myth I've added one refinement: in her final state Echo loses her individual voice as well, and repeats the words of others in their own voices.
The solitary voice from the machine is, then, a perfect representation of Echo's bodiless condition. But since Barth presents her in her "final state" where she can speak only the words of others in their own voices, the audience cannot be certain whose words and voice are on the tape, those of Tiresias, Narcissus, or, at the extreme, Barth. Accordingly the story is extra-rich, able to be approached and appreciated from several equally valid points of view. If Echo is arranging the words and voice of another in order to tell her own story, then the tale is about love and its disastrous consequences. If she is repeating the words and voice of Narcissus, then the tale is about self-love and its disasters. If she is repeating the words and voice of Tiresias, then the tale is about cruel knowledge and the burdensome foresight that everything will turn out badly for everyone in the end. Finally, if Echo is repeating the words and voice of Barth, then the viewpoints of Echo, Narcissus, and Tiresias are headspinningly co-existent.
Barth wrote "Autobiography" and "Echo" exclusively for monophonic tape, but the electronics laboratory at Buffalo also gave him the opportunity to work with multitrack tape, and the principal result of this medium was the story "Title." It is about an imaginary writer debating with himself, and in Barth's favorite performance of the story, the debate is carried on by recorded stereo voices. The narrator says something to himself through a speaker on one side of the stage, then answers himself from the speaker on the other side, and all the while Barth himself stands between the two speakers, listening to what the voices say to each other. As for the debate, it "has to do with three things simultaneously," Barth told that Harvard audience on August 13, 1967:
the narrator's difficulties with his lady-friend; his difficulties with the story he's trying to compose; and the difficult situation he feels his art-form and his civilization to be in too. The question is raised whether one might "go on," at least provisionally—in a love affair, say, or an art-form, or a society—by making the difficulty one's subject. The answer is equivocal.
The difficulties of the imaginary author are the result of his failure to find meaning in his love affair, his art, his civilization. Yet he recognizes that these things are not themselves meaningless, that they only appear that way to him, and so he tries to make some sense out of them. "Everything leads to nothing," he says. "The final question is, Can nothing be made meaningful?" At least in terms of the story he's having trouble with, he comes up with an answer: he can write a meaningful story about the impossibility of writing a meaningful story. As it happens, though, he never writes that story; he merely debates with himself about writing it. Even if he did write it, the result would be redundant, for the kind of story he would write is very close to the story in which he is a character: "Title." Barth has managed quite a trick—through the voices of the imaginary author, he has talked about writing a meaningful story about the impossibility of writing a meaningful story, and in the process he has written the story he talked about. "You tell me it's self-defeating to talk about it instead of just up and doing it; but to acknowledge what I'm doing while I'm doing it is exactly the point." And more, as will be clear in a moment, Barth has matched his technique with his subject matter: he stands on stage between the two voices, looking like some devilish magician, and as the voices debate he interrupts them, censoring their remarks and replacing what he has cut out either with the phrase "fill in the blank" or else with senseless grammatical expressions. "I'll fill in the blank with this noun here in my prepositional object" is one statement when Barth is done censoring it. The technique conforms with the subject matter because it dramatizes the impossibility of saying anything meaningful; an absolute example of that impossibility, of course, would be to write nothing at all, instead to provide blank tape or pages, or better yet, no tape or pages. But that silence would not be fiction, and since Barth is above all a fictionist, he demonstrates the trouble one can have filling the blank of nothingness by acknowledging that he himself cannot do it, by telling his audience to "fill in the blank" for themselves, the blank of this title, "Title," this sentence, this art, this civilization, this life. And paradoxically, by acknowledging that he cannot fill in the blank, by dramatizing that he cannot, he has actually done it, brilliantly.
Yet, however successful Barth was at writing fiction for the recorded voice, he did not restrict himself to that medium very long. "God knows I have the greatest love for the voice," he maintained to an interviewer, but he was, he had to admit, a "print-oriented bastard…. I'm thinking more and more about what print can do that nothing else can do" [Douglas M. Davis, "The End Is a Beginning for Barth's 'Funhouse,'" National Observer (16 September 1969)], and by way of illustration he had ready several stories that made as brilliant use of print as "Title" did of voice.
One of them, "Petition," is especially suited for print since it is a letter, something which in its natural state has to be read on a page. As Barth is well aware, the letter format is a traditional way to tell a story. [He told Davis:]
The other day a student came to me and said he wasn't going to pretend anything anymore, that henceforth his fiction would deal only in printed documents. But that's precisely how the novel began: Richardson with his letters, saying they were real, not a story.
The epistolary technique is not a frequent one these days, of course, and that would be a reason why Barth chose it: the traditional can become innovative if it is taken up after a comparatively long period of disuse. Another reason why Barth chose it would be the dramatic contrast between the apparent authenticity of the document (it is addressed to Prajadhipok, the King of Siam, who was indeed, as the letter states, at Ophir Hall in White Plains, New York, on April 21, 1931, preparing to undergo an eye operation) and the patently made-up subject matter (a man with his belly attached to the small of his twin brother's back is in love with a female contortionist to whom his brother is consort). The letter-writer describes his situation with his brother:
I am slight, my brother is gross. He's incoherent but vocal; I'm articulate and mute. He's ignorant but full of guile; I think I may call myself reasonably educated, and if ingenuous, no more so I hope than the run of scholars. My brother is gregarious…. For my part, I am by nature withdrawn, even solitary.
The differences between them are now so intolerable that the brother in back is writing to the King in hopes "that at your bidding the world's most accomplished surgeons may successfully divide my brother from myself." If his plea is unsuccessful, he determines to kill himself and his brother with him. The relation between these two brothers is analogous to many things; [in his "No Exit," Partisan Review 36, No. 2 (1969)] Tony Tanner has suggested that the incoherent brother is, for example,
like life itself, constantly shrugging off the attempts of language to circumscribe it within particular definitions. Language, in the form of the articulate brother, would be happy to pursue its inclination to ponder its elegant patternings in pure detachment from the soiling contacts of reality. But they are brothers, divided yet related—neither one nor two.
Perhaps better, the brothers are somewhat like the mind and the body, one pondering while the other eats, humps, defecates. "To be one: paradise! To be two: bliss! But to be both and neither is unspeakable," the narrator concludes, describing as it were the condition of a mind living within a body which too has a life of its own, yet a mind that is dependent on a body for its life. It is true that the narrator is not yet within his brother's body; still he senses that this is what is going to happen. He feels his brother straining to suck him in, and he has a fair idea that one day he will be inside like the woman he loves who lives within the body of the woman his brother humps.
Another story that Barth wrote especially for the printed medium is "Lost in the Funhouse." It is about a thirteen-year-old boy, Ambrose, who has gone with his family to enjoy a holiday at the Ocean City amusement park on the Atlantic coast of Maryland. While there, Ambrose gets lost in the funhouse and is some time threading the maze back out, and this incident is explicitly meant to symbolize many things: that Ambrose is becoming aware of himself, his sexuality, his mind, his world, his life, and that he is confused by it all. The problems of a sensitive adolescent are hardly original subject matter; they are indeed, as the narrator goes far to admit, tiresomely familiar. But here they have special interest because of the manner in which they are presented. The narrator employs such devices of print as italics, dashes, and plot diagrams to draw attention to his technique. He points out the effectiveness or failure of various descriptions; he digresses to explain the functions of his metaphors; he criticizes the action for its lack of clarity, direction, and pace. The following passage is typical:
En route to Ocean City [Ambrose] sat in the back seat of the family car with his brother Peter, age fifteen, and Magda G―, age fourteen, a pretty girl and exquisite young lady, who lived not far from them on B―Street in the town of D―, Maryland. Initials, blanks, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth-century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality. It is as if the author felt it necessary to delete the names for reasons of tact or legal liability. Interestingly, as with other aspects of realism, it is an illusion that is being enhanced, by purely artificial means.
The storyteller is trying to present old material in a new way, and he does so by emphasizing the conventions of fiction rather than concealing them. "The technique is advanced, as you see, but the situation … is conventionally dramatic" is what the narrator of "Title" says about a story he is trying to write, and that remark might just as well have been made by the narrator of this story; it is a close description of what is going on here where technical advancement takes the form of technical—as opposed to philosophical or moralistic—intrusion. Still, as with other stories by Barth, the technique is more than just a presentation of the subject matter; it is a representation of that subject matter, for the narrator too, like Ambrose, is lost. His sentences go wrong, he says. His plot "winds upon itself, digresses, retreats, hesitates, sighs, collapses, expires." He is as self-conscious of his style as Ambrose is of growing up, until in his final paragraph what he writes about Ambrose comes to have strong bearing also on himself, his art, and his attitude toward life. And that paragraph, one cannot help feeling, is about the most autobiographical Barth ever wrote.
He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he's not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.
"Lost in the Funhouse" has interest for us in another way besides the graphic use it makes of print. It is the title piece for the volume in which it and these other short fictions eventually were included. When Barth wrote the story in April of 1967, he once told a friend, he had been working on the book it would be in for over a year but had not yet settled on a title. For a time he considered Still-Life in the double sense of a still form of life and still there is life in this writer, in this art, in this civilization, but soon he rejected the phrase, having seen it too often in print. Then the title of the story "Lost in the Funhouse" struck him with so many implications that he put it on the cover of the book where it now applied less to Ambrose and more to Barth as well as the reader. Both are lost in the labyrinth of the world; to pass the time, the one creates his own more pleasurable labyrinths while the other gets lost in them.
"Lost in the Funhouse" has one more interest for us, and that is the character Ambrose. He occurs in two other Funhouse stories, "Ambrose His Mark" and "Water-Message"; he was also the main character in The Seeker or The Amateur, that novel Barth started between The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy and never completed, from which these two stories are salvaged. The Seeker (we recall from Barth's introduction to Giles) was about a man so detached from life that he stayed in the top room of a high tower, spying down on human affairs through a giant camera obscura as well as every kind of telescope and microscope. As the first page of the story's corrected typescript shows, this character's original name was Dan. But Barth wanted a richer name, one that would connect with light and thus relate to the camera in the tower. He asked his Penn State colleague Philip Young for a suggestion, and Young thought of Ambrose, after the famous Ambrose Lightship outside New York harbor. Young was ready to suggest an ancient connotation too, the food the Olympian gods ate to preserve their immortality; but he never got the chance to say that, because as Young remembers it, "Jack just threw up his hands and said 'Ambrose! Ambrosia!' and was off."
That conversation took place in early 1960, although it was not until 1967 when Barth wrote "Lost in the Funhouse" that he worked out a spot for those two connotations of Ambrose, demoting the food of the gods to the rank of dessert:
In the maze … our hero found a name-coin someone else had lost or discarded: AMBROSE, suggestive of the famous lightship and of his late grandfather's favorite dessert, which his mother used to prepare on special occasions out of coconut, oranges, grapes, and what else.
Back in 1960, however, what he did was find another association with Ambrose—the saint of the same name—and used it as the high point in an early chapter he was then writing for The Seeker. Soon after, when he gave up on the novel, he saw enough unity of theme and action in the chapter to turn it into a short story, which he called "Ambrose His Mark," letting it stand on its own.
The story has to do with how Ambrose came to be called that. His mother, it seems, never bothered to name him; Honig or Honey was the closest she came. One day while she was nursing the child in the backyard, a swarm of bees settled on them, and the family decided that the swarm had been attracted by the bee-shaped birthmark near the child's eyes. Honey was thus an apter nickname than anyone had suspected. But it would not do for a proper name, so Uncle Konrad, who was convinced that the incident with the bees was "as clear a naming-sign as you could ask for," studied the encyclopedias he peddled for a living and learned that bees had swarmed over many famous people: Plato, Sophocles, Xenophon, and Ambrose the saint. Only the last seemed to the family an acceptable name for the boy; they even hoped it was a kind of prediction that the child would grow up to be a famous orator like Saint Ambrose. Yet whereas the bees had swarmed over the saint's mouth, the bees in this case had swarmed over the child's eyes, so that the family hoped that this modern-day Ambrose might with luck become not only a great speaker but also a clear seer.
Their hope turned out to be more like a curse. In another Ambrose story, "Water-Message," the boy has grown to grade-school age, possessed of a way with words and much awareness. But these gifts only merit him the nickname "Sissy" and the frustration of knowing there is a great deal that he does not know. He is curious about sex and confused by it, a confusion that is represented by a grove of honey locusts, webbed with vines, described as a jungle and a labyrinth, where he likes to play. It is a confusion that will get worse as he grows older, that will be represented in the later story "Lost in the Funhouse" by another labyrinth, also related to sex, the amusement park maze where he gets lost. At the end of this story "Water-Message," however, he has no idea that things will get worse. In the shallows near a beach, he finds a note in a bottle and reads:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN YOURS TRULY
Like "Title," then, the story involves filling a blank, and Ambrose fills it optimistically, if somewhat obscurely:
Ambrose's spirit bore new and subtle burdens. He would not tattle on Peter for cursing and the rest of it. The thought of his brother's sins no longer troubled him or even much moved his curiosity. Tonight, tomorrow night, unhurriedly, he would find out from Peter just what it was they had discovered …, and what-all done: the things he'd learn would not surprise now nor distress him, for though he was still innocent of that knowledge, he had the feel of it in his heart, and of other truth.
The one real truth he does not feel is that the future will always be a blank, that he will never learn the absolute knowledge he expects, that he will forever be as confused and uncertain as now. [In a footnote the critic adds: "'Water-Message' was first published in Southwest Review (September 1963). For inclusion in The Funhouse, Barth revised it ('to make it less sentimental and obvious' he once told a friend), and to a degree he changed the tone of the conclusion. The revised version ends optimistically with Ambrose deciding that his confusion will pass, that he will learn about life soon enough; but the original version ends with Ambrose almost depressed. He does not find the blank letter that is in the revised version. Rather he comes upon the note 'It was Bill Bell,' and having been very curious about what great truth the message might contain, he is let down by its triviality, its meaninglessness. 'The heart of Ambrose Mensch bore a new and subtle burden: neither despair nor yet disappointment, but a sweet melancholy.' Now he no longer is anxious to learn about sex and life in general, for he has the feel 'of other, yet father-reaching truth,' the presumable 'Barthian' truth that whatever he learns will be no more satisfying and meaningful than the water-message 'It was Bill Bell.'"] In "Lost in the Funhouse" he has some experience with that truth, and although there are only these three Ambrose stories, which never depict him past adolescence, it is not hard to figure that he will continue to be Lost in one way or another. He will end up a man very like the rest of the articulate "characters" in the Funhouse (the spermatozoon making its "Night-Sea Journey," for example, or the story telling its "Autobiography," or the back-brother submitting his "Petition," or Menelaus composing his "Menelaiad," or the nameless minstrel writing his "Anonymiad"), led on and let down by love, dissatisfied by how he lives and what he writes, eager to come to an end, yet desperate to fill as much time as he can with his words.
Having taken up these Ambrose stories and several others on their own, we then ought also to group them with the rest and consider them all as the whole they make up. That the stories are meant to be considered as parts of a whole is something Barth emphasizes in his introductory "Author's Note."
This book differs … from most volumes of short fiction…. It's neither a collection nor a selection, but a series; though several of its items have appeared separately in periodicals, the series will be seen to be have been meant to be received "all at once" and as here arranged.
For instance, the structure of the book is cyclical. The first tale, "Night-Sea Journey," concerns a spermatozoon swimming toward its half-understood destination, all the while brooding about its origins and purpose. The last tale, "Anonymiad," concerns a minstrel from ancient Greece who has been marooned on a barren island where he scribbles yarns on goatskin, floating them out to sea in wine jugs. The spermatozoon's account of its life, the minstrel's version of his life—these things echo each other and to a degree are linked, the spermatozoon possibly the start from which the minstrel sprang (as it is possibly the start of every main character in the book), its monologue about its life possibly one of the yarns that the minstrel wrote down and launched. Barth intended these stories to be complexly related, and in order that his intentions would be clear, he prefaced Lost in the Funhouse with a device he called a "Frame-Tale." On one side of a page are the words Once upon a time there; on the other side are the words was a story that began. If the reader follows the instruction Barth provides, if he cuts a strip from the page and twists it once in the middle and joins the ends, then he holds what is known as a Moebius strip. It is circular; it is involuted, somewhat like a three-dimensional figure 8; it is continuous: "Once upon a time there was a story that began once upon a time there was a story that began once upon a time there was a story that began…." The device resembles the way the last story, its yarn afloat, leads the reader back into the first story, its main character aswim; it "becomes a metaphor," Barth [told Davis], for the content of the book."
In general that content has to do with characters who recognize the insufferable facts of life (the kind of facts presented in "Two Meditations" where we are told that things always get worse, that we help to make them worse, that even when we recognize the process we can do nothing to prevent it), and who then turn to storytelling to preserve their sanity ("Ill fortune, constraint and terror, generate guileful art; despair inspires," we are told in "Glossolalia"). In respect to this twofold reaction by the characters, the book can be more or less divided: up to "Lost in the Funhouse," and after it. The main characters of "Night-Sea Journey," "Autobiography," and "Petition" bemoan their lot and plead for a change; alternating with their stories are "Ambrose His Mark" and "Water-Message," in which Ambrose has not yet realized how insufferable life can be. But then in "Lost in the Funhouse" he comes to be like the characters who came before: unable to deal with the facts, which are in this case represented by the facts of sex. Those other characters go no further than to complain and beg for help, however, whereas Ambrose decides on a remedy, and that is to reject the funhouse of life in favor of constructing funhouses of fiction, and his decision marks the turning point in the book.
Henceforth the main concern will be with moving out of the world into the world of fiction. In the next story, "Echo," for example, the title character "turns from life and learns to tell stories," but she discovers that her storytelling funhouse is as difficult to get around in as the other kind that Ambrose is lost in. For the gods have fixed her so that she can speak only in the words and voices of others, and that means she is doomed to wrestle with the basic narrative problems of viewpoint (the multiple voices she must work with) and time scheme (the past, present, and future that Barth reminds us in note 4 are embodied in one of her voices, Tiresias the prophet). She is doomed as well to wrestle with another problem that all storytellers are faced with: how to say what has already been said (she is an echo, after all) and yet say it in a fresh and new and valid way. After "Echo" there come the "Two Meditations" and the most explicit statement of the facts that The Funhouse has to offer: that the world is falling apart and we cannot stop it. And in the next piece, "Title," the main character finds that not only the world is falling apart, but also his personal life and his narrative art. "The worst is to come. Everything leads to nothing…. The final question is, Can nothing be made meaningful?" A shift from living to fictioning evidently brings about the same agony of understanding that one had in life. In the next piece, "Glossolalia," six speakers respond to such facts as rape and murder by riddling and hymning and warbling with as much attention to their sound patterns as to their glossed-over sense. But they have not removed the facts, they have only hidden them, and in the next piece, "Life-Story," the two converge, as indeed the title indicates. The main character suspects that he is a fictional character and that the fiction he is in is quite the sort he least prefers, he wants to write a story about his condition but he cannot find a way to do it; the problems of his fiction and the problems of the fiction he is in mirror each other and merge. Then in the next-to-last piece, "Menelaiad," the main character more than suspects that he is in a story: he has been changed by a trick of Proteus into his voice telling his story and in short time he will actually be nothing but his story. Still he is not dismayed, he says, and he is the sole character so far who is not. His life having become art, he is virtually immortal, what the story in "Autobiography" aspired to be but knew it never would be. Finally in "Anonymiad," a nameless minstrel has been forcibly removed from life and marooned on a lonely isle where he lives in the fiction he writes and for a time is content like Menelaus. But then he runs out of goatskin to write upon, and exhausted from his labor he is impatient to return to life and the girl he once knew, whom he wishes were there with him. And that urge brings us full circle, like the Moebius strip, to where the book began with the sperm and the beginning of life and the awful facts. The pattern of the book tells us that if the minstrel ever gets purely to living again he will shortly be put off by the facts of life and take to fictioning again until one day exhausted by his labor he will be impatient to return to life again. And so on. Circles and wheels and the Moebius strip comes round.
The book's shift from living in the world to living in the world of fiction is accomplished by other shifts. The early narrators tend to be young, the later ones old. The early fictional forms tend to be traditional, like an autobiography and a letter; the later ones tend to be innovative, like the story "Title," which deals in part with the death of the short story genre. The early times and settings tend to be contemporary and realistic; the later ones tend to be mythic and fantastic. And these shifts are related: the more the characters mature, the more they leave off the problems of living in favor of the problems of writing, and leave off the present real world in favor of an imaginary, timeless, literary one. In addition, the narrators tend to become more self-conscious as they go along, feeling ever more impotent and frustrated, losing body and mass and turning into the sound of their words.
That is especially evident in the next-to-last story, "Menelaiad." It is about Menelaus and how he ruined his life by examining it too much: not understanding why his wife, Helen, loved him, he asked her over and over why she loved him until he became so great a nuisance that she ran off with Paris and caused the Trojan War. The structure of the story is like a set of Chinese boxes, a tale within a tale within a tale to the seventh degree, for the narrator, Menelaus, tells the reader how one night he told the sons of Nestor and Odysseus how he told Helen how he told Proteus how he told the daughter of Proteus how he rehearsed to Helen how he destroyed their love. Going through this complex story for the first time, the reader is often hard pressed to figure out who is saying what to whom; and the difficulty the reader has keeping hold of all the tales within tales is much like the difficulty Menelaus has had keeping hold of himself. "I'm not the man I used to be," Menelaus says, and he is right. Once, returning home from the Trojan War, he had to grapple with the shape-change Proteus in order to force the god to give him directions, and Proteus tricked him, ending his chain of transformations by turning into Menelaus. Now, with the body of Menelaus long since wormed, Proteus survives in the voice of Menelaus. And when his voice is no longer, we are told, Proteus will yet continue as the story of how Menelaus tried to understand love. And when even the story is no longer, Proteus will still go on in "terrifying last disguise" as the story's bitter theme: "the absurd, unending possibility of love."
Lastly, in "Anonymiad" we read all that is left, to an extent all that ever was, of a nameless joyless minstrel. It gathers various themes of Lost in the Funhouse—disastrous innocence, foolish love, paralyzing self-knowledge. It depicts again the terrible loneliness that comes to the writers in this book. And it sums up both Barth's career to date and the attitude he at times has had toward his calling. That is, the minstrel imagines that the opera he floated to sea has gone down undiscovered, much as Barth's Floating Opera went mostly unread for years. He recalls his works in a series that loosely resembles the order of Barth's own books: his "long prose fictions of the realistical, the romantical, and the fantastical," roughly corresponding with The Floating Opera plus The End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor, and Giles Goat-Boy; a long comic history that never survived (The Seeker); a major novel in which tragedy and satire were combined, words which the minstrel claims derive from the root word for goat (Giles Goat-Boy again). But in his middle years (Barth was thirty-eight when Lost in the Funhouse was published), the minstrel senses himself running down.
I was older and slower, more careful but less concerned; as my craft improved, my interest waned, and my earlier zeal seemed hollow as the jugs it filled. Was there any new thing to say, new way to say the old? The memory of literature, my own included, gave me less and less delight; the "immortality" of even the noblest works I knew seemed a paltry thing. It appeared as fine a lot to me, and as poor, to wallow … in the stews as to indite the goldenest verses ever and wallow in the ages' admiration.
He comes out of his mood to write his "Anonymiad," a work that he hopes will be "neither longfaced nor idiotly grinning, but adventuresome, passionately humored, merry with the pain of insight, wise and smiling in the terror of our life." And he fails: nothing he ever tried quite turned out the way he hoped. So too with Barth and Lost in the Funhouse, some critics would say; however good the book is, they seem to feel that it is not as good as Barth wanted. Addressing an audience at the Library of Congress (May 1, 1967), Barth once remarked that if the pieces in Lost in the Funhouse
are to be successful by my personal standards, they have to be more than just clever: if my writing was no more than the intellectual fun-and-games that Time magazine makes it out, I'd take up some other line of work. That's why one objects to the word experiment, I suppose: it suggests cold technique, and technique in art, as we all know, has the same sort of value that it has in love: heartless skill has its appeal, as does heartfelt ineptitude; but passionate virtuosity's what we all wish for, and aspire to. If these pieces aren't also moving, then the experiment is unsuccessful.
But for some critics, a few pieces are more clever than moving. Those critics are mostly Americans, unused to recent independent developments in European fiction very similar to The Funhouse—Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics (trans. 1968), for example. And it may be that these critics will warm to The Funhouse the more they are acquainted with and used to other books of its type. For now, at least, we can say that a good many of its pieces ("Night-Sea Journey," for example, "Lost in the Funhouse," "Menelaiad," and "Anonymiad") are moving and eloquent far out of proportion to their size. And at least one of these, the title piece, "Lost in the Funhouse," seems in retrospect the most important, progressive, trend-defining American short fiction of its decade.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6325
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 Luis Borges. Barth maintains that Borges's work demonstrates how an artist can "paradoxically turn the felt ultimacies of our time into material and means for his work." In "Title," one of the sections of Funhouse, Barth clarifies this theory by explaining that "the final possibility [for the writer] is to turn ultimacy, exhaustion, paralyzing self-consciousness and the adjective weight of accumulated history … against itself to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new." Lost in the Funhouse is Barth's demonstration of how this "final possibility" can be realized.
In Funhouse, Barth does, as he suggests the modern writer must, take his situation, his inability to create new forms and possibilities, as the subject matter of his work. This relationship between Barth's comments on the literature of exhaustion and his novel, or, as some have described it, his cycle of stories, has been noted by several critics who point out that Barth's primary theme in Funhouse is the process of literary creation, particularly the painful struggle that the writer undergoes when he attempts to say anything new or to find a fresh way of telling a story that has already been told time and time again. What has not been fully analyzed, however, is precisely how Barth illustrates his theory of the literature of exhaustion in Funhouse.
The particular method that Barth employs to create new forms from old fictions is that of the mathematician, specifically, the topologist, who is concerned with ways in which surfaces can be twisted, bent, pulled, stretched, or otherwise reformed from one shape into another. This new form that Barth creates in the novel is analogous to the Moebius strip, a topological form that he uses as the structure of "Frame-Tale," the first section of Funhouse, and as the organizing principle of the entire novel.
In "Frame-Tale," Barth tells the reader to "Cut on dotted line. Twist end once and fasten." The result of this operation is a Moebius strip, a circular strip with a half twist. This distortion, the twist, gives the Moebius strip properties not found in an ordinary circular strip. If an ordinary circular strip is cut around through the middle on a line equidistant from either side, it divides into two distinct and separate circular strips. However, if a Moebius strip is cut around through the middle on a line equidistant from either side, the result is not two distinct and separate circular strips, but rather one circular strip twice as large as the original. On the other hand, if the Moebius strip is cut all the way around, not through the middle on a line equidistant from either edge, but rather on a line a third of the way in from one edge, it becomes two circular strips linked together. One of these linked circular strips is a new Moebius strip. This new Moebius strip can be cut once again a third of the way in from one side, and the result will be two more circular strips linked together, one of these another new Moebius strip. Theoretically, this process could be repeated an infinite number of times.
The Moebius strip is appropriate as a homologue for fiction or a metaphor for Barth's novel in three ways. First, the fact that the cutting of the strip through the middle does not divide it into two parts but that the circle remains one, even after it appears to have been divided, suggests that, although Funhouse appears to be divided into fourteen parts, all the parts are homeomorphic. That is, all the sections—including "Frame-Tale"—are essentially the same story. As Lord Raglan, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell (to whom Barth refers in his "Author's Note") and as the structuralist V. Propp, C. Lévi-Strauss, A. Dundes, C. Bremond, and others show that all man's myths and stories have an essential sameness, but that man's creativity has given the hero and the story a thousand faces, Barth in Funhouse consciously composes fourteen stories which appear to be different, but which are in fact a repetition of the same story. Thus, when Barth asks his reader to "Twist end once and fasten" to construct the circle of "Frame-Tale," he implies with the pun on the word "twist" that each section (or story) is a variation of, or is a "twist" on, the same basic theme.
Second, the Moebius strip, in addition to suggesting the sameness of all the sections of the novel, is appropriate as a metaphor or homologue because it possesses the property of infinite generation. When the Moebius strip is cut on a line a third of the way in from one edge, it has the property of being able to generate an infinite number of new Moebius strips, all linked together. Metaphorically, then, the Moebius strip suggests that a single story can generate an infinite number of stories, all linked together around a central structure.
The Moebius strip is a homologue for the structure of Funhouse and for fiction in general in yet a third way. This topological form has neither beginning nor end, as Barth illustrates with "Frame-Tale": "ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN ONCE UPON A TIME," ad infinitum. The "Frame-Tale" indicates that the skeletal structure of the novel is circular.
With the metaphor of the Moebius strip and with its application in mind, then, one can see how Barth employs the concept of topology, that is, the mathematics of distortion, to reshape the "Frame-Tale," the one basic form, into the fourteen seemingly different parts of the novel. The story which Barth repeats in each section of Funhouse is that of the writer who has the creative impulse but who finds nothing to say worth the effort of creation. The writer, who thus is Barth's central character, appears in various forms throughout the novel. Sometimes he is symbolically represented by various storytellers or writers: Menelaus, Anonymous, Scheherazade, Echo, or the petitioner. Sometimes he appears directly in the story as a modern author, as in "Life-Story." More often he is presented metaphorically as the father whose creative urge has seeded the world with his literary offspring, as in "Night-Sea Journey" and "Anonymiad." But whatever the case, he experiences the struggle of conflicting impulses to write and not to write, to create and to cease from creation.
In "Night-Sea Journey," for example, Barth presents metaphorically the situation in which modern writers find themselves. If the reader substitutes throughout the story the verb "to write" for the verb "to swim," the story becomes an exemplum of the writer who has the impulse to write, but finds he has nothing to say that has not already been said. The sperm says, for instance, "swim on [write on] with neither motive nor destination [without anything to say], for the sake of swimming [of writing]." Or in one of the many literary allusions—this particular one to Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade"—the sperm says: "Ours not to stop and think; ours but to swim [to write] and sink [to say nothing]." As the writer sees the absurdity of writing, the sperm realizes the absurdity of swimming, but he, like the writer who cannot cease to carry on the literary tradition, cannot put an end to what he calls this "immortality-chain." To his dismay, he is borne on by the water "will-I nill-I, like a flood of joy." In a pun that is sustained for half a page in the story, the sperm describes his desire to stop (will-I) and his contrary impulse to continue (nill-I); he says, "this fellow transported by passion is not I" (I do not will this); "I am he who abjures and rejects the night-sea journey" (I am he who wills to stop).
The sperm has been sent on this journey by the "Father," another persona of the writer, who made the sperm "despite Himself" and who may even be "tailless." (Throughout, Barth puns on the words "tail"-"tale" to emphasize the association between the sperm's swimming and the act of writing.) Paradoxically, the sperm has been produced by a father-writer who is "impotent," that is, who has nothing to say, a writer, in Barth's terms, who has turned ultimacy against itself to produce something new and valid.
This story of the writer's plight is repeated in a variety of forms throughout the other sections of the novel. Barth indicates that each section is a replication of the single story by implanting in each section subtle hints or even direct statements that, having nothing new to say, the author—both Anonymous, the representative of all modern authors, and Barth, the particular author of Funhouse—must repeat himself. In "Autobiography," the voice, which is the story or fiction speaking of itself, asks, "I wonder if I repeat myself. One-track minds may lead to their origins." In "Echo," Barth writes, "One should, if it's worthwhile, repeat the tale," and the characters Tiresias, Echo, and Narcissus, in one way or another, either literally or symbolically, do "repeat the tale." Tiresias advises that "a cure for self-absorption is saturation: telling the story over as though it were another's until like a much-repeated word it loses sense." Echo, the embodiment of the storyteller who must echo or repeat others' words, "learns to tell stories with such art that the Olympians implore her to repeat them." And Narcissus, more to the point, says "I'll repeat the tale," which he does in a variety of ways. In "Title," the story asks itself, "What'll the story be this time?" Its reply is "Same old story." And in the "Menelaiad," Menelaus alerts his listeners, as Barth does his readers, by announcing, "'"Hold on" I said,' I say: '"It's all one tale."'" Almost inextricably intertwined in the labyrinth of his stories within stories, Menelaus must string out the dialogue tags, emphasizing their repetitiveness: "'"'"'"Why" I repeated, 'I repeated," I repeated,' I repeated," I repeated' I repeat."'"'"'"
The repetition Barth employs throughout the fourteen sections, however, is paradoxical since the repetition is at the same time not repetitive. This paradox of sameness and difference is referred to throughout the sections. In "Night-Sea Journey," for example, the sperm towards the end of his long and arduous swim recognizes that he is about to become something "contrary yet complementary," "to become something both and neither."
Like the sperm, Ambrose in "Ambrose His Mark" explains, "I and my sign are neither one nor quite two." Ambrose's comment, the second explicit reference to the paradox, concerns his name, his sign. The character Ambrose, who also appears in a chronological development in two later stories, "Water-Message" and "Lost in the Funhouse," is called by his family and friends by various abreviated forms of his name such as "Amby" and "Amb." This shortened form of Ambrose's name is, of course, a Latin prefix meaning "both," and in English is used to form such words as "ambivalent" and "ambiguous." Thus, the name Ambrose is emblematic of the paradox in that he is both "neither one nor quite two."
This direct reference to the paradox alerts the reader to the numerous other suggestions that "Ambrose His Mark" is a retelling of the sperm's night-sea journey. The sperm explains that he is about "to become" a thing that is "both and neither"; he accomplishes this paradox in becoming Ambrose, who is "neither one nor quite two." Furthermore, towards the end of the journey, the sperm says that his last "single hope" is to "transmit" to what he is about "to become" a "legacy of awful recollection and negative resolve." This "resolve" is a result of his ambivalent feeling of not wanting to go "Herward" but at the same time being compelled to go. The sperm becomes Ambrose, becomes the subject and person of the next story, and transmits to "Amby" this "legacy" of ambivalent feeling in the visible form of Ambrose's "ambiguous birthmark."
While similar to the Moebius strip with its property of infinite generation, this biological metaphor suggests also that, in the same way as each sperm carries the genetic makeup of its parents, each story carries the germ of the parent story. The "Heritage" that the sperm transmits is in the "single hope" that what it becomes will express, "in however garbled or radical a translation, some reflection of these reflections." This become Barth's achievement as he makes each story a reflection of all the other stories by garbling and radically translating the same story into different topological forms.
The last of the Ambrose sections, "Lost in the Funhouse," repeats the situation of "Night-Sea Journey." Like the sperm swimming toward the mysterious "Her," Ambrose is lost in the funhouse and speculates on the purpose of its existence. He, too, is being initiated into the "facts of life." He thinks that he realizes "the whole point … Of the entire Funhouse! If you looked around," he says, "you noticed that almost all the people on the boardwalk were paired off into couples …; in a way, that was the whole point of Ocean City!" The people who move through the funhouse, Ambrose says, are "spermatozoa [that] grope through hot, dark windings, past Love's Tunnel's fearsome obstacles." The parallels between these two stories clearly suggest that Ambrose, like the author, is unable to find his way out of the funhouse, to find a dénouement. Moreover, "the endless replication of [Ambrose's] images in the [maze of] mirrors" of the funhouse suggest the infinite reflections of the writer-hero in the characters he creates in Lost in the Funhouse. Other mirrors of the funhouse distort Ambrose into countless shapes, just as Barth, the novelist as topologist, twists, bends, pulls, stretches, or otherwise reforms one story into many different shapes.
Repetition itself is the very essence of the story "Echo," with each of the major characters, Echo, Narcissus, and Tiresias, illustrating this theme. Echo is forever compelled to repeat others' words, Narcissus duplicates his image by reflection, and Tiresias, being both male and female, symbolizes both repetition and variation. At one point, when Narcissus sees his reflection, Barth illustrates his principle of repetition through the rhetorical device of a chiasmus: Narcissus "beholds and salutes his pretty alter ego in the pool; in the pool his ego, altered, prettily salutes: Behold!"
In addition to illustrating the theme of repetition through the characters, Barth also uses the characters Echo and Narcissus as personae of the writer. Just as the nymph's every word is a repetition of what others have said, so the writer's every word is a reflection of all that has already been said. And if the writer is to continue effectively, he must, like Echo, who "edits, heightens, mutes, turns others' words to her end," give new life to what has already been said through an imaginative transformation of the same material into a new form. Such an imaginative transformation is clearly expressed by Narcissus when he is either at the Donaconan spring or in the cave hiding from his pursuers; either place is appropriate, a spring-mirror for reflection, or a cave-funhouse for echoes. Staring into the spring or speaking into the cave, he laments:
I can't go on. Go on. Is there anyone to hear here? Who are you? You. I? Aye. Then let me see me! See? A lass! Alas.
In this short, echoed or reflected monologue, the voice of Narcissus talks to and answers the voice of Narcissus' echo, or Narcissus speaks to his reflection in the spring. Like Narcissus who sees his reflection before him, the writer sees himself and his situation reflected in the characters and plots he creates. Moreover, Narcissus, like the writer, feels the desire to "repeat the tale," to "Go on," but he knows he has nothing to say that has not already been said, "I can't go on."
Like Echo, Narcissus, and Tiresias, the brothers of "Petition" clearly represent the idea of repetition or reflection. The story is a petition of one of a pair of Siamese twins to be parted from his brother. Like the sperm and like Ambrose, both of whom are "neither one nor quite two," the twins comprise a paradoxical structure: in their birth and affliction the twins are the same but different. They are an embodiment of the sperm's conflicting, ambivalent feeling and, although nameless, might be called "Willy and Nilly." Again explicitly referring to the paradox, Barth has the brother writing the letter exclaim: "To be one: paradise! To be two: bliss! But to be both and neither is unspeakable." Moreover, in characterizing the difference between himself and his brother, the writer explains: "what intelligence my brother has is inclined to synthesis, mine to analysis; he denies that we are two, yet refuses to compromise and cooperate; I affirm our difference … but have endeavored in vain to work out with him a reasonable cohabitation."
Throughout "Petition" Barth includes images of distortion, form being reshaped as by the topologist to create new relationships. Both brothers, for instance, become enamored of Thalia, "a pretty young contortionist." In their theatrical act and in private, she couples with them in a routine of "obscene gymnastics." Twisting, bending, pulling, and stretching her body, she attempts, but fails, to satisfy both brothers. The petitioner exclaims, "But how expect me to share the universal itch to copulate, whose soul lusts only for disjunction?" And again with the focus on form and paradox, the brother comments on their sleeping habits: "Arranged in parallel, isoceles, or alphaic fashion, we slept in the same hotel beds." These geometrical arrangements (ΞΔA) are different forms which correspond to different letters of the Greek alphabet, but though they are different and are capable of communicating different ideas, each of the forms is created from the three straight lines made by the bodies of the strange fraternity of the Siamese twins and the contortionist. Barth reshapes the three lines of a triangle (in their theatrical act, the three are billed as "The Eternal Triangle") to form new patterns and relationships, as the distorting mirrors of the funhouse rearrange Ambrose and as Echo rearranges others' words. Barth also suggests that the triangle of relationships is eternal, not just in the overall form of the action as suggested by the reference to Freitag's Triangle in "Lost in the Funhouse," but also in the triangular relationship of characters. Writers employ this basic dramatic figure and reshape it into a variety of different stories.
Of all the sections that compose Funhouse, the one that best might serve as a gloss on Barth's technique of repetition to turn ultimacy against itself is "Glossolalia." Six times Barth repeats the same basic message, told first by Cassandra, then Philomela, Crispus, the Queen of Sheba's talking bird, a psalmist speaking in the tongue of the glossolalist Alice LeBaron, and finally the author. As Barth points out in his "Seven Additional Author's Notes," none of the six glossolalists is understood by others; either the cryptic message is "wrongly deciphered" or the hearer "mistranslates." But in several of these six paragraphs, the speakers suggest that the messages they bear are in code and can thus be deciphered correctly if the key is found. Barth provides the key in the notes where he calls his reader's attention to the fact that each message is "metrically identical," and then, by referring to the school prayer case of Murray v. Baltimore School Board, identifies the metrical pattern with that of "The Lord's Prayer." With this in mind, it is possible to see "Glossolalia" as a microcosm of the novel, both in its structure and its content. Each message is a repetition of all the other messages, just as each story of the novel is a repetition of all the other stories. Moreover, each message is ostensibly a proclamation of doom, just as each repetitive story manifests the exhaustion of possibilities, but at the same time, each message, by recalling the "Our Father," implies a hope of salvation, just as Barth implies hope for the artist if he can turn his plight into material for his work. [In a footnote, the critic writes: "Just as each of these glossolalists exemplifies the sameness and difference of stories, in an earlier section entitled 'Two Meditations,' each of the numerous metaphors strung together is different but illustrates the same point. As quasi-prayers—similar to the disguised 'Lord's Prayer' of 'Glossolalia'—the two meditations express a fear of a point in time that will make man's or nature's actions or inactions irredeemable. In his discussion of 'Glossolalia' in his 'Author's Note,' Barth utilizes similar metaphors to illustrate 'that the discovery of an enormous complexity beneath a simple surface [of language] may well be more dismaying than delightful.' The possibilities of meaning here are many: for one, Barth points out that below the surface all stories are the same, thus suggesting the 'pollution' of fiction (Anonymous speaks of this pollution: 'for all I knew the waters were clogged with its like, a menace to navigation and obstruction on the wide world's littoral'—the pun on the last word reminds the reader that the earliest tradition of literature, oral, also was composed essentially of the same story, monomyth). This 'dismaying' implication suggests that the medium of language exhibits limited progress, if any at all, or what Barth in his essay 'Exhaustion' calls regressus in infinitum."]
In the last two sections of the novel, Barth finds still other ways to illustrate and to reform his basic paradoxical structure. In "Menelaiad," for instance, the voice of Menelaus begins to tell a series of stories within stories. This device is appropriate, for its structure demonstrates again for the reader how stories are the same but different: at the first level of the story, there is the disembodied voice of Menelaus, and at the second level, there is Menelaus himself recounting to Telemachus and Peisistratus and Helen his experiences of the Trojan war and the prolonged trip home, then Menelaus and Helen on his ship trying to return home, Menelaus with Proteus at Pharos, Menelaus with Eidothea on the beach, Menelaus with Helen in her Trojan bedroom, and finally Menelaus and Helen in their bridal bed. That these seemingly different stories within stories are all the same story is pointed out by Menelaus when he says to the impatient Peisistratus, "'"Hold on," I said,' I say: '"It's all one tale."'" Moreover, Menelaus, commenting on the layers and layers of stories, speculates, "'"For all we know, we're but stranded figures in Penelope's web, wove up in light to be unwove in darkness."'" Penelope's action further suggests that Menelaus is retelling the same story, for Penelope unravels and unweaves the same story over and over again so that she might hold off her suitors.
Not satisfied with this single device to illustrate his theme, Barth constructs another metaphor to support his reflections and echoes of stories within stories. Like the series of stories in "Menelaiad" and, in fact, like the series of stories throughout the novel, Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, goes through a series of transformations. Following Eidothea's advice, Menelaus grabs Proteus as he walks upon the beach. Proteus, the mythological topologist, caught in the arms of Menelaus, begins to transform himself. Like the stories within stories, he becomes forms within forms: first he becomes a lion, then a leopard, a boar, salt water, a bigbole leafy tree, air, and finally giving in to Menelaus, returns to his own shape. As Proteus transforms himself into these animal, vegetable, and mineral forms, Menelaus says that he held on tight in this fashion: "'"Lion to snake, paws into tail. Snake to leopard, tail into tail and hind-paws both; my good luck I went tail to tail."'" Furthermore, as Menelaus and his auditors get lost and entangled within the tales, Helen exclaims "'"'Hard tale to hold onto, this.'"'" With these puns on tail-tale (reminiscent of "Night-Sea Journey"), Barth clearly draws the parallel between Proteus' many guises and Menelaus' series of stories. With these two devices, then, Barth restates his theme of the paradox. In fact, Menelaus speaks of Proteus in terms of this paradox: "'"'If Proteus once was Old Man of the Sea and now Proteus was a tree, then Proteus was neither, only Proteus.'"'"
"Anonymiad," the final section of the novel, reveals more clearly than any other story what Barth is attempting. Indeed, the section "Anonymiad" can be seen as a retelling in miniature of the novel Funhouse as a whole. First, the theme and the situation of the entire novel are most clearly presented here. Anonymous, like all the heroes of the other sections, is "marooned … in the middle of nowhere." He is unable to reach the climax of Freitag's Triangle or to find his way out of the funhouse: to be marooned, in this case, is the same as it is in other sections to be an "interrupted pregnancy," a "suspended tale," or in "Anonymiad" an "arrested history." Moreover, the writer's predicament of wanting to write but not having anything to say is referred to directly: Anonymous says, "I had begun to run out of world and material—though not of ambition." But as in all previous stories, the writer overcomes his problem by writing about this very predicament.
As in the rest of the novel, the dominant metaphor for the artist as creator is biological; Anonymous says; "I hump the jug and fill her up with fiction"; "I gloried in my isolation and seeded the waters with its get, what I came to call fiction." As the sperm in "Night-Sea Journey" is sent by the artist-father to swim ceaselessly "Herward," Anonymous sends his creative seed to his muse Merope: "I could do well by you now, my sweet, to whom this and all its predecessors are a continuing, strange love letter … in the intervals of this composition I've taught myself to swim, and if some night your voice recalls me, by a new name, I'll commit myself to it, paddling and resting, drifting like my amphorae, to attain you or to drown." [In a footnote, the critic asserts: "This biological metaphor—the association of the stories with the sperms—is especially important in 'Anonymiad.' Anonymous fills the jugs with fictions, with messages, and casts them out to sea. One of these amphorae comes ashore in 'Water-Message.' Ambrose finds this bottle, and opening the message, sees that its address is 'TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN' and its complimentary close, 'YOURS TRULY.' "The lines between were blank, as was the space beneath the complimentary close." The message to the reader is that the writer has the impulse to send a message, but he has nothing new to say—hence, a blank letter in a bottle. Several parallel passages suggest that the writer Anonymous sends this particular water-message. In 'Anonymiad,' Anonymous refers to himself twice as 'yours truly,' and he says that he sent 'messages to whom they might concern.' It is appropriate for Anonymous not to sign his name since he is nameless and all writers. The preponderance of blanks and unfinished sentences in the novel reinforce this idea of writers having the impulse to send a water-message, but at the same time having nothing new to say. Moreover, the blank is, in another way, potentially all messages, any and every story by any and every writer."]
A second and more important way in which "Anonymiad" is a miniature retelling of the novel is that Barth uses Anonymous' discussion of Anonymous' proposed epic, the title of which is Anonymiad, to explain the structure of the complete novel Funhouse, of which "Anonymiad" is only a part. In summarizing his plan, Anonymous explains that Anonymiad is to be a narrative composed of nine parts. He points out, however, that he will not plot the events of his epic in a chronological sequence. Instead, following the prologue or headpiece, the story will begin in medias res, in accord with epic convention, with parts five through seven. After the pivotal section four will come the remaining sections one through three. The tailpiece will end Anonymiad.
Anonymous says that the first section of Anonymiad, the prologue or headpiece, will establish "the ground-conceit and the narrative voice and viewpoint: A minstrel stuck on some Aegean clinker commences his story,… characterizing himself and hinting at the circumstances leading to his plight." This headpiece corresponds in Funhouse to "Frame-Tale" and "Night-Sea Journey," which establish the ground conceit, that is, the topological and biological metaphors, and introduce the hero, the sperm, the author-father, and the offspring (later identified as Ambrose), and hint at the circumstances leading to his plight, the contrary impulses to swim or not to swim, to create or not to create. Parts five through seven of Anonymiad, which are to follow the headpiece, will record the stages of the minstrel's "island life vis-à-vis his minstrelling—innocent garrulity, numb silence, and terse self-knowledge." These correspond to the stories which follow the headpiece, "Ambrose His Mark" through "Lost in the Funhouse," many of which deal with the initiation of Ambrose, and also examine "innocent garrulity, numb silence, and terse self-knowledge." The pivotal story of Funhouse, which corresponds to the pivotal part four of Anonymous' plan, is "Echo." This story looks back to parts five through seven and forward to parts one through three in the characters Narcissus and Echo. On the other hand, Narcissus is a reflection of the Ambrose stories and their parallel stories and, thus, of the hero of parts five through seven of Anonymiad in that he and the stories also examine the first-person point of view, adolescent self-interest, and innocence which lead to self-knowledge. Echo, on the other hand, foreshadows the heroes of the second half of Funhouse, which corresponds to parts one through three of the proposed Anonymiad in that she speaks in first-person anonymous, tells all and repeats all, and slowly effaces herself to become the character Anonymous in the progression of stories culminating in "Anonymiad."
The most obvious characteristic of the structure of Funhouse, which Anonymous clarifies in his discussion of his Anonymiad, is the use of in medias res. But Barth's use of the device differs substantially from its use in an epic. The epic, although it begins in medias res, always includes a flashback to inform the reader or listener of what has gone before and then continues until the action reaches its end. In Funhouse, however, Barth turns the device of in medias res against itself to create a new form, a novel which has neither a beginning nor end, but which is everywhere a middle.
The novel begins in medias res with the sperm swimming, presumably the seed which Anonymous, the artist-father, sets afloat in the sea in the last section of the novel. This last section, the preceding "Frame-Tale" (by its very design), and all the intermediate sections never reach a conclusion. Instead, they stop, communicating the author's frustration, or the story's, at not being able to reach a climax or to find a way out of the funhouse. As suggested in the analysis of the sections, the form of the novel is basically static—a stringing together of a series of stories, none of which is able to reach an end—oriented around the idea of being marooned, like Anonymous, or lost in mid-journey like the sperm and Ambrose, or "still in utero, hung up in … delivery."
Like each of the sections within the novel, the novel itself neither begins nor ends. The action of "Night-Sea Journey," the sperm swimming, does not really begin the novel, for it is preceded by the action of "Anonymiad," the sending forth of the creative seed into the sea. The beginning of Funhouse—as its structure is analogous to that of the proposed Anonymiad—is not reached in the sequence of stories until the middle of the novel with "Title," the section after "Echo." In other words, the beginning of the novel, "Title," is in the middle of the novel. The first sentence of "Title" illuminates what Barth has achieved in his novel of distorted form: he writes, "Beginning: in the middle, past the middle, nearer three-quarters done, waiting for the end." Barth has adapted the in medias res device to create a new novelistic structure: Funhouse begins in the middle of the action, the action begins in the middle of the novel, and the novel ends in the middle of the action. Like Anonymous, who says, "I begin in the middle—where too I'll end," and like the topologist who, through the mathematics of distortion, is able to design a surface with only one side and edge (the Moebius strip) or a bottle that has only an outside and no inside (as designed by Felix Klein), Barth, the novelist, has distorted the traditional beginning, middle, and end of the well-made novel, and in doing so has written a novel that is, instead, everywhere a middle.
In Lost in the Funhouse, then, Barth has taken the situation of modern writers—as he sees it, the inability to create new forms and possibilities—and has written a novel in a series of fourteen sections to demonstrate how ultimacy or exhaustion can be turned in upon itself to create something new and valid, how the modern writer, like Scheherazade, can continue to publish and not perish. He has demonstrated the principles of storytelling, how a single basic story (the writer's inability to compose a new story) can be reformed or reshaped into other seemingly different stories. Barth's accomplishment, however, is not to be thought of as a mere tour de force; on the contrary, the task or activity that Barth performs in writing these homeomorphic sections is clearly the same task that the structuralist (be he a literary critic, an anthropologist, or an economist) performs and takes as his own unique activity. Barth in his role as the novelist as topologist demonstrates the homologous relation of all man's stories. To achieve this end, Barth in "Frame-Tale" constructs a model of fiction for which all the other stories are homologues. The activity that he performs in Funhouse might finally best be defined, I think, by referring to Roland Barthes's definition of "the structuralist activity" [as put forth in his "The Structuralist Activity," Partisan Review (Winter 1967)]. Barthes says that the "goal of all structuralist activity [and what I conclude is the goal of the novelist as topologist] is to reconstruct an 'object' [in this case, the literary work Funhouse] in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of functioning (the 'functions') of this object. Structure is therefore actually a simulacrum of the object, but a directed, interested simulacrum, since the imitated object makes something appear which remained invisible, or if one prefers, unintelligible in the natural object." The simulacrum that Barth makes of the object Funhouse or of fiction in general is the mathematical-topological structure of the Moebius strip. What this structure makes visible for Barth's reader is that the fourteen sections of Funhouse are all composed from a single paradigm or class and that all of man's stories share this same paradigmatic structure.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 936
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.
Praises the challenging and experimental nature of Barth's short fiction.
Gillespie, Gerald. "Barth's 'Lost in the Funhouse': Short Story Text in Its Cyclic Context." Studies in Short Fiction XII, No. 3 (Summer 1975): 223-30.
Asserts that the title story serves as a transition between the volume's early stories—which he argues are largely autobiographical—and the mythic pieces that comprise the second half of Lost in the Funhouse.
Hicks, Granville. "The Up-to-Date Looking Glass." Saturday Review LI, No. 39 (28 September 1968): 31-2.
Positive review of Lost in the Funhouse, stressing Barth's experimental narrative techniques.
Hinden, Michael. "Lost in the Funhouse: Barth's Use of the Recent Past." Twentieth Century Literature 19, No. 2 (April 1973): 107-18.
Compares modernist patterns in Lost in the Funhouse to those in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. An excerpt from this article is included in CLC-3.
Jones, D. Allan. "John Barth's 'Anonymiad.'" Studies in Short Fiction XI, No. 4 (Fall 1974): 361-66.
Analysis of "Anonymiad" in which Jones discusses Barth's depictions of love and literature. An excerpt from this article is included in CLC-5.
Knapp, Edgar H. "Found in the Barthhouse: Novelist as Savior." In The Process of Fiction: Contemporary Stories and Criticism, edited by Barbara McKenzie, second edition, pp. 582-91. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1974.
Offers an analysis of "Lost in the Funhouse," highlighting Barth's use of thematic and structural devices based on myth, masque, cinema, and symposium.
Koelb, Clayton. "John Barth's 'Glossolalia.'" Comparative Literature XXVI, No. 4 (Fall 1974): 334-45.
Discusses "Glossolalia" as a piece of prose and verse. Offering a prosodic analysis of the story, Koelb notes that while each of the six paragraphs is voiced through a different speaker, all six are metrically identical.
Krier, William J. "Lost in the Funhouse: 'A Continuing, Strange Love Letter.'" boundary 2 V, No. 1 (Fall 1976): 103-16.
Proposes that Barth uses the concepts of physical and emotional love to suggest the dependence and paradox of the writer-reader relationship.
Kyle, Carol A. "The Unity of Anatomy: The Structure of Barth's Lost in the Funhouse." Critique XIII, No. 3 (1972): 31-43.
Thematic survey of the short stories in Lost in the Funhouse that emphasizes the "structural unity" of the work. An excerpt from this essay is included in CLC-9.
Marta, Jan. "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): 208-22.
Asserts that Barth uses such modernist narrative techniques as fragmentation and self-referentiality to assert the necessity of mimesis in redeeming postmodern literature from "the blank of silence."
Morris, Christopher D. "Barth and Lacan: The World of the Moebius Strip." Critique XVII, No. 1 (1975): 69-77.
Employs the poststructuralist linguistic theories of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to discern narrative devices in Lost in the Funhouse "which point to the collapsible, substitutive nature of language, to the self-composed signifying chain or Moebius strip within whose confines Barth seeks to establish whatever freedom or respite is available to the contemporary author." A portion of this essay is included in CLC-7.
Olson, Carol Booth. "Lost in the Madhouse." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 10, No. 2 (Summer 1990): 56-63.
Contends that Lost in the Funhouse depicts the post-modern artist as "an incoherent voice muttering in a void."
Richardson, Jack. "Amusement and Revelation." The New Republic 159, No. 21 (23 November 1968): 30, 34-5.
Contends that Barth transcends the "linguistic excesses" of most experimental metafictionists through well-crafted, amusing, intelligent stories in Lost in the Funhouse. An excerpt from this article appears in CLC-3.
Seymour, Thom. "One Small Joke and a Packed Paragraph in John Barth's 'Lost in the Funhouse.'" Studies in Short Fiction 16, No. 3 (Summer 1979): 189-94.
Focusing on a paragraph from "Lost in the Funhouse," Seymour commends the playfulness and technical finesse that render this, in his view, the most accomplished piece in the series.
Shloss, Carol, and Tololyan, Khachig. "The Siren in the Funhouse: Barth's Courting of the Reader." The Journal of Narrative Technique 11, No. 1 (Winter 1981): 64-74.
Maintains that, in Lost in the Funhouse, Barth deconstructs the conventional relationship between writer and reader with evident hostility, and without proposing viable alternatives.
Ziegler, Heide. "John Barth's 'Echo': The Story in Love with Its Author." The International Fiction Review 7, No. 2 (Summer 1980): 90-3.
Asserts that, of the stories that comprise Lost in the Funhouse, "Echo" best represents the tensions between storytelling, self-reflection, self-knowledge, and self-destruction that characterize the volume as a whole.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6999
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 tumbling-barrel which upends girls so that "their boyfriends and others could see up their dresses," Ambrose suddenly realizes that such apparent sexual byplay is really "the whole point … [of] the entire funhouse!" All that normally shows, he continues, "like restaurants and dance halls and clothing and test-your-strength machines, was merely preparation and intermission." Since the funhouse stands for the universe, Barth's meaning becomes clear. At the center of all human activity lies sex, that "shluppish whisper, continuous as seawash round the globe." At one point Ambrose even goes so far as to wonder whether his story contains any other "sound besides the little slap of thigh on ham, like water sucking at the chine-boards of a skiff."
Observations such as the latter suggest what is perhaps the major concern of Lost in the Funhouse, the relationship between sex and language—ultimately, between sex and art. Barth's familiarity with the Freudian notion of language as sublimated sexuality receives specific attention in Chimera when Dunyazade comments on the comparisons between narrative and sexual art made by Scheherazade and the Genie:
The Genie declared that in his time and place there were scientists of the passions who maintained that language itself, on the one hand, originated in "infantile pregenital erotic exuberance, polymorphously perverse," and that conscious attention, on the other, was a "libidinal hypercathexis"—by which magic phrases they seemed to mean that writing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally ways of making love.
A form of substitute gratification, narrative, in Norman O. Brown's phrase, is "made out of love" [Life against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, 1959].
For Ambrose, however, art fails to gratify. He would much prefer to be among the lovers for whom the funhouse is fun, but the exuberant spontaneity necessary to young love (witness the antics of Peter and Magda) is checked in Ambrose by an almost paralyzing artistic self-consciousness. Even when Magda kneels to initiate the ten-year-old Ambrose into sex, his self-consciousness prevents his full enjoyment: "though he had breathed heavily, groaned as if ecstatic, what he'd really felt throughout was an odd detachment, as though someone else were Master. Strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene: This is what they call passion. I am experiencing it." Even at the height of pleasure Ambrose must watch himself react, must convert the experience into language.
Other protagonists in Funhouse (each a mask for Ambrose, the true protagonist and "author" of the book) suffer similarly. The narrator's difficulty in composing "Title," for example, comes between him and his understandably frustrated mistress. Words replace deeds in their relationship, and she at one point exclaims, "Is this what we're going to talk about, our obscene verbal problem?" While composing "Life-Story" the narrator is interrupted by his mistress, who declares, "The passion of love … does not in fact play in your life a role of sufficient importance to sustain my presence here. It plays in fact little role at all outside your imaginative and/or ary life." The commitment to art obstructs even the love of the "Anonymiad"'s nameless minstrel for his beloved Merope, as he deserts her for experiences he believes will make him a better storyteller. Tricked by Aegisthus, however, he ends up alone on a desert island, with only imaginary experience left open to him. Each narrator (others could be named) seems destined by artistic temperament to be a partial participant in life. Like Mann's Tonio Kröger, each stands apart from experience, observing and ordering it for others. As Ambrose sadly concludes the title story of Funhouse, "he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed."
Unfortunately, the same self-consciousness responsible for Ambrose's failure as a lover also inhibits his success at storytelling. A certain degree of innocent spontaneity, it seems, is necessary for literature as well as for love. Yet Ambrose stands at what he supposes is the end of a long history of narrative literature. And, as the narrator of "Title" avers, "Historicity and self-awareness … while ineluctable and even greatly to be prized, are always fatal to innocence and spontaneity." Condemned to write, unfit by temperament simply to repeat what has already been written, yet aware that little hope exists for producing something new, Ambrose faces the dreary prospect articulated by the narrator of "Life-Story": "He rather suspected that the medium and genre in which he worked—the only ones for which he felt any vocation—were moribund if not already dead." A paragraph later the same somber observation is applied to Western society. For Ambrose, culture and art, like his personal life, seem bereft of meaningful possibilities.
In "The Literature of Exhaustion," published the year before Funhouse, Barth expresses general agreement with this assessment, at least as it applies to narrative. Yet he refuses to let the apocalyptic ambience immobilize him as an artist. "The man or woman whose style I admire most," he has said, "is the one who has a sophisticated awareness of alternatives; who knows the tragic futility of actions, yet doesn't yield to castration by all his sophistication." Barth demonstrates his own sophisticated awareness of alternatives by examining several in Funhouse. The one he chooses to employ involves turning "ultimacy, exhaustion, paralyzing self-consciousness and the adjective-weight of accumulated history … against itself to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new," which is of course the alternative explored in "The Literature of Exhaustion." But Barth adopts yet another tactic in confronting the dilemma. While unmentioned though employed in Funhouse, this tactic receives specific comment in Chimera. The Barth-genie tells Scheherazade and Dunyazade that his literary career "had reached a hiatus which he would have been pleased to call a turning-point if he could have espied any way to turn: he wished neither to repudiate nor to repeat his past performances; he aspired to go beyond them toward a future they were not attuned to and, by some magic, at the same time go back to the original springs of narrative." Barth, that is, wishes to mine the riches of a still usable past without ignoring the present and future, a gesture he has described as "having it both ways."
One method that allows Barth to have it both ways in Funhouse is his return to oral narrative via the tape recorder. He slyly suggests the nature and function of this regression by naming his protagonist Ambrose. Ambrose is named after the fourth-century saint because bees swarmed about both their faces while they were infants. But St. Ambrose is significant to Barth's purposes for yet another reason. In The Gutenberg Galaxy Marshall McLuhan, with whose theories Barth is familiar, discusses the wonderment described by Augustine when he saw St. Ambrose reading silently. In antiquity through the Middle Ages, McLuhan reminds us, reading necessarily meant reading aloud. The reason for monk's carrels in monasteries was not to insure the reader's privacy but to prevent his oral reading from disturbing others. St. Ambrose's silent reading represented a significant stage in the transition from oral to print-oriented literary cultures. Similarly, Ambrose Mensch's experiments with tape represent a transition from visual media back to the oral and auditory. Thus the bees land on his eyes and ears, rather than on his mouth. Print, according to McLuhan, is an extension of the eyes, the tape recorder an extension of the ear. By landing about Ambrose's eyes and ears, the bees predict his dual use of print and tape.
The naming of Ambrose is significant in yet another sense. It coincides with his weaning, since the bees that inspire his name also sting his mother's breast, an event so painfully traumatic that Andrea will have little more to do with the infant Ambrose. Ambrose's naming, his initiation into a world of words, thus coincides with his forced separation from his mother. Psychologists have often associated weaning with the crisis of differentiation, the infantile trauma at which point the child suddenly becomes aware that he is distinct from others. Barth's association of this crisis with naming—thus with language—suggests the theories of Jacques Lacan, the relationship of whose thought to Lost in the Funhouse has been persuasively argued by Christopher D. Morris [in "Barth and Lacan: The World of the Moebius Strip," Critique, 1975]. According to Lacan, a newborn child exists as an "absolute subject"; his relationship to a world he cannot yet distinguish from himself is purely intransitive. At some point in his early development, presumably around the time of weaning, he becomes aware of a lack, an absence of something (the mother's breast?), which disturbs the state of seamless concord he had previously enjoyed. For the first time the child conceives of himself as a self, an "I" apart from the Other. Language becomes the mode by which he attempts to reappropriate the Other and restore his lost sense of unity. As Anthony Wilden explains, "Lacan views speech as a movement toward something, an attempt to fill the gap, without which speech could not be articulated." Paradoxically, language leads both toward and away from that holistic state man wishes to reattain. It leads to that state because its secret motivation is the desire for annihilation, the end to all distinctions; it leads away because language by its very nature is a spatializing and temporalizing medium, thus is responsible for the very world of distinctions it secretly wishes to dissolve. "Reality," that is, is essentially a linguistic construct of our own creation—a Schopenhauerian as well as Nietzschean notion Barth has called "unexceptionable."
Language, as well as the "reality" it fashions, cuts us off from our lost "authentic" self as surely as it signals that separation. The mythic desire to return to origins is at base the desire to rediscover the authentic self that existed in a state before ego, before language. "Since the discovery of the lack of object is for Lacan the condition and the cause of desire," explains Anthony Wilden, [in "Lacan and Discourse of the Other," in Lacan's The Language of the Self (1975), translated and edited by Wilden], "the adult quest for transcendence, lost time, lost paradise, or any of the myriad forms the lack of object may take … can be reduced, if one wishes, to the … question asked by Oedipus: 'Who (or what) am I?'" Yet, Wilden continues, the very fact that this question is asked verifies the subject's recognition "that he is neither who he thinks he is nor what he wants to be, since at the level of the parole vide he will always find that he is another." The ego, the only "self" we and others ackowledge, is a linguistic category constructed of a medium appropriated from another. As Ambrose muses, "I and my sign are neither one nor quite two." Moreover, not only is our language the "discourse of the other," but our identity is no more than the "internalization of the other through identification." We locate the self in the other; thus our "I", our ego, is another self, fundamentally objective rather than subjective, pure subjectivity lying only in the prenatal state before our fall into language and consciousness.
It is for this reason in "Echo" that Narcissus' self-knowledge must remain partial: "it was never himself Narcissus craved, but his reflection, the Echo of his fancy" (italics mine). We linger forever "on the autognostic verge" because the self we hope to know is always an other, a reflection of the other internalized through identification, just as the language we speak is always ultimately the discourse of the other from which it has been appropriated. The voice which leads Narcissus to the Donaconan spring, while resembling his own, is really another's, Echo's, whose own voice is similarly the appropriation of another's. Both Narcissus and Echo seek self-effacement—yet the self they wish to efface is really a reflection of another. So long as they remain in a world of words, they remain locked into the discorse of the other. Narcissus and Echo, despite their apparent differences, "come to the same."
In his attempt to embrace his reflected self, Narcissus plunges into water. Throughout Funhouse water is associated with language, which (like the sea) envelops mankind. Messages are received from the sea in two stories; the sperm cell, himself a message ("both vessel and contents"), journeys a night sea; Ambrose struggles with his story at Ocean City and wonders if that story is nothing more than the "slap slap of thigh on ham, like water sucking at the chine-boards of a skiff"; and bodies of water figure in "Menelaiad," "Two Meditations," even "Petition" (Prajadhipok is Supreme Arbiter of the Ebb and Flow of the Tide). But if water in Funhouse suggests language, that autotelic, self-referential medium in which man is awash, it has another significance as well. Archetypally, water signifies the return to the preformal, holistic state before words and world. In this more obvious yet perhaps more basic sense, water reinforces the motif of the return to origins so important to Funhouse. Thus water as symbol contains both poles that comprise the essence of language. Language fundamentally seeks to close all subject-object dichotomies and to relocate single, holistic selfhood, yet by its very nature it creates distinctions, confirming the other from which it has been appropriated and with which it would merge.
Narcissism contains a similar ambivalence, which may partially explain Barth's decision to retell the Narcissus-Echo myth. In Norman O. Brown's formulation, narcissism is not restricted to self-love but ultimately represents a desire to recover the state of primal narcissism when the self was indistinguishable from "a world of love and pleasure." The development of the ego forces a departure from this holistic state, which in turn results in "a vigorous attempt to recover it." Self-love, then, like Eros in general, is "fundamentally a desire for union (being one) with objects in the world." What manifests itself as an intensely inner-directed love really conceals a passion to re-collect the world of objects and others into a holistic and pre-predicative selfhood.
Barth, then, seems to have chosen the Narcissus-Echo myth because of its relevance to selfhood, language, and the return to origins. But one other implication of the myth appealed to Barth as well. In her various authorial stages, Echo's history parallels the history of narrative literature. As a teller of tales she at first had a body (i.e., an authorial "presence") and her own voice (i.e., she could re-invent "reality" to suit her artistic purposes). After Hera's punishment she retains her body and voice, but now she can only repeat the words of others, a state roughly equivalent to representationalism or realism. In love with Narcissus, she pines away until only her mimetic voice remains, moving into the next state: the "dehumanized" art of the self-effaced narrator. In Barth's story even her voice has ceased to be hers, as it imitates not just the words but the actual voices of others. She has become what Barth calls a "proto-Ampex."
Part of Barth's point seems to be that narrative history represents a progressive movement away from that mythic stage when story, and thus world, was fresh and seemingly inexhaustible. At the cosmogonic moment all "reality" remained to be created; out of the pregnant, primeval condition, poet-magi called the world. Once established, however, the world-become-fact replaced the mythic time of origins. Rather than invent "reality," artists represented an already invented world. Literature relinquished its role as creator of realities, becoming instead a validator of "preexistent," "objective" reality. Objectivity became an esthetic value, as did impersonality. Total absence of authorial presence became a goal. Yet even the super-realism of a Robbe-Grillet, say, still suffers "overmuch presence." As "sharp-eyed Tiresias" espies, "one may yet distinguish narrator from narrative, medium from message. One lesson remains to be learned." Echo learns that lesson as she takes the final step on the long road away from subjectivity. Radically mimetic, she becomes an organic tape recorder. This point having been reached, Tiresias speculates, "perhaps the narrative proper may resume."
Barth's implication seems to be that behind the development of narrative literature lies a desire to exhaust literary possibilities, to extend to the limits the boundaries of objective presentation so narrative can at last collapse back into the subjectivity of the mythic moment. "What the mind finally seeks," writes Carter Wheelock, "is a new arrangement of reality, and to achieve this it must go back to the mythical condition prior to the gods, before language; for out of that pregnancy some more adequate Gods, some better language may come, though it be faceless and wordless" [The Mythmaker: A Study of Motif and Symbol in the Short Stories of Jorge Luis Borges, 1969]. Before this radical regress becomes possible, however, the full potential of the present must be depleted. Thus the extreme nature of Echo's final act of self-effacement, like the radically innovative nature of the experimental fictions in Funhouse, is fundamentally eschatological. As [Mircea] Eliade maintains [in her 1968 Myth and Reality], "Eschatology is only the prefiguration of a cosmogony to come. But every eschatology insists on this fact: the New Creation cannot take place before this world is abolished once and for all."
Barth's stories are never seriously eschatological any more than they offer themselves as new cosmogonies. But Barth uses both notions metaphorically; he propels Echo forward toward some eschatological finale while himself moving backward toward origins through his use of ancient myths and an appropriately fabulative mode. Thus he acknowledges both horns of the contemporary writer's dilemma: the inexhaustibility of the narrative impulse on the one hand, and the seeming exhaustion of narrative resources on the other. In the process he constructs an ingenious emblem for the present predicament of narrative art while managing to go "on with the story."
"Echo" is emblematic of the conditions of contemporary fiction in yet another sense. In his "Seven Additional Author's Notes" Barth offers the following description of point of view in "Echo": "Inasmuch as the nymph in her ultimate condition repeats the words of others in their own voices, the words of 'Echo' on the tape or the page may be regarded validly as hers, Narcissus's, Tiresias's, mine, or any combination or series of the four of Us's." In a later interview, however, Barth concedes that "Finally, of course, it's the author's voice you're hearing and the author is always all of those things he makes up." The deeper implications of this statement reverberate after its surface meaning registers. Barth often refers to Borges's idea that fictions about fictions disturb us metaphysically because they remind us of the fictitious nature of our lives. Similarly, the realization that all voices in a work of fiction are ultimately a single voice, that of the artificer, resonates in both ontological directions. We are reminded of the Lacanian possibility that we, too, are but the sounds of other people's voices.
This possibility seems to explain the significance of the quotation marks enclosing "Night-Sea Journey." The narrator being quoted is a spermatozoan about to impregnate Andrea and become a fetal Ambrose. Not only will it become Ambrose in a literal, physical sense, but what Barth calls its "eschatological and other speculations" will become part of Ambrose's "official Heritage." The sperm cell is the "tale-bearer of a generation." The fictions that comprise the realities of our age, fictions themselves built upon past fictions, the entire construct, as Nietzsche saw, forming the a priori beliefs of our time—these, too, Ambrose inherits. Had the narrator of the story been the fish that early reviewers mistook him to be, his eschatological murmurings, Barth concedes, would indeed have been trite. Given "his actual nature, they are merely correct." Whether the sperm cell is alluding to Ginsberg's Howl or to Barth's own Floating Opera, or whether he's summarizing "the history of philosophical speculation about ontology," his concerns and formulations are among the pertinent concerns and formulations of our time. Ambrose is an outgrowth of the collected story of his race.
Language does not belong to Ambrose so much as he belongs to it. His utterances are controlled by the limitations of the medium in which he writes, thinks, and lives. Barth quotes one of Borges's editors to the effect that "For [Borges] no one has claim to originality in literature; all writers are more or less faithful amanuenses of the spirit, translators and annotators of pre-existing archetypes." Italo Calvino, whose fiction Barth greatly admires, goes a step further: "I believe that all of literature is implicit in language—that literature itself is merely the permutation of a finite set of elements and functions." Just as the self-recorded fiction of "Autobiography" echoes the words of its Father/Creator ("My first words weren't my first words"), so Ambrose, presumably that Father/Creator, echoes the words of Barth, who in turn permutates the elements and functions he has inherited from his precursors. And so on. Yet Ambrose (like Barth) is born at a time when the possible permutations of the finite have apparently been used up. "Everything's been said already, over and over," the artist in "Title" complains. Consequently, the desire to squelch the narrative impulse becomes strong. The spermatozoan of "Night-Sea Journey," the self-recorded fiction in "Autobiography," and several other narrators long to stop talking. But all seem to realize, if only implicitly, that to lift the mask of words is to end up like Ahab, lashed to nothingness.
This nothingness, while disturbing enough to Ambrose and his various avatars, is not necessarily viewed by Barth as a Kurtzian horror. Rather, it coincides with that prelinguistic state the separation from which generated language and the return to which all human activity, language included, secretly inclines. Like Borges, however, Barth believes that a complete return to this primal state is impossible (except perhaps for mystics). Man simply cannot leap outside language. Even if he does, the mystic moment of all-in-one, one-in-all inclusiveness is temporary; one must inevitably return to the world of words and men. Once back, as Giles learns, the ineffable remains unspeakable. Thus the admonition "Let go!" that recurs throughout Giles Goat-Boy and which demands the abandonment of the world of perceptual and conceptual categories is replaced in Funhouse by the imperative "Hold on!" By recasting ancient tales and myths in modern terms, Barth is able to hold onto the demands and concerns of the present while metaphorically returning to literary origins. Barth thus acknowledges the history that contains him, while simultaneously evoking that cosmogonic moment whence all history began.
But if Man's return to origins must be relative rather than radical, Barth remains free to use the idea of radical regression as a controlling metaphor. As Eliade has said, "The return to origins gives the hope of rebirth," and it is artistic rejuvenation Barth seeks. He builds the idea of the radical regress into the structure of many of his stories. Perhaps the best example of this tactic is found in "Menelaiad." In constructing his version of the Menelaus-Helen story, Barth has drawn from most existing versions of the myth, including Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, Stesichorus' Palinode, Euripides' Trojan Women, even Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss's opera Die Aegyptische Helena. These versions are themselves layered within seven different narrative perspectives provided by Menelaus, each perspective indicated by a different number of quotation marks. In his quest for Helen, Menelaus must fight his way through all these layers of "reality." At one point he cries, "When will I reach my goal through its cloaks of story? How many veils to naked Helen?" He learns the answer when, in his innermost story, he asks the Oracle at Delphi the ultimate Oedipal question: "Who am I?" The answer, almost predictable by this point in Funhouse, is seven sets of quotation marks enclosing nothing. Neither Menelaus nor Helen exists outside the stories that contain and create them. In a heroic regression, Menelaus has worked his way back through the multiple layers of "reality" to the primordial blank from which issues language and all its categories, "Helen" and "Menelaus" among them. Understandably, Menelaus recoils from the message—retreating like Ambrose and the nameless minstrel, both of whom also receive blank messages, back into story—now "done with questions" and determined to "never let go" of the protean guises of a reality that stands between him and the silence of annihilation.
But though Menelaus "continues to hold on," he "can no longer take the world seriously," for at the point where he realized "that Proteus somewhere on the beach became Menelaus holding the Old Man of the Sea, Menelaus ceased." Previously he had suspected that Helen—indeed, that "all subsequent history"—might be Proteus. But if Proteus is everything, he must also be nothing. "I understood further," says Menelaus, "how Proteus thus also was as such no more, being as possibly Menelaus's attempt to hold him, the tale of that vain attempt, the voice that tells it." Not just Menelaus, but mankind, is the story of its collective story, the sound of its own voice. History, as Barth is fond of saying, is fictive if not false, "our dream, our idea," to which we must cling even when, like Menelaus, we realize its fictiveness.
Without the story there is only the blank. This blank is that sense of absence which propels man to create language, self, and civilization—each a sublimated desire to "fill in the blank." All three are made out of love, since language, which creates self and society, is essentially sexual at base in its Oedipal longing to regain the mother's breast, to fill in the blank separating self from the world. "'Love is how we call our ignorance of what whips us,'" cries the disgruntled sperm cell of "Night-Sea Journey," as he, too, despite his nihilism, plunges toward the mysterious She and "consummation, transfiguration, Union of contraries, transcension of categories." He attains that holistic realm known to mystics and heroes. But of course he will be expunged once again as Ambrose into a world of words and categories, only to return metaphorically through Ambrose's artistic regression to past forms and tales. Love, then, moves us to fill in the blank, to create our history. As Helen tells Menelaus, it is "the senseless answer to our riddle … mad history's secret, base-fact and footer to the fiction crazy-house our life." When the teller of Menelaus' tale dies, and then is followed by the tale itself, the tale's motivation and subject, love, will remain.
But if love motivates tale and teller, what of told? Throughout Funhouse the importance of an audience—real or implied—to the narrative process is emphasized. Several narrators realize that they must continue speaking as long as they have readers or hearers. "You who listen give me life in a manner of speaking" begins the narrator of "Autobiography," the curious spacing in his utterance making it unclear whether that utterance is indicative or imperative. At least two of the stories actually insult the reader/hearer in an effort to cut off communication. As the author/narrator of "Life-Story," addressing his reader, concludes about the author-audience relationship in the story he is writing: "Don't you think he [the author of the story-within-the-story] knows who gives his creatures their lives and deaths? Do they exist except as he or others read their words? Age except we turn their pages? And can he die until you have no more of him?" Later he answers his own not-quite-rhetorical questions. "That he continues means that he continues, a fortiori you too. Suicide's impossible: he can't kill himself without your help." Not only does the reader give life to the characters and situation in the author's story, but in a real sense the reader gives the author life, since he makes his role possible. By that same token, the writer as well as his story makes possible the reader's role. Tale, teller, and told thus become linked in a reciprocal process. Writing is not a monologue in which a Godlike author creates a world which he then dispenses to a passive auditor; rather, it is—as Heidegger argues all language is—a conversation.
"Language is not a mere tool, one of the many which man possesses," writes Heidegger in his essay on Hölderlin; "on the contrary, it is only language that affords the very possibility of standing in the openness of the existent. Only where there is language is there world." But if the "being of man is founded in language … this only becomes actual in conversation" ["Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry," in Vernon W. Gras's European Literary Theory and Practice: From Existential Phenomenology to Structuralism (1973)]….
Poetry was the Ursprache, the "primitive language of a historical people." In time, of course, the poetic hardened into the vernacular, the mythic into the ritualistic, then the mundane. But the truly original poet's task remains the same: he must return to origins, recapitulating in the moment of creation that primordial creation when the first poet-magi called a world out of darkness. In the words of Eliade,
All poetry is an effort to re-create the language; in other words, to abolish current language, that of every day, and to invent a new, private and personal speech…. But poetic creation, like liguistic creation, implies the abolition of time—of the history concentrated in language—and tends toward the recovery of the paradisiac, primordial situation … when one could create spontaneously…. From a certain point of view, we may say that every great poet is remaking the world. [Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, 1975]
For this crucial reason, despite the reciprocity of the reader-writer process, the reader's need for the writer may be greater than vice versa—far greater perhaps than most readers would be comfortable knowing. The truly serious poet in his various guises continues to invent our universe. In the process he perhaps teaches the reader how to invent his world, which is what Ronald Sukenick calls "the main didactic job of the contemporary novelist" ["The New Tradition in Fiction," in Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow, edited by Raymond Federman, 1975]. The artist keeps the necessary conversation vital by refusing to allow it to harden into meaningless cliché. This is one reason why Barth and his artist-protagonists are so concerned with originality. If language forms our a priori beliefs, if it is the filter through which our "realities" are perceived, then the freshness and significance of those realities depend upon the health of the language. "Where language is corrupted or bastardized," writes George Steiner, "there will be a corresponding decline in the character and fortunes of the body politic" [After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 1975]. And when language falls into silence, spiritual if not actual self-extinction follows. "If Sinbad sinks it's Scheherazade who drowns," writes the narrator of "Life-Story." "Whose neck one wonders is on her line?" The answer, of course, is our own.
The reader's dependence upon the writer—though often unacknowledged, as Shelley noted—becomes the writer's most pressing obligation. The act of writing, of reaching out to another for understanding and acceptance, is frequently painful since the writer can never be sure he will make contact. "Are you there?" asks the self-recorded fiction of "Autobiography," a question echoed by Menelaus' "Anyone there?" and implicitly or explicitly repeated throughout Funhouse. More awesome still is the realization that someone may be reaching out to the writer. "To love is easy," speaks Menelaus; "to be loved, as if one were real, on the order of others: fearsome mystery!" This realization confirms the writer's participation in the ontological conversation, thus verifying his existence in the symbolic order that man calls reality. More important, perhaps, it forces the writer to acknowledge his role as poet and the obligations that role entails.
A message from the sea launches Ambrose's role as writer. Similarly, a sea-message resuscitates the moribund narrative impulse of the minstrel in "Anonymiad." Marooned on an island, the minstrel invents written narrative, then muse by muse exhausts its possibilities. Like Echo, he rehearses the various stages of the narrative tradition; having reached its final stage, he faces a depletion of narrative resources: "Was there any new thing to say, new way to say the old?" Just as Ambrose's sea message is blank, the medium forming its sole message, so the minstrel's message is all but blank. But the renewed creativity inspired by the message comes "as much from the lacunae as from the rest." Whereas he had thought himself "the only stranded spirit, and had survived by sending messages to whom they might concern," he now realizes the world "might be astrew with isled souls, become minstrels perforce, and the sea a-clink with literature!" The phrase I have italicized suggests a causal relationship between isolation and art, which is precisely the point I have been making. Language issues from the ontogenetic and phylogenic realization of separation. It represents an attempt to fill in the blank sensed by the individual at the point of the infantile trauma and by ancient man at the time of the "catastrophe" or expulsion from paradise. The realization that another is similarly isolated and simultaneously reaching out for understanding and love confirms the existence of a continuing conversation, which Heidegger sees as the ground of being. Thus messaged, the minstrel continues the exchange, realizing now that this "Anonymiad" as well as "all its predecessors" are a "continuing, strange love letter."
The minstrel's—thus Ambrose's—realization that art, like language itself, is fundamentally a conversation casts light on a previous statement by the narrator of "Life-Story." Concluding that "the old analogy between Author and God, novel and world, can no longer be employed unless deliberately as a false analogy," the narrator lists among the possible fictional responses to this fact the following: fiction must "establish some other, acceptable relation between itself, its author, its reader." This new relation is one of reciprocity. The text is not solely the creation of the author but (to paraphrase "Autobiography") the sum of the author and reader's conjoined efforts. By that same token, the language employed by the author exists prior to its use by that author; thus artistic parole, no matter how novel in its permutations, is controlled by the langue from which it is selected and which forms the context that gives it sense. Thus all three—teller, tale, and told—are inextricably linked and mutually interdependent.
The artist's obligation to keep the ontological conversation going is manifested in various ways in Funhouse. The need to "hold on" to reality's various guises, for example, becomes even more essential when the artist realizes that those forms and guises—our cognitive and perceptual "realities"—depend for their existence on the conversation which actualized them. This conversation, according to Heidegger, is a single one; it has existed continuously since its inception and cannot be interrupted without plunging man and his world back into the void. And while there is throughout Funhouse a persistent impulse toward the Baroque, that impulse to get it all said, to exhaust the possible permutations of words and yield at last to the all-encompassing silence, this eschatological tendency is counteracted by a stronger if paradoxically weary desire to continue filling in the blank.
These twin impulses are especially evident in the triptych formed by "Autobiography," "Title," and "Life-Story." While all three stories are concerned with the relationship between reader, writer, and story, each story focuses primarily on one element of the relationship: "Autobiography," narrated by itself, focuses obviously on the tale; "Title," concerned with the author-narrator's difficulties in composing his story, focuses on the teller; "Life-Story," particularly the last two sections, focuses primarily on the audience. Each story is radically reflexive, its form not "contentless" (as the narrator of "Autobiography" complains) so much as comprising content. The stories discourse, their very processes, form their substance. "You tell me it's self-defeating to talk about it instead of just up and doing it," explains the narrator of "Title," "but to acknowledge what I'm doing while I'm doing it is exactly the point." Yet even this novel approach soon grows hackneyed. "Another story about a writer writing a story!" Complains the narrator of "Life-Story." "Another regressus in infinitum! Who doesn't prefer art that at least overtly imitates something other than its own processes?" Despite the curse of exhaustion and apparent meaninglessness, these tales, in the words of "Autobiography," "continue the tale of [their] forebears," refusing (perhaps unable) to end, as indicated by the absence of periods concluding "Autobiography" and "Title." In this respect these two stories resemble the types of narrative Beckett has described: "It's an unbroken flow of words and tears … it's for ever the same murmur, flowing unbroken, like a single endless word and therefore meaningless, for it's the end gives the meaning to words" [Harris's italics].
"Life-Story" does end, however, at least in a relative sense. Indeed, it closes with a pair of periods, the second larger than the first. The narrator of "Life-Story" is writing a story about a writer writing a story, both stories concluding almost simultaneously, which may explain the twin periods. But the second, larger period may also apply retroactively to the unconcluded initial stories in the triptych. Significantly, "Life-Story" closes when the narrator is led to bed and sex by his playful but determined wife. Narrative, the sexual surrogate, gives way to actual sex. Since this occurs on the narrator's birthday, a regress of sorts also occurs, the act of sex symbolically restoring that harmony interrupted by the birth trauma thirty-six years before. Sex, at its climactic moment, returns us symbolically and perhaps psychologically to Eliade's illud tempus, that time before time, before man's fall into consciousness and categories. In the "dizzy instant of coitus," writes Borges, "all men are one man." Moreover, just as the sexual orgy provided ancient man with a ritual for regressing psychically to primal chaos (the mythic state), so do the distractions of modern man, particularly reading, provide the same function. Such is the "mythological function of reading," according to Eliade. "For the modern man it is the supreme 'distraction,' yielding him the illusion of a mastery of Time which, we may well suspect, gratifies a secret desire to withdraw from the implacable becoming that leads toward death." Like the act of sex, the acts of reading and writing are forms of love—love in the mythic sense, love as the desire to overcome all dualisms and to heal permanently the primordial breach between man and the other. Thus the narrator of "Life-Story" doesn't stop the ontological conversation, even though he does cap his pen. His "ending story" remains "endless by interruption," that interruption causing merely a shift of media, an exchange of the flesh for the word, both of which symbolize the human desire to abolish all distinctions.
Nor does Funhouse conclude with the minstrel's affirmative "Wrote it." These words, we understand, apply to the "Anonymiad" itself; that realization sends us back to the beginning of that story and, since "Anonymiad" forms the final fiction in the series composed by Ambrose, back to the beginning of Funhouse as well. The structure of Funhouse is therefore cyclic, a fitting shape for a narrative concerned with regressions to origins. But the nature of the cycle, as "Frame-Tale" promises, is spiraling, not spheric. "Anonymiad" echoes "Night-Sea Journey" but with a crucial difference: whereas the spermatozoan is propelled unwillingly by Love, the nameless minstrel, after some recalcitrance, yields enthusiastically. Addressing an absent Merope in terms deliberately reminiscent of "Night-Sea Journey," the minstrel proclaims, "I wish you were here. The water's fine; in the intervals of this composition I've taught myself to swim, and if some night your voice recalls me, by a new name, I'll commit myself to it, paddling and resting, drifting like my amphorae, to attain you or to drown." The new name, of course, will be Ambrose. And the call will be to art, not to physical love. But the subject of Ambrose's fiction will be love, what goes on between men and women remaining "not only the most interesting but the most important thing in the bloody murderous world." And the art Ambrose fashions will demand a reciprocal relationship between reader, writer, and story that resembles love. Moreover, by this point in his narrative Ambrose has perhaps learned that if art is a sexual substitute, the act of sex is itself a substitute, pointing like language to that holistic, primordial state man struggles to reattain. As a record of that struggle, art remains as vitally necessary to the survival of the human race as does sex. "A continuing, strange love letter," it preserves the ontological conversation that is man.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7440
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 and imagination. The "text" heroically foregoes the old securities of presence—signification, thematic unity, totalizing form—and accepts the existentialist challenge to confront the lack of a center at the heart of language and to dwell in that void. Hence, runs the deconstructionist myth, the lack of meaning at the center of a text is a truer and more authentic meaning, the play of language a truer realism….
More importantly for readers of postmodern fiction, the criticism is short-sighted: in its enthusiastic attack on the myth of correct interpretation, and its consequent attention to the play of language, it obscures the double nature of all fiction, including self-reflexive fiction. When postmodern criticism claims that the lack of meaning of the "text" is its meaning, that the lack of referential value to language is its truth, it dissolves two types of tension essential to narrative: the linguistic tension between reference and self-reference, and the narrative tension between mimesis and poesis. Self-reflexive fiction certainly does confront us with the fact that language and convention are merely surfaces. Yet the complexity of this type of fiction is due in part to the fact that it simultaneously creates and undermines presences. To turn from the criticism back to the fiction itself is to experience as readers how self-reflexive narrative constantly cultivates this tension.
For instances of this lost tension, we need only look at the many critical studies of John Barth's fiction that cite his work as an example of the "empty" postmodern "text." While one vein of the criticism has focused on Barth's vision of existential absurdity, the dominant critical approach for the past ten years has been a focus on Barth's narrative and linguistic nihilism. James Rother, for instance, sees Barth's fiction as a recurrent demonstration of language's power to "abolish determinisms of begining and end" ["Parafiction: The Adjacent Universe of Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, and Nabokov," boundary 2, 1976], and Tony Tanner notes the characteristic "nonprogressive mutterings" of a voice wandering through the "lexical playfields" of narrative form ["No Exit," Partisan Review, 1969]. For Beverly Gross, Barth's fiction "exists to announce its own inadequacy," and "proclaim[s] … the impossibility of narrative" ["The Anti-Novels of John Barth," in Critical Essays on John Barth, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir, 1980]. Even Campbell Tatham, arguing for the relevance of Barth's fictional world to the world outside the text, can grant it only the most limited sort of relevance: "Barth's novels are commentaries on theories of the novel; insofar as novels are part of life, Barth's novels are a commentary on a part of life" ["John Barth and the Aesthetics of Artifice," Contemporary Literature, 1971]. This is a slim defense indeed against charges of self-reflexive emptiness.
Christopher Morris has attempted to shift the critical discussion away from debate about Barth's affirmations or negations—from concerns with what Morris calls the "inescapable nexus of Barth's nihilism" versus his "grim 'resolutions' of absurdity or tautology"—and to address the problem of language ["Barth and Lacan: The World of the Moebius Strip," Critique, 1975]. His deconstructionist reading merely reinforces the argument for Barthian nihilism, however. For Morris, the central motif in Lost in the Funhouse is "the rupture between the visual and perceptible world, centered in the self, and the world of language, which exists without a center." Language is "wholly independent of everything outside it, even the speaker who uses it." Consequently the work expresses Lacan's idea of the "loss of the subject … at the expense of a discourse which incoherently speaks man rather than the reverse." For Morris, Lost in the Funhouse is characterized by the absence of the subject and of signification. "Selfhood in Lost in the Funhouse is altogether ignored, except as a farcical or sentimental entity, and the locus of 'narrative' affliction is ultimately reduced to the purely linguistic problem of substitution." The only viable option for the writer, according to Morris's reading of Barth, is to combine and recombine phonemes. The novel thus demonstrates the "collapsible, substitutive nature of language."
I have summarized Morris's argument here at some length because in its sophistication it illustrates the rationale for what is, I believe, a widespread misreading of Barth's fiction and of postmodern fiction in general. It is surely true that this fiction is preoccupied with the deterioration of language in general and of narrative forms in particular. But it does not follow that self-reflexive fiction is nihilistic or devoid of "presence." For while some aspects of self-reflexive narrative lead toward emptiness, others lead toward fullness. By offering an alternate reading of Lost in the Funhouse I hope to underline the inadequacy of the deconstructionist reading and to show how Barth deepens our appreciation of the constructive uses of narrative reflexivity.
In Chimera, which picks up from Lost in the Funhouse the motif of the artist-hero, Barth gives us a model for reflexivity in the form of two documents contained in a jug which Bellerophon finds floating across the marshes. Proposing a "new," "quintessential" fiction, they echo deconstructionist rhetoric and concerns. The first makes a case for an "utterly novel revolution" whose goal will be the "first genuinely scientific model of the genre"; it will "of necessity contain nothing original whatever." The second is Jerome B. Bray's application for a grant to pursue his "Revolutionary Novel NOTES," a scientific fiction which will "represent nothing beyond itself, have no content except its own form, no subject but its own processes." "Language itself it will perhaps eschew," divesting as far as possible the literary sign of its signification: in the maw of Bray's computer, literature is reduced to a list of motifs, plot-structures, and patterns that re-emerge as mathematical formulae and geometrical diagrams.
But the parodic quality of the documents makes it clear that this enthusiasm for écriture blanche is to be taken neither at face value nor as Barth's own. For scribbled at the bottoms of Bray's proposal is an editorial response that implies both the triviality of that ultimate reduction of fiction to pattern and the possible danger of such a reduction: "File. Forget. Throw back in the river. No need to prosecute (or reply)." However fascinated Scheherazade and the Genie—another of Barth's avatars—may be with questions of fictional technique, with the relations between frame and tale, such questions are for Dunyazade less important than what the stories are about. As the narrator of "Life-Story" puts it, "What sort of story is it whose drama lies always in the next frame out?" The question is rhetorical: no kind of story, he implies—at least no story we can care much about. "If Sinbad sinks it's Scheherazade who drowns; whose neck one wonders is on her line?" The problem with "scientific fictions" and postmodern "texts" is that they sacrifice passion for the arid pleasures of technique. In the maze of literature-as-signs, of écriture blanche, what Barth refers to as the "felt ultimacies" of our lives are lost. The postmodern writer's sophistication regarding literary form is such that not only must all form seem derivative, but all statements seem the foregone conclusion of the writer's choice of a given form. As the narrator of the "Anonymiad," having invented writing and made the discovery of fiction, fills jug after jug with (in order of their historical appearance) the various sub-genres of narrative and then "run[s] out of world and material," he finds himself in the postmodernist dilemma: "as my craft improved, my interest waned, and my earlier zeal seemed hollow as the jugs it filled. Was there any new thing to say, new way to say the old?"
The answer to that question is "yes," a response proposed by Barth in the Funhouse where the narrator of "Life-Story" realizes that his lack of "ground-situation" may in fact be his "ground-situation," and where the interlocutor in "Title" suggests that the narrator try to "turn ultimacy against itself to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new." It is, of course, a paradoxical "yes," and one that requires us to think of fiction's statements differently from the way in which we ordinarily think of statements. For the writer must address his and our situation; and yet self-consciousness turns all statements ironic, self-negating. Barth's fiction reflects an awareness that the relation between words and what we would have them say is always ironic. That awareness creates a state of self-alienation that renders us unable to complete a statement or a story, to connect with a listener or a lover.
What Barth stages, then, is the drama of the erosions of self-consciousness and the struggle against those erosions. While it is true that he points out the absence at the heart of language, he gives us another sort of presence: namely, our resistance to that absence. The collapsibility of language, the arbitrariness of fictions, the infinite regress of statement, are merely the stage for the drama. Self-reflexivity creates a labyrinth of mirrors that turns fiction into "text"; but the quest in the Funhouse is for a context that will enable fiction to resist that reduction and to counter that loss.
Self-consciousness is explored on two planes in Lost in the Funhouse, the existential and the linguistic, which come together as problems of narrative voice. Existentially its effects are felt as a loss or dispersal of self, a theme present in Barth's earlier, nonreflexive fiction. In Chimera and Lost in the Funhouse, self-consciousness becomes an aspect of language as well; and the earlier issues of authenticity and role-playing, power and paralysis, are posed in terms of writing or narrating. Barth's later narrators, typically writers or storytellers, tend by virtue of their self-consciousness to lose personality and pale into mere voice. "The opinions echoed in these speeches aren't necessarily the speaker's"; "this voice persists, whosever it is."
There is a first "felt ultimacy," then, in self-reflexive language—in its tendency to become "shards" independent of speakers and significations. "Frame-Tale" situates the Funhouse stories in the tension between tale—which bears the marks of a speaker and his or her intentions—and text. For the phrase "once upon a time" conveys a sense of the storyteller's presence, of a person related to us by the act of telling a story; while the following clause, "there was a story that began," tells us that story is a predetermined text. Moreover, by virtue of the instructions for turning the page into a Moebius strip, that second phrase textualizes the first: "there was a story that began, 'Once upon a time'" embeds the tale and storyteller within a text.
As the stories oscillate between tale and text, language's referential function is weakened. Accordingly, Barth's narrators grow increasingly unnerved by the gap between the word and its object. The narrator of "Night-Sea Journey" has been reduced to a voice addressing itself and pondering what self-consciousness implies about language's power of reference: "'Is the journey my invention? Do the night, the sea, exist at all, I ask myself, apart from my experience of them?'"—questions that immediately generate questions regarding narrators: "'Do I myself exist … And if I am, who am I? The Heritage I supposedly transport? But how can I be both vessel and contents?'"
In "Autobiography" the autonomy of voice is pushed even further, threatening to overshadow the tale completely:
I see I see myself as a halt narrative: first person, tiresome. Pronoun sans ante or precedent, warrant or respite. Surrogate for the substantive; contentless form, interestless principle; blind eye blinking at nothing. Who am I. A little crise d'identité for you.
Self-reflexivity has advanced another step—"I see I see myself"—as voice admits it is "nothing but talk" and the narrator "a figure of speech." Like the Night-Sea narrator, it tells a story, "the tale of my forebears," the autobiography of a voice born of "a mere novel device" and the paternal hand that "cursed" him. But story has become entirely subject to language: the narrator reminds us that his existence is literally "only a manner of speaking" and that the tale exists only as a series of puns—"Dad" begets story with his "pointless pen," "Mother" is "a passing fancy" (Coleridgean, we suppose). The sign has no reference apart from self-reference.
The motif of Ambrose's mark crystallizes this problem of language. Through its range of associations, the sign fans out into a range of signifiers, each with its own range of significations (Ambrose leads to ambrosia, honey, honig, mother; or bee, be, B, Barth, being). But this only complicates the problem of what the name signifies, and undermines the principle of reference:
one feels complexly toward the name he's called by, which too one had no hand in choosing. It was to be my fate to wonder at that moniker, relish and revile it, ignore it, stare it out of countenance into hieroglyph and gibber.
Self-reflexive language slides into "hieroglyph and gibber," enigmatic signs that promise but do not yield significance. His "water-message," which Ambrose reads as emblematic of "that greater vision, vague and splendrous," expresses the double nature of language: empty, yet capable of carrying a message. Thus, at this stage, Ambrose celebrates the emptiness of referential content, as it allows him to envision "currents as yet uncharted," "fishes as yet unnamed."
But elsewhere the emptiness breeds confusion and despair. The ambiguity of the sign infects the narrator's sense of self: "I and my sign are neither one nor quite two," says Ambrose. We are and are not identical to ourselves, since the self is both consciousness and object of consciousness. In "Petition" the division is made literal, and it is a burden: "To be one: paradise! To be two: bliss! But to be both and neither is unspeakable"—unspeakable in the sense of agonizing, and literally unspeakable: how can it be expressed? With ["Lost in the Funhouse"], doubleness has won out. The hall of mirrors makes literal the effects of reflexivity upon identity. Ambrose wonders, "will he become a regular person?" Personality, he realizes, is a fiction, but a necessary one if "fame, madness, suicide; perhaps all three" are to be avoided.
What makes this well-worn theme compelling in Barth's fiction is that it is posed as a problem of narrative voice. As the "Night-Sea" narrator's "both vessel and contents" implies, narrative voice has a double nature: it is both personality and the vehicle by which personality is conveyed—both signified and signifier. The motif of doubleness repeatedly appears in the first half of the Funhouse, firmly establishing the problem of identity as a condition of language. As "Autobiography" puts it, the "I" is "surrogate for the substantive": a stand-in for a noun, with referential value only by virtue of the noun it replaces. The narrator's "I" is troubled by "absence of presence." Like Ambrose's name, "I" is a linguistic sign without a fixed referent. In "Petition" the self has split into an all-too-solid "he" and an empty "I." Ambrose's meditations on his name, the "Autobiography" narrator's autonomy from "Mom" and "Dad," the "Night-Sea" voice's journey between "Maker" and "She," the Siamese-twin pair of "Petition"—all express the tenuous connection between narrative consciousness and narrative person.
In the title story, Ambrose's awareness of language has developed into the capacity to reflect upon his own and others' use of language and to exercise a range of voices. Ambrose's growing awareness of the elusiveness of the self—"he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person"—is accompanied by his growing sophistication regarding language. For one thing, he has become skeptical as to the adequacy of linguistic description, particularly its ability to convey passion. "His eyes watered, there aren't enough ways to say that." "Ambrose's throat ached; there aren't enough different ways to say that." Ambrose's insight into the gap between word and object—"Nobody knew how to be what they were right"; "If you knew all the stories behind all the people on the boardwalk, you'd see that nothing was what it looked like"—leads to multiple voices. We hear lines that sound like psychology textbooks, instructions on effective writing, histories of fiction, handbooks on grammatical conventions. The story may be read as psychologically representational: Ambrose is trying on a number of voices in an attempt to establish his own voice. We witness Ambrose trying to conform to narrative convention, but not yet comfortable with it—"the smell of Uncle Karl's cigar smoke reminded one of"—or revising a sentence to render its style more conventionally "literary"—"though without the extra fun though without the comaraderie"; "who teases him good-naturedly who chuckles over the fact." We can make sense of the repetitions ("unbeknownst unbeknownst to him"; "We would do the latter. We would do the latter. We would do the latter") by reading these as Ambrose's mind dwelling on certain words and phrases that for one reason or another arrest his attention: foreignness, awkwardness, interest. The narrative blanks ("Its principal events … would appear to have been A, B, C, and D") show that Ambrose is aware of what convention requires, but is not yet enough of a storyteller to be able to fill in those blanks; the self-commentary ("What is the story's theme?"; "This can't go on much longer; it can go on forever") is Ambrose reflecting on the story he is in the process of composing.
The above reading casts "Lost in the Funhouse" as Barth's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Certainly the story encourages us to do so, with its questions regarding the narrative's verisimilitude: "Is it likely … that a thirteen-year-old boy could make such a sophisticated observation?" All the commentary on narrative convention, however, might just as plausibly be read as another voice, that of the anonymous narrator of this story, whose difficulties in managing the tale correspond to Ambrose's difficulties in coping with the funhouse of family, sexuality, and identity. Ambrose full of voices, all his, none him; or a narrator full of voices, including Ambrose's. Is Ambrose's voice within the tale, or enclosing it?
Like "Frame-Tale," this story depends upon a tension between impersonal "text" and person, or between convention and voice. At times, the narrative voice is that of Ambrose, therefore personal; at other times, it is that of an impersonal storyteller. But since Ambrose is an apprentice storyteller, the personal merges into the impersonal. There are, in addition, conventionalized impersonal voices within the tale (the "textbook" voices) which can be read as personal (Ambrose trying them out). The twist, of course, is that the storyteller becomes a character within the story, lost in the funhouse with Ambrose, unable to control or foresee the direction of the tale. Thus the narrative voice is located on the Moebius strip, where outside becomes inside and inside becomes outside. In the hall of mirrors, the reflections and refractions go on infinitely, blurring and distorting Ambrose into not-Ambrose. As the self-reflexive language undermines language's referential function, it undermines our sense of the narrator as person. We have a sense of a mind informing the story, but it is not strictly personal: Ambrose "deceives himself" and us "into supposing he [is] a person," for he exists only as self-consciousness assuming a range of voices, some personal and some conventional. Our sense of narrator-as-person is replaced by narrator-as-voices.
The dilemmas of self-consciousness continue in the second half of Lost in the Funhouse, cryptically imaged in the next story as Narcissus's dilemma: self-absorption. What lies behind "Echo" is the effort to anchor voice in person, to limit the obsessive chain of self-reflection so that story can begin. "Title" and "Life-Story" initiate the way out of the labyrinth by expressing the narrative problem as an existential one. Whereas in the title story the tension between voice as person and voice as language is never resolved, here the narrative voice is clearly personal even at the height of self-reflexivity. Even as the language undercuts itself, undermines statement, and creates absences, those processes are made humanly significant through the narrators' personal situations—being "full of voices," self-absorbed, aware of their own "absence of presence," unable to connect with anything but echoes.
In "Title," the sound and fury of self-multiplying voice has come to signify nothing and to state that fact. The story is at once a demonstration of the emptiness of self-reflexive language and a drama of the narrator's efforts to fill that emptiness: "Everything leads to nothing…. Can nothing be made meaningful?" The title, "Title," exemplifies the story's basic device: to establish a blank space by supplying a filler that does not carry any content, thus ensuring that the form remains the object of our attention. Some of the blanks are grammatical: "I'll fill in the blank with this noun here in my prepositional object"; "The novel is predicate adjective"; "A person who can't verb adverb ought at least to speak correctly." Others are syntactic or rhetorical elements: "as is the innocent anecdote of bygone days"; "the memorable simile that yields deeper and subtler significances upon reflection, like a memorable simile." Narrative elements become mere slots, named but not filled: "Conventional startling opener"; "A tense moment in the evolution of the story," the narrator says. The tale oscillates between self-reference and reference to an existential situation where men and women are caught in the frustrations of love and communication. The narrative's self-reflexivity is directly suggestive of what has gone wrong in their failing relationship: "Standard conflict. Let's skip particulars. What do you want from me? What'll the story be this time? Same old story." Perceived as convention, as cliché, the relationship has become a blank with nothing to sustain interest. The characters perceive each other in terms of conventional behavior and conventional emotions:
Why do you suppose it is, she asked,… that literate people such as we talk like characters in a story? Even supplying the dialogue-tags, she added with wry disgust…. The same old story, an old-fashioned one at that.
The story simultaneously addresses the state of their relationship and that of contemporary fiction—"Love affairs, literary genres, third item in exemplary series, fourth—everything blossoms and decays, does it not, from the primitive and classical through the mannered and baroque to the abstract, stylized, dehumanized, unintelligible, blank"—denying the possibility of artistic and sexual completion. Fiction and love are on the rocks, and the cause is pinpointed: the narrator's self-consciousness has made it impossible for him to bring the story, and his lover, to a climax and to fill in the blank or the womb—in other words, to create. (This association between technical virtuosity and artistic impotence appears also in the "Anonymiad," where his "professional sophistication, at the expense of his former naïve energy, was to be rendered as a dramatical correlative to the attrition of his potency with Merope … or vice versa.")
Thus the story establishes language's tendency to dissolve into emptiness and makes that very tendency its content—a human content, a problem of storytellers and, here, lovers. People and their relationships have become conventions perceived as such, pale shadows, mere pronouns open to infinite substitutions. Yet we sense the possibility of fuller selves, fuller characters and tales than self-conscious fiction allows, a fuller sense of self than self-absorption permits:
Sometimes it seems as if things could instantly be altogether different and more admirable. The times be damned, one still wants a man vigorous, confident, bold, resourceful, adjective, and adjective. One still wants a woman spirited, spacious of heart, loyal, gentle, adjective, adjective. That man and that woman are as possible as the ones in this miserable story, and a good deal realer. It's as if they live in some room of our house that we can't find the door to, though it's so close we can hear echoes of their voices. Experience has made them wise instead of bitter; knowledge has mellowed instead of souring them; in their forties and fifties, even in their sixties, they're gayer and stronger and more authentic than they were in their twenties; for the twenty-year-olds they have only affectionate sympathy. So? Why aren't the couple in this story that man and woman, so easy to imagine?
If those voices could replace this self-conscious one, if fiction would recognize that people still live their lives "in more or less conventionally dramatic fashion, unfashionable or not"—that is, in a manner resembling fiction's conventions of linear plot, of motive and character—then this love affair and fiction would presumably be saved. But this is wishful thinking, for even as the narrator states, "that my dear is what writers have got to find ways to write about in this adjective adjective hour," he demonstrates its impossibility. Carried away by the force of his assertions, he loses hold on his statement and ends in the same self-reflexive quandary. This is the hour of "adjective adjective," of "accursed self-consciousness," of mimetic fiction's bad faith. The force of "Title" is in the human implications of the linguistic (and fictional) problem—the real poignancy of that vision of a couple aging together in the fullness of affection, as set against the abrasive hostility to which these voices are driven by their self-absorption and their frustration with it. The self-consciousness that prevents them from speaking humanly to each other is precisely what makes the story speak humanly to us.
"Life-Story" continues the effort to get beyond reflexivity, first of all by critiquing it. For one thing, self-reflexivity is a convention of twentieth-century literature: "Another story about a writer writing a story! Another regressus in infinitum!" It's dreary, a tiresome mode for both writer and reader: "Who doesn't prefer art that at least overtly imitates something other than its own processes?" The fictiveness of fiction is an obvious truth, hardly enough to sustain even the shortest of tales: "Self-consciousness can be a bloody bore" [Barth, in Joe David Bellamy, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, 1974]. The question, as the narrator of "Life-Story" comments, is one regarding the human implications of that truth: "what were to be the consequences of D's … disproving or verifying his suspicion [that the world is a fiction and he himself a character in a fiction], and why should a reader be interested?" We evaluate the fiction, and we respond to it, according to the resonances of what is expressed. The suggestion made by Barth in the "Literature of Exhaustion" essay and found in "Title" as well—to write of "the impossibility of making something new" and thereby "turn ultimacy against itself"—recurs in "Life-Story": "'You say you lack a ground-situation. Has it occurred to you that that circumstance may be your ground-situation?'" But this content is too thin; with that tale, Scheherazade's life is on shaky ground.
Various hypotheses are given, in the second section of the story, to account for the persistence of this self-reflexive mode which so plagues the narrator and subverts the story: social decline, physical aging, the metaphysical problem of reality as fiction, his choice of marital love over "a less regular, more glamorous style of life." But these explanations are, of course, neither here nor there. Self-reflexivity persists, interfering—as in the case of every Funhouse narrator except the impersonal narrator of the first two Ambrose stories—with the narrator's ability to sustain and complete a story.
And yet he does manage to complete it, thanks to two interruptions in his obsessive self-consciousness. First, as he comes to the end of a reflection on narrative structures in general and his life's in particular, he reaches the words "the reader," and they initiate a burst of aggressive energy that begins the third section of the story. It is as though the narrator has suddenly discovered the reader; for the first time he acknowledges the reader: "The reader! You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented bastard, it's you I'm addressing, who else." He refuses to let us recede into our accustomed passivity, and pulls us in—"For why do you suppose—you! you!"—taunting us and daring us to stop reading. After this bout of sparring with the reader, the narrator describes three options for how self-conscious fiction may regain the authority of conventional fiction:
1) fiction must acknowledge its fictitiousness and metaphoric invalidity or 2) choose to ignore the question or deny its relevance or 3) establish some other, acceptable relation between itself, its author, its reader.
"Title" has dispensed, as we have seen, with the first option on the grounds of its obviousness and ultimate triviality; the second option is attempted by the "Life-Story" narrator as he tries to "tell his tale from start to finish in a conservative, 'realistic,' unself-conscious way"; the entry of the reader signals the third. The way out of the labyrinth of self-consciousness will be found neither by making self-consciousness central nor by denying it. The blank cannot be filled; no statement will hold. Fiction's authority must come from a source other than definitive statement.
What follows this claim, then, is a second interruption, this time by the narrator's wife, who walks into his study unexpectedly. Blocking his view of the page and wishing him a "Happy Birthday," she symbolically puts an end to his self-absorption (and the self-absorbed narrative) and affirms his identity as more than—in fact, as other than—self-consciousness. His existence confirmed by her (having just reached that affirmation himself via logical deduction), he is finally able to "cap his pen"—in contrast to the earlier Funhouse narrators who end in mid-sentence or otherwise inconclusively.
Filling in the blank, and finding one's way out of the self-reflexive funhouse, means both restoring the capacity of fiction to speak of something other than itself and liberating the narrator from solipsism. Barth finds a solution in the power of voice: the capacity to establish a connection between writer and reader, the capacity to express qualities of the speaker and to address a receiver. As long as we look to statement itself for meaning, self-conscious fiction will seem empty, like the answer Menelaus receives from the oracle or the "message" Ambrose receives from the sea. Ambrose and Bellerophon, questers both, find the same grail—a bottle with a message in it:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN … YOURS TRULY The lines between were blank, as was the space beneath the complimentary close.
But their reactions are opposite: Ambrose feels the thrill of new knowledge and "other truth"; Bellerophon sees a blank. In terms of statement, Bellerophon is of course right. But for Ambrose, the message consists in the fact of its occurrence. He sees it as an act of address:
Past the river and the Bay, from continents beyond, this messenger had come. Borne by currents as yet uncharted, nosed by fishes as yet unnamed, it had bobbed for ages beneath strange stars. Then out of the oceans it had strayed; past cape and cove, black can, red nun, the word had wandered willy-nilly to his threshold.
It is literally "his truly," a message of concern to one who feels shut off from others and from those mysteries. Bellerophon sees a blank because he looks for a statement; Ambrose finds his meaning in the fact of receiving a message. This explains the curious ending of "Water-Message," where Ambrose, having noticed that the paper on which the message is written is composed of coarse fibers, now "embraces that fact." Ambrose embraces the medium—not merely the material, the paper, but the letter itself—as evidence of an intentional act of address and as ground on which sender and receiver may meet. The act itself is a message: it says, "I—someone besides yourself—exist, and so do you." The blank is filled by the communicative act itself, by the capacity of voice to "message" someone and thus to establish relationship.
Relationship is, for Barth, a basic condition of narrative. His "Night-Sea" narrator tries to deny it: "it is myself I talk to, to keep my reason in this awful darkness. There is no She! There is no You!" But the statement denies its own content, for, as dialogue, it is addressed to someone. Ambrose's adolescent fantasies are based upon an image of himself as independent of others—the lone hero, the lone martyr. But independence is precisely a fantasy, a hysterical claim based on fear or pride. "Life-Story" explicitly states the interdependence of narrator and reader: just as the narrator exists by virtue of the reader's attention, the reader exists insofar as the narrator speaks of him. The isolated self easily loses identity: the "Life-Story" narrator suspecting that he's a character in a fiction; Menelaus, resisting Helen's love, wondering "Who am I?"; the Anonymous narrator, alone on his beach, forgetting his name. The self-absorbed narrator tends to fade into impersonal or conventional voice. Thus the narrator of the "Anonymiad," having lost his identity along with his zeal for writing, is cheered by the discovery of a water-message of his own. Undecipherable, it nevertheless carries the message of the existence of someone like himself. Perhaps that someone is actually himself: "No matter, the principle was the same: that I could be thus messaged, even by that stranger my former self, whether or not the fact tied me to the world, inspired me to address it once again." Why does it matter little whether the author of that message is himself? Because it is the act of addressing and of being addressed that constitutes the meaning. That is why Ambrose is not disheartened by the conventionalized nature of his message and why the narrator of "Life-Story" does not need to finish his sentence in order to complete it. Connection, relationship with an Other, has occurred.
"Messaging" is an inherently meaningful, but also irrational act. Menelaus becomes more and more frustrated as long as he attempts to get a definite answer to his question of why Helen chose him. What she asks of him is an act of faith, a belief in a patent absurdity—that she was never in Troy—as absurd as the oracle's answer to his "Why?" and equally definitive. In running from the terrible void of his identity (the oracle's answer to "Who am I" is "'"'"'" "'"'"'"), he must affirm a possibility, consent to an improbability. For Menelaus, as for the self-conscious self, to be in relation—as the Funhouse presents relation—requires a suspension of disbelief: "To love is easy; to be loved, as if one were real, on the order of others: fearsome mystery! Unbearable responsibility! To her, Menelaus signified something recognizable, as Helen him. Whatever was it?" To be loved is to be compelled to consent to the fiction of one's own substance and to accept the unknowableness of the Other. Confronted with the oracle's answer to his "Who am I?" Menelaus rushes off, "done with questions," to "re-embrace" Helen (an act that reenacts Ambrose's embrace of the medium that messages him) and "clasp her past speech, never let go, frig understanding." What will fill in the blank is an act of relationship, rather than a fact to be understood. Ambrose earlier had a vision of love as perfect unity: "Somewhere in the world there was a young woman with such splendid understanding that she'd see him entire, like a poem or story." But neither stories nor selves are "entire" in Barth's fiction. They are self-reflexive, complex, and take on meaning only through an act of willing participation.
It is in this sense that love becomes "base-fact and footer to the fiction crazy-house our life." Love demands the same irrational affirmation of the Other and the self that the narrator of the "Anonymiad" expresses as he sends out his endless fictions-in-bottles. He imagines his tale drifting past "the unknown man or woman to whose heart, of all hearts in the world, it could speak fluentest, most balmly—but they're too preoccupied to reach out to it." He knows that these projections of himself will likely go unreceived, and consequently that this would-be act of communication is irrational. Nevertheless he continues to send them out, deriving satisfaction from the act emphasized by the eccentric typography of the last line of the story—and the novel: "Wrote it." His affirmation represents a triumph over the despair that the earlier Funhouse narrators express at knowing their fundamental isolation.
Barth brings us to the point where writing itself becomes of ultimate value, not because of what is expressed but because of what the act involves: faith, commitment, in the face of absurdity. As Wallace Stevens puts it elsewhere:
The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction, and that you believe in it willingly. ["Adagia," in Opus Posthumous, edited by Samuel French Morse, 1957]
Knowing that there is no "Menelaus," that the only identity we can know is "first-person anonymous," Menelaus finds the will to cry out to Helen, "Menelaus here!"; for only as Menelaus, a fiction, can be loved by her. That act of affirmation does not deny his self-consciousness, but it does take him beyond its bounds into relationship.
The personal dilemma and the writerly dilemma as Barth presents them, both products of the mind's and of language's capacity for self-reflection, have the same solution: voice, or rather what voice makes possible—the expression of human qualities and concerns. One of those concerns is the alienation and fragmentation of the self; another is the reduction of language to signs and self-references. Yet another is the need to address an Other and the desire to be "messaged." Voice creates the possibility of relationship and imbues the meaningless word with the mystery of human intentions and human significances, as Ambrose discovers:
Vanity frets about his name, Pride vaunts it, Knowledge retches at its sound, Understanding sighs; all live outside it, knowing well that I and my sign are neither one nor quite two.
Yet only give it voice: whisper "Ambrose," as at rare times certain people have—see what-all leaves off to answer! Ambrose, Ambrose, Ambrose, Ambrose! Regard that beast, ungraspable, most queer, pricked up in my soul crannies!
Voiced, the sign takes on personal meaning for Ambrose; it reaches into the soul and evokes a response. At those moments when the name becomes the means of one person "messaging" another—and it is not incidental that the name is whispered: the context is intimate, perhaps erotic—the gap between the self and its sign scarcely matters. So, too, in fiction, where the lack of correspondence between convention and the "real world" pales beside the question of how the writer uses those conventions to stage his own concerns and to speak to us.
Self-reflexivity leads to the awareness that language is fiction-making, that the self and the world are fictions. What, then, can self-reflexive fiction speak of authoratitively? Barth's answer is that it can speak of an existential situation, the dilemma of users of language. Even while Barth disintegrates the tale, the teller, and the medium—superficially denying human concerns—he portrays the efforts to make language signify, the desire to speak and be heard, to display oneself and call forth a response. For narrative voice, self-reflexive or not, carries the sense of person and the implication of relationship: "Where there's a voice there's a speaker." As the narrator of "Title" fervently hopes for, Lost in the Funhouse does manage after all to speak of "what goes on between" people, of how "we grow old and tired, we think of how things used to be or might have been and how they are now" and of how "we get exasperated and desperate and out of expedients and out of words," but not by evading the self-conscious mode as the narrator believes he must, not by any naïve—and impossible—return to purely representational language. By playing at emptying and filling the blanks that self-reflexivity creates, narrative voice dramatizes desire, frustration, love, despair, belief. The gaps between "I" and "he," voice and receiver, word and object, name and self, are still there; but rather than absences, they become what Stevens calls "prolific ellipses" which generate common human concerns.
In Politics and the Novel, Irving Howe offers a criterion against which fiction must be judged: "how much of our life does it illuminate? how ample a moral vision does it suggest?" The deconstructionist mythos … regards self-reflexive fiction as immune from such considerations; it would persuade us that we become heroic readers to the degree that we renounce such concerns. But self-reflexive narrative is still narrative; as such, it is pervaded by voice. Any tendency of postmodern fiction to collapse into linguistic freeplay or mere "text" is counterbalanced by narrative's irrepressible evocation, through voice, of a narrative presence characterized by certain acts, qualities, and intentions—which may even be an intention to purify voice of self. In narrative the very means of negotiating absence is inescapably a mode of presence, pulling self-reflexive language in an opposite direction, towards another kind of alternative to reference. Ignoring this essential narrative tension, the deconstructionist reading reduces narrative to what it contends with, and substitutes its own mythology for the actual complexity of what writing generates.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9791
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 have been conceived as a result of Barth's love affair with Scheherazade.
As a participant in a panel discussion that took place in March of 1975, Barth talked about the ramifications of a typographical error in "Perseid" [a segment from Chimera (1972)], stated that he does not know what he has "written when" he has "written a book," and went on to add the following remarks:
My hair was raised (that's a metaphor) when I was doing some homework in The Thousand and One Nights for a piece I was writing, and I realized the formula in the Arabic … for beginning a story like The Thousand and One Nights, after the invocation to Allah, is the following: "There is a book called The Thousand and One Nights in which it is written that there was this king Shahryar, this vizier, and his daughter Scheherazade," and the rest. Now we're reading it, and on the page it says: "There is a book called The Thousand and One Nights in which it is said…." Where is that book? At that moment I realized that while I thought I was an Aristotelian, I am in fact a Platonist, and that all novelists are practicing Platonists. Because if that book exists anywhere, it is in the heaven of ideas.
If such comments lead us to interpret "Frame-Tale" as indicating that the book is but a copy of the Book, what Barth says elsewhere may lead us to interpret it as suggesting that the book is also one that copies itself. In "The Literature of Exhaustion" he points out that one of Borges's "frequenter literary allusions is to the 602nd night of The 1001 Nights, when, owing to a copyist's error, Scheherazade begins to tell the story of the 1001 nights, from the beginning. Happily, the King interrupts; if he didn't there'd be no 603rd night ever, and while this would solve Scheherazade's problem—which is every storyteller's problem: to publish or perish—it would put the 'outside' author in a bind." The Argentine artificer who, as Barth suspects, "dreamed this whole thing up," himself states the "now infinite and circular" story embraces itself "monstrously," its reiteration representing a "curious danger" to the "transfixed" auditor. What both Barth and Borges find "hair-raising" are the ontological questions raised. "Why does it make us uneasy," Borges asks, to know that "the thousand and one nights are within the book of A Thousand and One Nights?" The answer, he proposes, is that such "inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1833 Carlyle observed that universal history is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they too are written" ["Partial Enchantments of the Quixote," in Other Inquisitions].
It is these troubling ontological implications that add the twist to Barth's "Frame-Tale," alerting us to the presence in Lost in the Funhouse of the phenomenon Douglas R. Hofstadter has labeled "Strange Loopiness." In his fascinating, Pulitzer Prize-winning work Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Hofstadter indicates that the "'Strange Loop' phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we can unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started." Although Hofstadter examines many "Tangled Hierarchies," or systems "in which a Strange Loop occurs," the one most nearly analogous to Lost in the Funhouse is the world of M. C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist who was himself enamored of the Moebius strip:
In some of his drawings, one single theme can appear on different levels of reality. For instance, one level in a drawing might clearly be recognizable as representing fantasy or imagination; another level would be recognizable as reality. These two levels might be the only explicitly portrayed levels. But the mere presence of these two levels invites the viewer to look upon himself as part of yet another level; and by taking that step, the viewer cannot help getting caught up in Escher's implied chain of levels, in which, for any one level, there is always another level above it of greater "reality," and likewise, there is always a level below "more imaginary" than it is. This can be mind-boggling in itself. However, what happens if the chain of levels is not linear, but forms a loop? What is real, then, and what is fantasy?
Implicit in the "Tangled Hierarchies" of Escher's drawings or Borges' "story-within-the-story turned back upon itself" [as described in "The Literature of Exhaustion"] or Barth's "Frame-Tale" is a basic conflict between the finite and the infinite that gives rise to [according to Hofstadter] "a strong sense of paradox," and this is something else that links Lost in the Funhouse to Barth's earlier fiction, for … the exposure of the inherent paradoxes in hierarchical systems has always been a useful strategem for him to employ, serving both as a means of creating aesthetic resolution and as an expression of his satiric attitude.
Constituting a "Strange Loop" that bears an affinity to Scheherazade's six hundred and second tale, "Frame-Tale" serves, then, as an invitation to lose ourselves in an ontologically perplexing funhouse where distortions of distortions generate finite representations of the infinite and the first and last members of Barth's "series" appear to link up, turning the terminal into the perpetual, the linear into the cyclical. The existence of the "Funhouse," of course, requires the interaction "of three terms—teller, tale, told—each dependent on the other two but not in the same ways" ("Life Story"), and while it offers the possibility of substituting "almost death" for death, its closed loops and infinite regressions threaten, like Scheherazade's ploy, to put not only the "outside" author but the reader/auditor "in a bind." For if Scheherazade is permitted to persist, if "Frame-Tale" is permitted to continue along its recursive course, there can be no six hundred and third night ever, Barth's story can never really begin, and to be put in the position of Shahryar, to have one's desire for completeness and consummation perpetually frustrated, may be a less than satisfying experience. By placing his Moebius strip in our hands, where we may turn it until our own exhaustion takes over, Barth may be acknowledging both the necessity of our participation and the limits to our sufferance. Moreover, just as one must ignore the trompe l'oeil in an Escher drawing in order to get caught up in a chain of levels, so too must we avoid noticing that Barth's closed loop is a feat of legerdemain if we are to remain "fixed" and continue repeating the refrain. Handling it according to his instructions, we may find that the illusion has been quickly dispelled, that our attention has almost inevitably been drawn to the Real, to pulp and ink. Discovering that the strip is not multi- but merely three-dimensional, we may also be led to discover the inviolate level that exists below every tangled hierarchy.
To become convinced that "Frame-Tale" is indeed emblematic of the "Funhouse" as a whole, one need only move on to the first piece in the series proper, for "Night-Sea Journey" is marked by recycling, depends on a bit of gimmickry, and invites the reader to become enmeshed in a tangle of physical and metaphysical hierarchies. The narrator who both swims in and generates this ocean of story is a spermatozoon, "tale-bearer of a generation." Ontogeny here is the recapitulation of ontology, and "the Heritage" transported is not only genetic but literary and mythic. Barth's choice of narrator is yet another thing that links his work with Sterne's, for in recounting the circumstances of his conception, Tristram Shandy refers to the general sixteenth- and seventeenth-century belief that each spermatozoon contains a homunculus, a little man "as much and as truly our fellow-creature as my Lord Chancellor of England." Speaking of the dangers his "little gentleman" must have faced in his solitary travels, Tristram wonders what might have happened had he "got to his journey's end miserably spent" and "in this sad disorder'd state of nerves … laid down a prey to sudden starts, or a series of melancholy dreams and fancies…." Similarly, Barth's own homunculus is "exhausted and dispirited," wonders whether he has lost his senses, and indicates that he too is "vulnerable to dreams." Unlike Sterne's minute voyager, however, Barth's swimmer raves to himself; believing that he is "the sole survivor" of a "fell journey," that, like Melville's Ishmael, he "Only" has "escaped alone to tell" (Job 1:14-19), he howls of the loss of "the best swimmers of" his "generation" and questions Job-like the nature and design of his "Maker," the purpose of his trial.
In considering the possibility that he may be a "Hero" and in referring to his trial as a "night-sea journey," the "tale-bearer" engages in a bit of mythopoetizing, defines his absurd swim as the archetypal voyage of the sun, the passage through the earth womb or in the belly of the whale, the descent into the underworld that begins with an entry into a labyrinth or spiral. The maze he has entered is both anatomical and speculative, for as he is drawn inexorably "Herward," he engages in a series of "eschatological" musings that in jest "perhaps illumine certain speculations of Lord Raglan, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell," while seeming to illustrate in utero the truth of one of Borges's favorite Platonic utterances: "It is an arduous task to discover the maker and father of this universe, and, after discovering him, it is impossible to declare him to all men" ["On the Cult of Books" in Other Inquisitions. Walkiewicz adds in a footnote that "Borges, of course, quotes the Timaeus."]. Just as Plato offers us in dialogue the words of Socrates and Timaeus, Barth's brooder conveys the conjectures of one of his "late companions," including such tangled hierarchies as a universe in which "Makers and swimmers each generate the other," or one consisting of "cycles within cycles, either finite or infinite" where "the 'night-sea,' as it were, in which Makers 'swam' and created nightseas and swimmers like ourselves, might be the creation of a larger Maker, Himself one of many, Who in turn et cetera." Like his biblical forebear, however, this garrulous gamete "multiplieth words without knowledge" (Job 35:16). Talking to himself, "to keep" his "reason in" the "awful darkness," he finds that such "recesses from swimming" are what "sustain" him "in the swim" but must acknowledge that the purpose of his journey is ultimately unspeakable; even when mythologized it can be described only in the same abstractions that fail to define the goal of the Goat-Boy's quest: "consummation, transfiguration, union of contraries, transcension of categories."
Reciting his companion's hypotheses, he temporarily loses and finds himself in eddies of reflection, his words drowning out for a time the call of selfless "Love," the name we give to "our ignorance of what whips us," what draws us toward a paradoxical consummation that is "the death of us, yet our salvation and resurrection; simultaneously our journey's end, mid-point, and commencement." "Rehearsing" (pun surely intended) many of the stances assumed by Barth's earlier imaginative progeny, he attempts to identify himself as an "utterest nay-sayer," as "he who abjures and rejects the night-sea journey." Yet, even though he tries to resist, though he hopes to convince his unseen auditor, the being he will become, to stop his hearing against the siren's song and "Make no more," he is compelled to join in repeating the refrain: "Love! Love! Love!" In true Menippean fashion, his speculations buy him time but account for nothing, and if we are cognizant of his "actual nature" and realize that his words are "merely correct," the labyrinth of abstraction becomes transparent, revealing the machinery of natural law, and the tide of the speaker's vagrant prose becomes synonymous with the tragicomic ebb and flow of the Real.
Mythic pretensions, water symbolism, and the extended use of the phylogenetic conceit link "Night-Sea Journey" with "Ambrose His Mark," the first of three stories in the series explicitly about the would-be "Maker" Ambrose M―(Mensch). While it may be true that it was a colleague who suggested he use "Ambrose," Barth could hardly have settled on a more resonant Christian name for his nascent artist-hero. Not only is it associated with lucidity and illumination (the Ambrose Lightship), hallucination and immortality (ambrosia), but also, via St. Ambrose, with the Word and the Book. A fourth-century bishop of Milan, Ambrose is known for having possessed great oratorical power, composed magnificent hymns, and introduced antiphonal singing and the use of neumes to represent musical notes. Perhaps most significant, he was, Augustine tells us, the first person to read silently, beginning what Borges refers to as "the mental process" that "would culminate, after many centuries, in the predominance of the written word over the spoken one, of the pen over the voice," initiating the "strange art" that "would lead, many years later, to the concept of the book as an end in itself, not as a means to an end" ["On the Cult of Books," Other Inquisitions].
As mock myth, "Ambrose His Mark" begins anew the night-sea journey, revealing the unusual aspects of the archetypal hero's birth and the sign of his vocation, recording the seemingly portentous circumstances surrounding his naming. The spermatozoon may have called for an end to making, to the "'immortality-chain,'" the "cyclic process of incarnation," but it he has generated Ambrose and the tale he bears, flesh and word have been made again. Furthermore, since the "Law of Cyclology" seems to be operant, the apparently synchronous patterns of bildungsroman, Künstlerroman, and romance begin to reemerge, if only through parody, as both hero and text develop along generic lines and struggle to make "Sense."
In recalling the eighteenth chapter of Moby-Dick ("His Mark"), the title of this first chapter of Ambrose's history suggests that his mark, like Queequeg's, is not only a significant sign expressing his secret name, nature, and destiny but also a signature left by his Maker, a key to the mysterious plan that makes sense of both ontogeny and cosmology. When Melville's heathen enrolls among the Pequod's company, he signs his name by making "an exact counterpart of a queer round figure" that is "tattooed upon his arm," one of the many "hieroglyphic marks" written on his body by "a departed prophet and seer" and constituting "a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth." Thus, Ishmael tells us, "Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume" revealing the mysteries not of any particular sect, but the universal truths disclosed to those cosmophilists who have been initiated into "the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world."
Just as Queequeg must bear the misnomers "Quohog" and "Hedgehog," so too must Ambrose respond to "Honig" and even "Christine" until a "naming-sign," an extraordinary swarming of bees about the birthmark on his face, leads his relations to name him after the saint who as a child allegedly shared a similar experience. The occurrence seems auspicious since, as Uncle Konrad notes, the swarm of bees that settled on the mouth of Ambrose's namesake was interpreted as an omen indicating that "he'd grow up to be a great speaker." Moreover, the descriptions of a baptismal service being enacted nearby, the etymology of his name itself, and the mythic association of bees and honey with "Her" milk, with the maternal water of life, all appear to mark Ambrose as not only a potential master of words but as a bringer of the Word, an artist-hero capable of completing the night-sea journey to gain immortality by discovering and transmitting the secrets of the Great Mother.
The narrative mode of the story, however, is first-person usual; the tone Ambrose employs in telling his tale is, if anything, mock-heroic; and the points of congruence between his account of his birth and naming and Tristram Shandy's own recollection of those significant events may cause one to wonder whether all this "ado" is about nothing, whether Uncle Konrad's notions about the importance of portents have as much relevance as Walter Shandy's theories about names and noses. Both Queequeg's hieroglyphic tattoos and Ambrose's mark may connote gnosis, but the harpooneer cannot "read" the "mysteries" inscribed on his "living parchment" and Ambrose's birthmark is "ambiguous." To "Aunt Rosa" "its three lobes" resemble "the wings and abdomen of a bee in flight," yet she may be misconstrued as calling it a B ("'Oh boy,' Konrad sighed. 'Nah, it is a bee! A regular bee! I declare'"), and if it looks like a "purple bee" flying "upside down without benefit of head," it also looks like those anatomical features that make "the Honig" an Ambrose and not a Christine. B, of course, is indeed the signature of his Maker, the jester who has a good deal of fun in the story with double entendres involving drones and stingers.)
Our hero himself notes that it "was to be" his "fate to wonder at that moniker, relish and revile it, ignore it, stare it out of countenance into hieroglyph and gibber," knowing full well that he and his "sign are neither one nor quite two." His use of "moniker" is apt, for it is a term in which the single sign has doubled (monogram and marker), emblemizing his remarks about the duplicity of language, remarks reminiscent of Jacob Horner's own comments about the inaccuracy of words, the necessary distortion involved in assigning names to things. If all the signposts lend themselves to misinterpretation, if the hieroglyphs are ambiguous, then the way through the labyrinth is not clearly marked and Ambrose cannot accurately translate the book of himself. Even if the swarming of bees on his eyes and ears may be taken as a sign that "he'll grow up to see things clear" and not as an indication that he will be blinded by Oedipal innocence, will be stung by or stop his "hearing against Her song" ("Night-Sea Journey"), the bees do not light on his mouth as they did on the saint's, and there is nothing to foretoken that his vision will be anything but "unspeakable." Rather than returning him to the font, the womb of guiding "Grace," Ambrose's unorthodox baptism results in his being "weaned not only from" his mother's "milk but from her care." His birthmark, thus, becomes also the mark of his solitude and exile, the mark of Cain. It would be years he tells us, "before anyone troubled" to complete his "birth certificate, whereon" his "surname was preceded by a blank," a blank he must in a sense fill in himself, perhaps like that other B, Henry Burlingame, by asserting, choosing "his gods and devils on the run," and quilling "his own name upon the universe."
The concept that, as Borges puts it [in "On the Cult of Books," in Other Inquisitions], "universal history" is a "Sacred Scripture" we "decipher and write uncertainly," or that "we are the versicles or words or letters of a magic book," is one of the basic conceits Barth toys with in Lost in the Funhouse, and it is again predominant in the second Ambrose story in the series. Corresponding to the stage in the hero's journey known as "the call to adventure," "Water-Message" once more confronts the would-be reader of signs with a blankness. Here and in the title story, water imagery carries us not only to the womb-font and Clio's spring, but also to Actaeon's stream, Narcissus's pool, and the Abyss.
Remaining close to Ambrose's point of view and employing a tone that tempers mild mockery with indulgence, a narrator takes us through his subject's preadolescent awakening to "Nature's Secrets." Comic allusions indicate that, in this context at least, the "monomyth" is to be interpreted as an elaborate metaphor for the innocent's initiation into the mundane secrets of Mars and Venus. "Scylla and Charybdis," for example, is the name Ambrose gives to a particularly dangerous part of his route home from school, a place where he must navigate between a vicious "Spitz dog" and "Crazy Alice," and where he one day encounters the belligerent Wimpy James. Escaping this ogre by "playing the clown," and feeling that he is therefore "No man at all," he recoups by imagining himself as "Odysseus steering under anvil clouds" or a Herculean hero borne "aloft to the stars."
Ignorant of and insecure about the "facts of life," Ambrose creates fictions in which he performs heroically in worlds that are not the case. Too young to be initiated into "the Occult Order of the Sphinx" and share the sexual knowledge of older boys such as his appropriately named sibling, Peter, he hopes that mastery of the word will be the key to the mysteries of the flesh, pores over The Book of Knowledge, turns over names and phrases as if they were magical, transformative. When he discovers a note in a bottle, therefore, he believes that "the word" has "wandered willy-nilly to his threshold," illuminating not only the rites conducted in the older boys' "Den" at the heart of the "voluptuous" and mysterious "labyrinth" called "the Jungle," but also a "greater vision, vague and splendrous, whereof the sea-wreathed bottle" is "an emblem." If we forge a connection between this "water message" and Barth's spermatozoon, who is also both "vessel and contents," then we may share in Ambrose's anticipation, expect him to receive phylogenetic knowledge and the Great Mother's guidance. Indeed, the narrator leads us on, describing the paper the message is written on in language ("tablet," "thrice") subtly suggestive of hermetic wisdom.
Like those other "Saints," Eben and George, however, Ambrose finds that the world refuses to meet his expectations, for this MS. found in a bottle consists only of a general salutation—"TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN"—and a complimentary close—"YOURS TRULY." The rest is a blank, and, noticing that "those shiny bits in the paper's texture" are "splinters of wood pulp," he has his attention drawn to the Real, just as ours is if we look closely at the book's "Frame-Tale." The demystifying message the sea sends is that it may be taken as a void, an emblem of the world's arbitrariness and finality, of the cruel and seductive call of Love, or a surface in which one may see his reflection, stare at his moniker, and fill in the blank with and by himself. The only apparent alternative to joining in singing "Her" senseless song is to answer "Ambrose, Ambrose, Ambrose, Ambrose!" ("Ambrose His Mark").
These alternatives are more elaborately emblemized in the title story of the series, one of the most widely known and frequently critiqued of Barth's works, and the last of the three pieces focusing on Ambrose per se (three for the trinity, Hermes Trismegistus, the lobes of his mark, etc.). By the time we reach this spot on the loop, ontogeny has progressed to the point of pubescence, the mythic quest to the stage of the hero's trials in the bowels of the labyrinth. The figure who presides over adolescent Ambrose's adventures in the Ocean City funhouse is "Fat May the Laughing Lady," a steatopygous Venus, mechanical Great Mother, whose amplified chuckles, groans, and tears may be a response to the comic absurdity of the night-sea journey or to his efforts to escape it by playing the clown. Having become painfully aware of the enticements of Magda, a well-developed companion, whose name designates her as an avatar of the archetypal Virgin-Whore, Ambrose enters "Her" domain. Unable to find his bearings in this frowzy and fantastic kingdom by the sea, he, like the "tale-bearer," is at best ambivalent about the groping passage through "Love's Tunnel's fearsome obstacles." The fun-house may be fun for lovers or cosmophilists, but for "Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion" where something inexplicable whips us, generation after generation, to engage in mechanical multiplication, where "Her" song is the "shluppish whisper, continuous as seawash round the globe," that "tidelike falls and rises with the circuit of dawn and dusk." Confronting the facts of life in the fun-house-world, he finds that any view of it is a distortion, "that nothing" is "what it" looks "like," each person a fabricator who practices "mythotherapy" and views "himself as the hero of the story."
He realizes, moreover, that in "the funhouse mirror-room you can't see yourself go on forever, because no matter how you stand, your head gets in the way"—self-consciousness makes one aware of the inviolate level that enables the illusion of a tangled hierarchy to come into existence; self-awareness makes one conscious that what the mirror sees is funny and that "She" offers but a "poor sort of immortality" ("Night-Sea Journey"). In contrast to the presumably less (self)-conscious Peter and Magda, who find "the right exit" and go "all the way, through," Ambrose falls prey to Barth's "metaphysical emotion," is led by ontological speculation into a "Strange Loop," a spiral part of the funhouse "that winds around on itself like a whelk shell." The "simple, radical difference about him," either "genius" or "madness," makes it impossible for him simply to "be," to accept unconsciously and satyrically the arbitrariness and finality of a natural order in which "millions of living animals devoured one another," even though he knows that "the world" is "going on," that the "town, the river, himself," are "not imaginary" and time is real. He wishes he could end his "life absolutely without pain," but he cannot. He finds a "name-coin" that may be "suggestive" of lucidity and immortality as well as "the famous lightship" and "his late grandfather's favorite dessert," but, like George's assignment, it belongs or belonged to someone else, and he encounters no signs that can be simply translated to reveal the maze's "secret." He and we may imagine alternative "possible endings" characterized by heroic struggles, miraculous rescues and escapes, or the revelation of the "funhouse operator," but such "stories" told oneself "in the dark" have a tendency to degenerate from romance to cliché. Having "strayed into" this "pass wherein he lingers yet," Ambrose cannot pass and may even "have ceased to search" for the "way." And so, though it will not alter his loneliness or the likelihood that he will die talking to himself to keep his reason, "though he would rather be among the lovers," he decides as consolation to "construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator." If it is difficult for him to be one kind of Maker he will try his hand at becoming another; if he is unable to interpret and voice the book that is world or self, he will try to design one that is an end in itself.
In the reading, of course, "Lost in the Funhouse" is a good deal less solemn and straightforward than the preceding summary would indicate. The narrator himself plays the clown, lacing his language with puns, pointing to pregnant passages, and burlesquing his role and ours through the use of "heavy-footed" symbolism, particularly of the Freudian and Jungian sorts. His labored and labyrinthine narrative gets sidetracked, backtracks, and diverges, explores numerous culs-de-sac. When we are told that Ambrose "fell into" the "habit of rehearsing to himself the unadventurous story of his life, narrated from the third-person point of view," we are threatened with Scheherazade's monstrous tale. When we learn of his decision to become an artificer, we are being invited to help create and lose ourselves in an infinite regression, a hall of mirrors in which A, a constructor of funhouses, exists in a funhouse constructed by B, who exists….
Much of the narrative ado in the story consists of the exposure of the limits and artifices of literary realism, and of the narrator's infertility, aesthetic and technical faux pas, and false starts, his inability to complete his inquiry. Like dilapidated Ocean City, the house that James built would appear to be decrepit, "worn out," and the uninspired narrator seems incapable of completing the passage, laments the fact that he may be repeating a tired and tiresome refrain. There have been readers who, interpreting such devices and comments as authorial statements, have concluded that Barth believes that the possibilities of fiction have been exhausted and that he has been reduced to making the most of what some of them find to be an annoyingly self-indulgent brand of self-consciousness. Not only is it true that the same things could conceivably be said of Sterne, but also that this kind of response fails to do justice to Barth's use of "the narrative viewpoint" and "the process of composition" as "dramatically relevant emblems."
For one thing, the way in which Barth plays the role of author in the tale helps to create the aforementioned chain of levels of reality, fostering the illusion that in this fiction it may be possible to "go on forever," suggesting the type of regressus in infinitum that, according to Borges, may be used to convince oneself that "what all idealists admit" is correct—"the world is hallucinatory" ["Avatars of the Tortoise," in Other Inquisitions]. At the same time, however, by showing his hand, "the author … of this story" almost inevitably reminds us of the existence of a very mortal Maker who has constructed a funhouse out of perishable ink and paper and who owes that existence to the fact that "in approximately the year when Lord Baltimore was granted charter to the province of Maryland by Charles I, five hundred twelve women … received into themselves the intromittent organs of five hundred twelve men." The effect is much the same as that produced by the Escher lithograph "Drawing Hands" in which a pair of hands appear to arise out of a picture within the picture and draw each other as well as the picture of which they are, and are not, a part. Just as "Lost in the Funhouse" puts a tangle in the hierarchy consisting of teller and tale, Escher's piece twists together the hierarchical levels of drawer and drawn while also calling attention to the process of composition and, therefore, to the undrawn hands of the artist and the invisible inviolate level where, from one point of view, the "immortality chain" can "terminate" ("Night-Sea Journey"). Both works of art interweave the mundane and the mad dream and display an apparent conflict between the finite and the infinite, but Barth's "Funhouse" evokes an especially strong sense of paradox arising out of a conflict between the Real and the Ideal. The very ordinariness of Ambrose's "difference," the at times banal universality of his attempts to escape the reality of natural law by inventing adolescent fantasies, makes the story, moreover, a dramatization not only of an aesthetic dilemma (or of the satyric satirist's paradoxical position), but of the fix Ambrose, the author-narrator, the invisible author, indeed all of us may be in.
By the time we have made our way through "Lost in the Funhouse," then, "teller, tale," and "told" have come together to emblemize the paradoxes contributing to and implicit in the artist-hero's decision to construct fun-houses. Since the book is a "series," "Autobiography," and "Petition," the two pieces that fit between the three Ambrose stories, also contribute to this evolutionary process. Both "vessel and contents," teller and the tale he bears, the speaker of "Night-Sea Journey" seemingly evolves into more than one "unimaginable embodiment" of himself, generates not only Ambrose, and consequently the pseudo-autobiographical "Ambrose His Mark," but also "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction." The first-person narrator of this "garbled or radical" "translation," this "reflection" of the tale-bearer's "reflections" ("Night-Sea Journey"), is the story itself, speaking of itself and existing only "in a manner of speaking." A disembodied voice, "contentless form," it is a "monstrosity" sired upon a recording machine, "a mere novel device," by an author who "found himself by himself with pointless pen." As the "bloody mirror" of its father, "upon reflection" it reverses and distorts him; as "a figure of speech" it is part thing, part grammar book, and completely neither. "Being an ideal's warped image," its "fancy's own twist figure," it consists of words that cannot be made flesh. Still "in utero, hung up in" its "delivery," it parodies the ironic prayer of Joyce's artist-hero, Stephen Dedalus [in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man] begging its Maker to turn it off: "Wretched old fabricator, where's your shame? Put an end to this, for pity's sake!" Its plea to have its plight terminated is echoed by the monstrous correspondent of "Petition," a suicidal supplicant who signs himself "Yours truly," claims to be a Siamese twin, and writes the King of Siam to ask him to become concerned with their "case." Whereas Ambrose expects the sea to send him the word, the petitioner transmits a message to the "Supreme Arbiter of the Ebb and Flow of the Tide," begging him to help terminate his "freakish" existence as a creature of "introspection," "revery," and "fancy" attached to a lustful, beastly brother. In contrast to the speaker of "Autobiography," the petition writer wishes he had never been made flesh and ponders the paradoxes of incarnation, yet he too finds it "unspeakable" "to be both and neither."
Pretending to be pure voice and found document respectively, "Autobiography" and "Petition" are signs pointing to the twin traditions Barth attempts to pull into the "Funhouse" in order that he may "have it both ways." In each case, moreover, it would appear (or sound), initially, as if the author-Maker has escaped the bind he has been put in, for he seems to have disappeared like the author of "The Revised New Syllabus" or to have traded the role of creator or narcissist for that of oracle or historian. In performance, or imagined performance, however, the father of "Autobiography" is visibly present if silent while the story refers to its mode of presentation as "a mere passing fancy who didn't pass quickly enough," a "mere" gimmick, "just in style, soon to be commonplace." And if the author fails to disappear when creating an illusion of absence, so too does he foil himself when trying to hide behind a seemingly independent presence, for the fictive petitioner is revealed to be a blank, his condition may be but a monstrous metaphor, and his definition of what is the case is a blatant parody of that literary commonplace, the doppelgänger motif, that calls into question the integrity of the document by signaling the existence of a maze of intertextual relationships not only with the fiction of Makers such as Poe, Stevenson, and Nabokov, but with Barth's own. "No matter how you stand" in the mirror-room of the funhouse, "your head gets in the way."
In terms of ostensible point of view, "Autobiography" and "Petition" are the products of a process of narrative differentiation that recapitulates the evolution of narrative stances in Barth's earlier books while taking us in this one from first-person accounts, through the multiple points of view of "Lost in the Funhouse," to the indeterminate perspective of "Echo."
If "Frame-Tale" is indeed a frame-tale, then "Echo" is located in the middle of Lost in the Funhouse, and whereas, as critics have noted, at the center of Joyce's portrait of the Artist we discover silence, at the center of Barth's, at the heart of the night-sea journeyer's Dedalian labyrinth, we encounter a completely reflective surface that confounds us with reverberations and mirror images. "Afflicted with immortality," the title character has turned "from life" and learned "to tell stories with such art that the Olympians implore her to repeat them," a decision she pays for when Hera discovers she has been deceived and punishes Echo by rendering her incapable of speaking for herself. As a result, in "her ultimate condition," an author's note tells us, the nymph "repeats the words of others in their own voices," and "the words of 'Echo' on the tape or the page may be regarded validly as hers," those of the other characters (Narcissus and Tiresias), the author's, "or any combination or series of the four." "Inasmuch as the three mythical principals are all more or less immortal," moreover, and Tiresias "can see both backward and forward in time, the events recounted may be already past, foreseen for the future, or in process of occurring as narrated." The presence of Narcissus, the indication that Echo's transformation is a kind of punishment, and the reminder that "saturation," "telling the story over as though it were another's until … it loses sense," is one "cure for self-absorption," all suggest that the author has not completely escaped the paradoxes of self-consciousness. Nonetheless, "Echo" is a technical tour de force in which the unseen author comes as close as he does anywhere in the book to achieving the illusion of godlike detachment espoused by Joyce's Dedalus, and which demonstrates, following Ambrose's decision to construct funhouses for others, that Barth himself possesses the ability to create for us a fictive universe where the laws of time and space need not apply.
On the other side of this looking glass, in the second half of the series, we discover a continued proliferation of perspectives and an ostensibly greater preoccupation with "the secret adventures of order." "Echo," with its numerous possible permutations of point of view, is immediately succeeded, for instance, by a pair of meditations, the "triply schizoid monologue entitled 'Title,'" and the six visions of "Glossolalia." Similarly, the complexity of the central tale's multiple simultaneous narratives is reflected in the Chinese boxes of "Life-Story" and the tales within tales that constitute "Menelaiad." While we may be led by this to infer that, having traced the twist in the strip, we arrive at a surface that reflects everywhere the concept that the book is an end in itself, this is not precisely the case, for in the pieces in this section of the work we still feel the tug of the tide and find signs that may be read as directing us to the visionary or the Real. To ignore rather than try to work through paradox is to accept the blindness of innocence. The Moebius strip is itself both "both and neither"; the third segment of the hero's cyclical journey concerns itself with the possibility of a return to the world.
"There's no future for prophets" someone punningly says in "Echo," and the three pieces that follow it all involve soothsayings of sorts. "Two Meditations," for example, presents from a mock-omniscient point of view the propositions that the patterns that govern the universe are unpredictable and that knowledge, as Oedipus learned, always comes too late. ("To know is to recognize," Borges reminds us, "but it is necessary to have known in order to recognize, but to know is to recognize" ["Avatars of the Tortoise," in Other Inquisitions].) The six "speakers in tongues" of "Glossolalia" share in common the facts "that their audiences don't understand what they're talking about" and "that their several speeches are metrically identical." Their seemingly senseless "babble, could we ken it, might disclose a dark message, or prayer," or merely a pattern of hieroglyphs cut in time. And the fictional "author" of "Title" predicts that the "worst is to come."
His schizoid "monologue interieur" is one of the most relentlessly self-indulgent expressions of paralyzing self-consciousness in the series, and it is obviously informed by two of the book's regnant conceits: corpus = corpus; fiction making = love making. Experiencing sexual "difficulties with his companion," "analogous difficulties with the story he's in the process of composing," and believing his "culture and its literature to be" in similar "straits," he has become a naysayer fixed "in the middle, past the middle, nearer three-quarters done, waiting for the end" of his affair, his life, his story, his culture, and the book itself. Thinking he must "Efface what can't be faced or else fill the blank," he enumerates several possibilities, echoing some of Barth's own statements in "The Literature of Exhaustion": the "rejuvenation" of exhausted forms from their "own ashes"; the supplanting of the "moribund" by the "vigorous new"; the strategy of turning "ultimacy against itself to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new." These alternatives, reflections of "historicity and self-awareness," are voiced in counterpoint to the utterances of another voice which we may, if we like, associate with "Her," and which points out that the fact "that some writers lack lead in their pencils does not make writing obsolete" and that "people still fall in love, and out … and what goes on between them is still not only the most interesting but the most important thing in the bloody murderous world." To go all the way with "Her," however, is to end up "Blank," and, since the other options are "tiresome," "unlikely," and "nauseating," the "author" continues to narrate "himself into a corner," embracing a last possibility—"Self-extinction. Silence"—to indefinitely suspend his final sentence: "How in the world will it ever ." A parody of the strategy Barth predicted Samuel Beckett would employ, this ultimate attempt to make nothing meaningful ironically makes the "author"'s self-defeating prophecy self-fulfilling if the reader/auditor decides mercifully to complete the sentence and fill in the blank with the "end."
In spite of the fact that it has been occasionally quoted out of context as if it did, "Title," rather obviously, does not contain Barth's last words on the topic, nor, for that matter, "Hers." Indeed, in the remaining stories in the volume Barth increases the volume of "Her" selfless song, permitting "Her" in "Life-Story," for example, to interrupt the naysaying, obstruct the narrator's view of his "private legacy of awful recollection and negative resolve" ("Night-Sea Journey"). The hyphenated title of this piece is at least triply emblematic, suggesting not only a disjunction or a forged connection, but the linking of hierarchical levels that creates a twisted chain, in this case a potentially infinitely complex variation on what Hofstadter calls the "authorship triangle," a "Strange Loop" in which author Z exists only in a novel by author T, who exists only in a novel by E, who exists only in a novel by Z [Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid]. Barth's version is more baroque since the "author," a writer of novels, stories, and this life-story, both suspects that his own life is a fiction and conceives of a story containing a character who not only has the same suspicion but is writing a similar account, the situation replicating itself "in both ontological directions" potentially ad infinitum. One option he might pursue is to continue stringing out himself and his story, exhausting the possibilities one by one, but to take this route would be to sentence himself to the tedium of an endless tale "whose drama always lies in the next frame out." At any point he might take a different tack and tie the tail ends of his life-story together, but because he may be "in a sense his own author, telling his story to himself," this would put him in a triple bind, to say nothing of the "outside" author and reader. Taking neither to the end of the road, he instead employs a syllogism (a form of logic that may be refuted by use of a regressus ad infinitum) to demonstrate that "the story of his life" is "a work of fact." Permitting "his real wife and imaginary mistresses" to enter "his study," he cedes control, allowing "Her" to wish him a "Happy birthday" and kiss him "to obstruct his view of the end of the sentence he" is "nearing the end of." Illustrating that one "way to get out of a mirror-maze is to close your eyes and hold out your hands" ("Title"), he presumably accepts the ambiguous embrace "She" offers and "caps his pen," thereby to "end his ending story endless by interruption."
When he speculates that "'his' story" may have begun "at his birth or even generations earlier," that it may be "a Bildungs-roman, an Erziehungsroman, a roman fleuve," the "author" of "Life-Story" is of course correct, for his tale is indeed part of a larger saga of formation and education, of a "stream novel" in which the tide of prose first takes us up to, and then carries us away along the course that proceeds from, Ambrose's conscious choice of vocation. Discovering that his mark is ambiguous, the message he has received a blank, resisting the sirens' instinctual refrain while doubting, perhaps, that the mermaids will sing to him, Ambrose finds himself lost in the protean labyrinth of the world and resolves regretfully but also pridefully to design funhouses "vaster by far than any yet constructed," "incredibly complex yet utterly controlled" ("Lost in the Funhouse"). The danger is that in attempting to escape in fear and confusion from the song of Love that may only be the summons of Death ("Night-Sea Journey"), he will lead himself from the heart of one mirror-maze to the center of another.
As the "self-styled narrator" of "Title" and the "author" of "Life-Story" discover, it is just as possible to lament losing yourself in self-reflection or in infinite mirror rooms of your own creation, just as distressing to see yourself going on forever, as to despair at being possessed by "Her bewitchment" ("Night-Sea Journey"), at realizing you are at sea in creation, or that "what is 'immortal'" is "only the cyclic process of incarnation, which itself might have a beginning and an end" ("Night-Sea Journey"). The petitioner's fear of "coupling" and absorption, Ambrose's self-consciousness about sexual potency, his confusion at losing control and being unable to interpret conclusively the shifting design of the cheap tablet that is the book of the world, become on the other side of the mirror the self-absorbed artist's fear of schizophrenia, his self-consciousness about creative impotence, his distaste for the unimpassioned tedium and frustration of becoming obsessed "with pattern and design for their own sakes" ("Life-Story"), of possessing total control over a book that is an end in itself yet only a "warped" image of the Book itself. The tale-bearer's speculations about phylogeny and his resistance against the drive that compels him to repeat the refrain echo as the tale-teller's reflections on "historicity" and his reaction to the exhaustion that he believes condemns him to do likewise. The quest for the meaning of Making translates into the struggle to make meaning, the "horned" dilemma of being made to end into the difficulty of making an end. As the Grand Tutor in all his wisdom tells us, "our books stay reconciled, but who in modern terms can tell heads from tales?"
Caught in mid-passage through the dark tunnels of life-story, one may "abjure"—court suicide, "make no more," cap one's pen—or find a comfortable corner in which to "rehearse" "a series of last words, like an aging actress making one farewell appearance after another" ("Title"), stringing out an ultimate performance that terminates in a dumb show. Or else one may teach oneself to swim, to strike out or inscribe as if one could follow a line to that destination that is "the death of us, yet our salvation and resurrection; simultaneously our journey's end, mid-point, and commencement." The message of Fat May's laughter, "could we ken it," may be that the best laid strategies of silence, exile, and cunning do not alter the accuracy of the "actuarial tables" ("Life-Story"), that, however, much ado we may make about nothing, when all is said and done the only viable course is accepting the value, and seeking to overcome the difficulties, of achieving consummation with another, forging a bond, if only through a kenning, with lover, audience, world.
While all the tales in the series address this course and its perils in manners straightforward or circuitous, self- or subconscious, the two at the tail-end, "Menelaiad" and "Anonymiad," offer, if not a solution, at least a resolution, one that carries over from this saga-cycle to the next, from Lost in the Funhouse to Chimera. The self-mocking hero of "Menelaiad" reveals himself in many guises, both those others have made for him—"The fair-haired boy? Of the loud war cry! Leader of the people. Zeus's fosterling"—and that which he has made himself: "this isn't the voice of Menelaus; this voice is Menelaus, all there is of him." In a vital, though sometimes overlooked, passage of "The Literature of Exhaustion," Barth, drawing on Borges, notes that a "labyrinth, after all, is a place in which, ideally, all the possibilities of choice (of direction, in this case) are embodied, and—barring special dispensation like Theseus'—must be exhausted before one reaches the heart. Where, mind, the Minotaur waits with two final possibilities: defeat and death, or victory and freedom." Unlike the favored Theseus, "Menelaus on the beach at Pharos" is "genuinely Baroque in the Borgesian spirit," for he
is lost, in the larger labyrinth of the world, and has got to hold fast while the Old Man of the Sea exhausts reality's frightening guises so that he may extort direction from him when Proteus returns to his 'true' self. It's a heroic enterprise, with salvation as its object—one recalls that the aim of the Histriones is to get history done with so that Jesus may come again the sooner, and that Shakespeare's heroic metamorphoses culminate not merely in a theophany but in an apotheosis.
In the case of Barth's version of the Homeric episode, Menelaus's struggle takes the twisted form of seven tales nesting within tales, seven frames or Chinese boxes, the outermost of which consists of Proteus, become the voice of Menelaus, telling the story of how that came to be, the story of Menelaus's tale; the rest, the tale of Menelaus's life as told by him to various auditors.
In order to explain himself and complete his life-story, Menelaus is compelled to suspend frame-tale after frame-tale and to move to the next frame in where the drama may lie, make his way toward the center of the labyrinth where the Minotaur's twin possibilities await. Although he suggests that his purpose is "Truth to tell," to peel off the "cloaks of story," remove "Her" "veils" to reach "naked Helen," the overwhelming question that wraps him in this argument of insidious intent is "Why me?", why did Helen choose him, less than others, above all others. Telling his way away from and toward "the seed and omphalos of all," he rephrases the question, asking "Who am I?" and:
each time drawing a blank.
The maze of story and typography through which he and we proceed is in a sense an elaborate (self)-deception or ruse, for all the voices that are so meticulously distinguished may be seen as Menelaus's or Proteus's or Barth's, or no one's, ink on pulp. At its heart lies a simple, if deceptive and ambiguous, answer:
"'"'"'" Love! "'"'"'"
But, while this is the word that can trigger the implosion of the entire edifice, Menelaus cannot take it to heart. Proteus tells him "Helen chose" him "without reason because she loves" him "without cause," advising him to "embrace her without question and watch" his "weather change"; Helen enjoins him to "woo" the "senseless answer to our riddle" and "espouse" her "without more carp." Menelaus, however, in fear of being fooled, rejects their comebacks, holds on to himself, fills the blank by himself, and thereby loses himself, makes himself not a hero but "a fool," "chimaera, a hornèd gull." Choosing to remain "undeceivèd Menelaus, solely, imperfectly," he becomes not the "eternal husband," but the eternal cuckold. Since he has "lost course," his "voice yarns on," and "when the voice goes he'll turn tale, story of his life, to which he clings yet, whenever, how-, by whom-recounted."
Unlike Homer's hero Menelaus (Odyssey) and Vergil's bee-keeper, Aristaeus (Georgics), who, assisted by nymphs and fortified by ambrosia and nectar, wrest direction from Proteus the ever-truthful, perform the proper acts of faith, and succeed, respectively, in bringing forth buzzing bees from rotting carcasses and reaching the Elysian Fields, Barth's Menelaus, his "carcass" "long wormed," resides somewhere in "Hades." Unwilling to trust, to let go of self-knowledge, he, or rather all that remains of him, is woven into the tangled hierarchies of a life-story that resembles in form the structure of Lost in the Funhouse itself. The "Old Man of the Sea," however, has the last word: "Then when as must at last every tale, all tellers, all told, Menelaus's story itself in ten or ten thousand years expires, yet I'll survive it, I, in Proteus's terrifying last disguise, Beauty's spouse's odd Elysium: the absurd, unending possibility of love." His "dark message, or prayer" metamorphoses into the book's consummating tale and points, if we trust it, to the possibility of another kind of heroism, that of "the Thesean hero, who, confronted with Baroque reality, Baroque history, the Baroque state of his art, need not rehearse its possibilities to exhaustion," need "only be aware of their existence or possibility, acknowledge them, and with the aid of very special gifts … go straight through the maze to the accomplishment of his work" ["The Literature of Exhaustion"].
"Anonymiad," the last item, if we wish, in the series, is a marooned minstrel's "Last Lay," the history of a life-story that recapitulates the development of Lost in the Funhouse, Barth's corpus, and all of literature; the evolution of "the author," Barth's career, and homo poeticus. The "tale-bearer," at once a singular Homeric bard and all Makers, has been seduced by love and world, deceived into exile, has fallen into fits of self-consciousness, feared exhaustion, and, like many of his predecessors/descendants in the book, has faced a blank. Halfway through his story he finds "there, at the heart, never to be filled, a mere lacuna." But having acknowledged the possible existence of this lake, this pit, the bottomless well of self-reflection, the gap between word and world, shifting appearance and ideal form, he avoids drowning in Narcissus's pool, losing his way in Echo's or Proteus's caves. Leaving "unsaid" what "must be blank," he goes on through this gesture of cynicism to recount how, inspired by his own water, he "developed a kind of coded markings to record the utterance of mind and heart," and, inspired by the gods, came to launch "his productions worldward." Although distressed as he became older by the possibilities that there might be nothing new to say, no "new way to say the old," that "the 'immortality' of even the noblest works" he knew might be but "a paltry thing," he was saved from the despair of Barth's "Title" character, the fate of his Menelaus, by a water-message and a change in point of view.
Discovering a largely blank and wholly indecipherable parchment washed up in an amphora, he was roused to "imagine that the world contained another like" himself, "might be," indeed, "astrew with islèd souls, become minstrels perforce, and the sea a-clink with literature." Though the amphora and its ciphers may have been his own, this mattered not, for "the principle" he decided, "was the same: that" he "could be thus messaged, even by that stranger" his "former self, whether or not the fact tied" him "to the world, inspired" him "to address it once again." Yearning "to be relieved of" himself, he shifted to his "only valid point of view, first person anonymous," to become, perhaps, like Borges's Shakespeare "nothing" and "everything that all others are," no one and godlike ["From Someone to No One," in A Personal Anthology].
Buoyed up by these gestures of faith, having "taught" himself "to swim," he was enabled, despite the void in the center, to put "Head-piece" and "Tailpiece" of his Anonymiad together in their container and set "afloat" a work that may be both and neither an end in itself and a means to an end. Praising Apollo and committing himself to "Her" call, he calls his tale "a continuing, strange love letter" and says he has "ceased to care whether" it "is found and read or lost in the belly of a whale." "Will anyone have learnt its name?" he asks. "Will everyone?" "No matter," he tells us, for:
Upon this noontime of his wasting day, between the night past and the long night to come, a noon beautiful enough to break the heart, on a lorn fair shore a nameless minstrel
The minstrel's epitaph, his testament, is both a death sentence and a prayer that holds open the possibilities of theophany and apotheosis, in Todd's terms, both "a gesture of temporality" and "a gesture of eternity" (Floating Opera).
Contained within "Frame-Tale" and linked in numerous ways to the first story in the series, his last lay may be interpreted as beginning the cycle again, leading us back to retrace our way through a labyrinth we may never leave. His final words, set adrift by themselves, suggest, however, a different course. Kenned in another way, they translate into a signaling device in the hand of the "outside author" pointing to the inviolate level outside the closed and twisted loop, into signs directing us to follow the thread that spirals out of the Funhouse….
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4159
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 believe in, how we can never again be sure of [what] we called into question." Tanner recognized the spirit of anguished Pyrrhonism in the book, which he saw as representative of the way we live now; but he also pointed to the possibility of a creative malaise in Barth, a "corrosive doubt about identity and its relation to language." The result is that Barth's fiction continuously eludes his control; Lost in the Funhouse is a book where words "drift on in self-canceling and self-undermining recessions" ["No Exit," Partisan Review 36 (1969)].
Certainly, Tanner's account is justified by results; in the decade after Lost in the Funhouse, Barth produced only Chimera, suggesting a Homer not so much nodding as defunct. It was to be 1979 before Barth would publish LETTERS, proof that whatever he was up to in Lost in the Funhouse, it was not to be a fructifying affair. A vocal minority among Barth's critics, however, saw Lost in the Funhouse as a passport to a new irrealist tradition. These critics insisted that the author had dislodged himself from the burden of a modernist past and opened new lines of communication for himself and his audience. Edgar H. Knapp's Barth is a new Icarus, one presumably capable of avoiding his potent progenitor's fate as he plots "the mirror maze of a new fiction" ["Found in the Barthhouse: The Novelist as Savior," Modern Fiction Studies 14 (1969)]. Similarly, Michael Hinden argues that Lost in the Funhouse is a manifesto urging "the writers and critics of contemporary fiction to cut the coils that bind them to the recent past." By one of those fortunate falls that occurs from time to time in literary history, this past has "already … furnished Barth with new materials for art" ["Lost in the Funhouse: Barth's Use of the Recent Past," Twentieth-Century Literature 19 (1973)]. But these arguments cut against the grain of the book, where Barth's Ambrose is overwhelmed and undernourished by a past he is unable to master. And even if we distinguish Barth from Ambrose, our interpretation must take account of Ambrose's anxieties, which are crucial to Lost in the Funhouse as a whole. To read the novel as a triumphantly visionary work, largely on the basis of carefully selected passages from "The Literature of Exhaustion," is like reading Donne's "Twicknam Garden" as a devotional poem on the basis of a reading of his sermons.
Beverly Bienstock's stridently affirmative "Lingering on the Autognostic Verge: John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse" presses on in blissful disregard of the book's basic conflicts. At the center of the book, surely, are the identity crises of its protagonists. Menelaus is in endless pursuit of an identity; Ambrose is agnostic about the existence of his own; even the unnamed, unborn sperm cell of "Night-Sea Journey" is embittered by his sense of inauthenticity. Any view of Lost in the Funhouse must surely take these anxieties into account. But Bienstock shrugs them off so that she can end her essay in a burst of effusiveness that seems foreign to the irritated, nettled self-questioning that informs her source: "We go on forever exchanging masks in a fantastic hall of mirrors," she concludes, "and one shouldn't try to tell the dancer from the dance" [Modern Fiction Studies 18 (1973)]. One problem with this interpretation is that it makes Lost in the Funhouse scarcely a book about loss at all.
The same is true of Linda Westervelt's incisive account of the book [in "Teller, Tale, Told: Relationships in John Barth's Latest Fiction," Journal of Narrative Technique 8 (1978)]. Westervelt recognizes how this novel constantly frustrates, in typically postmodernist fashion, a reader's expectations about coherence and design. But Westervelt overlooks how far Barth's narrators and protagonists entertain similar expectations; it is not only Barth's readers who are disappointed. By ignoring this important fact, Westervelt is able to transform a problem into a "how-to" textbook. Barth is not Robert Coover, whose Pricksongs and Descants baffles his reader's desire for coherence by overwhelming him with choices. When Barth presents his audience with a set of alternatives, as in "Life Story," he is apologetic that he cannot provide the coherence that his narrator feels is necessary. Where Coover's "The Elevator" suggests rapture at the sublime possibilities of a multiple universe, Barth's narrators find it all a little ragged. Moreover, Barth's self-conscious tricks are void of content. When the spouse of "Title" remarks to the narrator that she is "sorry if [she's] interrupting the Progress of Literature," he duly categorizes her remark (as any good teacher should) as "good-humored irony." After hinting at more human griefs behind the quip (he suggests that his wife's words are "defensively and imperfectly masking a taunt"), Barth again dons his writing instructor's cap: "The conflict is established though as yet unclear in detail." By now, "the unusual analytic ability" that Westervelt sees at work in these stories is clearly paralyzing any attempt at narrating a story worth listening to.
In Lost in the Funhouse, as Carol Shloss and Khachig Totolyan recognized, the world has become a text ["The Siren in the Funhouse: Barth's Courting of the Reader," Journal of Narrative Technique 11 (1981)]. The result is the inevitable demise of the deus artifex topos, summarily disposed of in "Life Story" as the narrator announces: "He'd been about to append to his own tale inasmuch as the old analogy between Author and God, novel and world, can no longer be employed unless deliberately as a false analogy, certain things follow: 1) fiction must acknowledge its fictitiousness and metaphoric invalidity or 2) choose to ignore the question or deny its relevance or 3) establish some other, acceptable relation between itself, its author, its reader."
To see the world as no longer the creation of an artist-god is to see it through the lenses of self-conscious rationalism. Accordingly, Barth reverts to a diction that belongs more to the classroom or the law court than the fiction maker. His legalistic "inasmuch as" and his precise subheadings (cast-iron boxes to deposit used checks in) recall [from The Floating Opera] Todd Andrews's Inquiry, that opus magnum of futility, and like that Inquiry, are destined to become an overdetermined, self-justifying activity.
The shift in Barth's voice, from poet to unacknowledged legislator, indicates the shift in authority that is at the center of Lost in the Funhouse. The world of Lost in the Funhouse sounds like a parody of a world created by a godly maker. Its repeated echoes, recurrent situations, and set pieces from world literature (the adolescence of a sensitive hero, the disenchantment of a middle-aged spouse, the displacement of a tribal bard) all point to the existence of a common maker whom none of the book's characters can penetrate or even acknowledge, for none of them can recognize the existence of others or even perform a meaningful action on their own. In this, a book saturated with artists but quite void of an authorizing imagination, Barth has created a world of anxious solitaries and irritated solipsists; the book's structural parallels and allusive echoes ultimately have an imprisoning effect. Moreover, messages written on water cannot last. The most important evidence the narrator of "Anonymiad" can muster of a living presence in the world (other than his own) is a message that is illegible enough to be construed according to his own purposes. All the world consists of writers, but all its texts are indecipherable. Unlike Capt. Osborn of The Floating Opera, Barth's anonymous narrator brings no knowledge of the larger world of destinies outside of his own into his narrative. We have already met the Thalia who is his first muse in "Petition"; Menelaus has already been cited in "Menelaiad"; messages inscribed "YOURS TRULY" have floated from the Ambrose story "Water-Message." But these similarities go unnoticed by the narrator; they are not marshaled into any significant design by any of the protagonists in the series, and the stories therefore stay sturdily separate. The effect of repetition and variation is oblivion, not interanimation: "Telling the story over," we hear in "Echo," makes it "lose sense." Like The Crying of Lot 49, published two years before it, Lost in the Funhouse is the product of a culture where number is beginning to supplant narrative. Further, in both books hysteria—not rationality—is one surprising result of this shift in power.
There are, in effect, three distinct universes described in Lost in the Funhouse, and each attempts to cope in its own way with a life without a godly maker. In the first, Ambrose searches a commodity-exhausted America for a sign. In the second, electronic voices try to establish new relations between audience and universe. The mythic stories that close the book try to ignore the question by simulating claims to originality and ultimacy that the text has not borne out. (Neither Menelaus nor the narrator of "Anonymiad" can claim priority in the matter of identity crises; it is the blight man was born for, as the narrator of "Night-Sea Journey" knows.) And behind all the thrashing toward new fictional seas is the depressing circularity of the "Frame Tale" that wheels back and forth within the oldest narrative model of all: "Once upon a time."
Such prolonged stasis perhaps lies behind the aggression of "Night-Sea Journey," where the ocean, which Barth has so often associated with the liberating potential of story, becomes the location for an ontological self-examination…. [On] this sea journey, told by a sperm on its way to birth, we can find no sign of the neighborly reciprocity of a tale. What the story exhibits, rather, is the anxious cerebration of a head-piece. As a godly maker, an artist peoples a world with destinies different from his own; Barth's narrator in "Night-Sea Journey" is submerged in multiple varieties of his own destiny. In fact, his story presents him as a victim of that persistent Barthian illusion, the idea that the self creates the ground for its own story, that the world is created in the single image of the narrator:
Numberless the number of the dead! Thousands drown as I think this thought, millions as I rest before returning to the swim. And scores, hundreds of millions have expired since we surged forth, brave in our innocence, upon our dreadful way. 'Love! Love!' we sang then, a quarter-billion strong, and churned the warm sea white with joy of swimming! Now all are gone down—the buoyant, the sodden, leaders and followers, all gone under, while wretched I swim on.
Barth's narrator peoples his world with an ever-diminishing shoal of swimmers, each motivated by an indefinable goal whose worth is by turns all-important and unimportant. The sea, Barth's region of free-floating abundance, has become a zone of endless self-questioning where those trained to swim come to doubt and reject the task for which they are trained: "What has fetched me across this dreadful sea," Barth's sperm cell confesses, is "a private legacy of awful recollection and negative resolve." The impulse to sea voyaging that Barth had previously seen as liberating becomes in this context cruelly confining, as the incarceration of Ambrose M—'s father in Eastern Shore asylum makes clear.
"Night-Sea Journey," then, prepares us for a world where individuals will be a burden not a boon, the past an anxiety not an inheritance. The Ambrose stories—"Ambrose His Mark," "Water-Message," and "Lost in the Funhouse"—systematically deface and destroy the series of realistic conventions in which they initially seem to be lodged, in the same way that the narrator of "Night-Sea Journey" hopes to annihilate the tradition that gives him life. In addition, these stories imply that the exhaustion of narrative conventions complements the greater exhaustion of reality itself. Ocean City and realistic fiction are allowed to rot together. A heroic name and a golden tongue, a knowledge of the best in the literary past, are not enough to make Ambrose the kind of artist he would like to be; he is deafened by the echoes of literary history all around him, drowned in the multiple tides of solipsism he must swim against. When he travels to Ocean City, "strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene." However much Ambrose wants to become a mythmaker, he can only write like a stenographer. One of the proposed names for him had been Hector; but his mother's pet name Christine—in memory of the role of the movie star who had above all wanted to be alone—is a cannier assessment of the shape of his psyche and his culture. Not for nothing is his nation's principal secular holiday "Independence Day": the signs of an anxious desire to be left alone, together with self-loathing and disgust at one's own aloneness, are everywhere in these stories. Ambrose's family go "about their separate pleasures" on Sunday quite heedless of their familial bond. Both Uncle Konrad, whose aim was "to see things in their context … to harmonize part with part, time with time," and Ambrose, who had hoped to write a family romance, are overlooked, even ridiculed, by their household. In LETTERS, which provides a retrospective account of the Mensch family, we learn that one of their most outstanding achievements was a jerry-built wall. Ambrose lacks the resources to make a common universe, or even to master his own interior life, which he believes was created and even lived by other people.
In trying to scour the universe for signs of his heroic origins, Ambrose can only find a withered material reality. Visiting his den he reflects, "In years to come the Jungle would be gone entirely … his children, he supposed, might miss the winding paths and secret places—but, of course, you didn't miss what you'd never had or known of." An old saw, but unfortunately—like so many of the received ideas in this book—an unhelpful one, since Ambrose searches, fails to find, and agonizes about failing to find a whole set of things he has never had, knows of only by reputation, but still misses terribly.
What he does discover are signs of commodity manufacturing, not signs of special election.
He even recalled how, standing beside himself with awed impersonality in the reeky heat, he'd stared the while at an empty cigar box in which Uncle Karl kept stone-cutting chisels: beneath the words El Producto, a laureled, loose-toga'd lady regarded the sea from a marble bench; beside her, forgotten or not yet turned to, was a five-stringed lyre. Her chin reposed on the back of her right hand; her left depended negligently from the bench-arm. The lower half of scene and lady was peeled away; the words EXAMINED BY—were inked there into the wood. Nowadays cigar boxes are made of pasteboard.
No longer an ocean of metaphors, the world has become a region of manufactured emptiness. A would-be man of letters, Ambrose must read what has now become a hopelessly corrupt and unauthorized text. First, his world is bewilderingly polyglottal—always a problem for the tale teller, whose medium is so incorrigibly a matter of language. In Ambrose's world, Uncle Karl jostles against El Producto, Italian Magda pushes out German Menschen, the Irish Hurleys battle with the English Coopers. Such plurality may well further the party of humanity (and America is indeed a creation of the Enlightenment), but it is all very confusing for the would-be writer yearning to belong creatively to someone or some place. Second, Ambrose must scan his destiny from the imperfect signs that a world of commodity can manage. Ambrose learns too that commodities can only recreate the world in the consumer's self-image. When Ambrose searches for romance, he confronts only a distorted mirror-image, a woman who appears as self-absorbed and passive as he is. "Standing beside himself," Ambrose observes a lady with "a five-stringed lyre forgotten or not yet turned to." Suffocated by "the reeky heat," Ambrose is exposed to the incomplete charms of no femme fatale, no mermaid, but a dismembered creature whose image is superimposed on an empty cigar box. As Ambrose scrutinizes with increasing anxiety the unyielding object, he discovers the words "EXAMINED BY" where the vitals should be! Like Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984, Ambrose has discovered a man-made commodity that promises entry to a forgotten past; but unlike Winston's coral paperweight, which is commonplace but memorable, uniting beauty and utility, Ambrose's cigar box is only a container; it has lost its purpose and its promise. In this context, narrator and audience take on the shape of the Arnie twins of "Water-Message," who spend their nights "exploring garbage." The world is on the slide. When Ambrose crawls beyond the funhouse boardwalk, he discovers only "a small old man … nodding upon a stool beneath a bare, speckled bulb." The machinery is running down; in an exhausted world, life draws wearily toward an anxiously expected, perpetually deferred point of extinction; it is as if reality cannot bear too much of mankind.
"Lost in the Funhouse" shows Ambrose's attempt to imagine a new world in the midst of the wreckage of the old. In a commodity-conscious world, Ambrose's hope is to imagine a wonder-working gadget that will elevate his own power at the same time as it eases the plight of his nation. His technical solution will ease his personal dilemma, making him a sort of push-button deus artifex.
He envisions a truly astonishing funhouse, incredibly complex yet utterly controlled from a great central switchboard like the console of a pipe organ. Nobody had enough imagination. He could design such a place himself, wiring and all, and he's only thirteen years old. He would be its operator: panel lights would show what was up in every cranny of its cunning of its multifarious vastness; a switch-flick would ease this fellow's way, complicate that's, to balance things out; if anyone seemed lost or frightened, all the operator had to do was
The idea is not a novel one. Ambrose's envisioned electronic world, its coil of cords and switches illuminating a fading Ocean City, had in fact been mapped out as Barth wrote in Marshall McLuhan's pioneering books of the 1960s—The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), The Medium is the Massage (1967), and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968). Like Ambrose, McLuhan relinquished printed literature for the electronic media; his conviction of the moribundity of a "print-oriented culture" is implicit in the way the very title War and Peace in the Global Village merges Tolstoy's masterpiece into McLuhan's multinational conglomerate. Indeed, McLuhan's global village would be godly in its omnipresence, a place where electronic media would provide simultaneous contact between past and present across five continents.
In "Autobiography," "Echo," and "Title," Barth answers Ambrose's call by providing an electronic world in the style that his protagonist imagined. Unfortunately, these stories are nothing like McLuhan's utopias or Ambrose's global social work. Rather, they sound like a parody of Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable. Instead of offering a push-button solution to the problems of communication in a silent world, they intensify and multiply what Ambrose has already found unbearable. In these stories too fathers disappoint sons, and wives become cynical about their ineffectual husbands. In a mirror-image of the Ambrose narratives, these tales buckle under the weight of conventions that now overwhelm the narration they were meant to sustain. But the electronic stories lack the skeletal presence of human beings that inform the Ambrose narratives; all they have are voices—sometimes wry, sometimes aggressive but always elusive and ultimately incomprehensible. Even the most ordinary utterance in this context becomes perplexingly uninterpretable. "You who listen give me life" can be read as a plea or a command, but without a speaker to attach it to, we have no way to tell which. Whoever the source, he (or she or it) is as confused as we are and is forever blurting into unfocused aggression: "Is it over? Can't you read between the lines?" By assigning McLuhan's devices and slogans to Beckett-like unnameables and lost ones, Barth reduces the global village to desolation row. These voices read like a misprogrammed computer printout or an urgent telegram from an unidentifiable source.
Where Ambrose's language was constantly on the point of sinking under the weight of literary precedent—how did the Mensch family ever get to Ocean City with that five-foot shelf of world literature in their boot?—the puns of the electronic stories either expire into cliché or become wrapped up in their own entrails. The narrator's reflection that his father has "found himself by himself … a novel device" suggests a pun that fidgets with itself without ever managing to throw off a certain frigid artifice. Such creation has only "a posthumous cautionary value, like gibbeted corpses, pickled freaks. Self-preservation, it seems, may smell of formaldehyde." Once again, the call is not to prolong the world but to terminate it: "Put an end to this, for pity's sake!" The electronic universe is stillborn.
Barth's last two stories, for all their mythic possibilities, remain locked in the cycle of self-searching. In "Anonymiad" Barth tracks this solipsistic impulse to its source: the creation of fiction by a displaced bard. Having lost his tribe, Barth's bard now sheds his subject matter to the point where his tale, like so many of these stories, points back to the head of its maker. Once again, as in the cases of Ambrose (isolated from family and friends) and the speaker of "Autobiography" (who must "compose himself," but knows he "won't last long"), the overall effect of solitude on the storyteller is one of loss. Barth's narrator loses his muse, his innocence, and his big subjects. War, lust, and conquest—the raw material of the mythmaker—have to be rejected. Adultery and psychology—the stock in trade of the novelist—must also be jettisoned so that the narrator, through a mixture of computation and exposition, can simulate an ultimacy denied by the evidence he himself compiles and an originality his position in the series denies.
On these occasions the fiction maker falls victim to his own invention. When he at last discovers decisive evidence of some world outside his own invention in the form of a blank parchment marked in ink, his first response is to people it with another like himself. His hope is for a world that "might be astrew with islèd souls, become minstrels perforce, and the sea a-clink with literature!" The discovery of this manuscript recalls the similar discovery made in the last pages of one of Barth's favorite books, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (first published in Argentina a year before Lost in the Funhouse). But Aureliano Babilonia's discovery of the gypsy's manuscript annihilates a century of solipsism; in "Anonymiad" the discovery wheels the book around to its point of origin, where we met the night sea voyager peopling a universe in his anxious self-image. Barth has exhausted his theme rather than transformed it. The three main types of story—realistic, electronic, and mythic—point only to a common loss in narrative energy and objective resources in Barth's universe.
The best account of the phenomenon dramatized in Lost in the Funhouse came from Arnold Schoenberg, who described how in battling with musical innovation he "had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water and not knowing how to swim or get out I tried with my legs and arms as best I could…. I never gave up. But how could I give up in the middle of an ocean?" [quoted in H. H. Stuckenschmidt's Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work (1977)]. The narrator of "Autobiography" must have had just such a feeling when, after battling with a series of exhausted literary conventions, he concluded that "the odds against a wireless deus ex machina aren't encouraging."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6660
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 you're onto.
Ambrose in the funhouse? No, he's lying on the sand with that physically whelming presence he thinks is Magda, pretending to watch that impostor Peter show off his diving, muscles—form. The timing's wrong. The funhouse is later. The narrator, then, anticipating his story? Oh yes, and mirroring it, both of them wandering roundly off the track. The narrator's plan and his character's plot wandering off into the wrong time, out of place, astray. The characters' characters (author's narrator's, character's) blur into each other; there's no focus; space is as imploded as time. The voice (author's, narrator's, character's) attenuates to one multidistinguishable whine. Point of view? Who's to see?
When I understood that Proteus somewhere on the beach became Menelaus holding the Old Man of the Sea, Menelaus ceased. Then I understood further how Proteus thus also was as such no more, being as possibly Menelaus's attempt to hold him, the tale of that vain attempt, the voice that tells it.
Climactic confrontation. Turning point. Turning, turning, turning point. The rest is a story of diminishing returns.
Ajax is dead, Agamemnon, all my friends, but I can't die, worse luck; Menelaus's carcass is long wormed, yet his voice yarns on through everything, to itself. Not my voice, I am this voice, no more, the rest has changed, rechanged, gone. The voice too, even that changes, becomes hoarser, loses its magnetism, grows scratchy, incoherent, blank.
The last word? Hold-on.
One more interpretation.
In my discussion of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse I shall treat his "series" of stories as a novel: because a unity, a wholeness, is intended, according to the "Author's Note," because a single work is achieved, as I hope to demonstrate, and because, as Barth remarked in a "conversation" referring to "book-length fiction" written today, "it's got to be called something or other" [Frank Gado, "A Conversation with John Barth," in a special issue of The Idol 49, No. 2 (Fall 1977)]. Besides, the form this novel takes (selected stories) is not new to the genre. The moderns broke up whatever unity the form had previously assumed: Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), Williams (In the American Grain), and Faulkner (Go Down, Moses), for example, used collected stories in a technique of fracture, collage, collation, conflation. I shall call Barth's work a novel, but not to place it in the tradition of the moderns. If its form was predicted, legitimized, in the first half of the century, its themes and its attitudes toward them were not. Postmoderns lost something of the moderns' sense of shame, of shock, of loss, grief. The moderns' reactionary reaction to revolutions and world wars, to radical disorientation, first devolved to a milder, less passionate, because existentialist or nihilistic, dis-ease. The emphasis turned from events themselves to interpretations of them. We seemed to have passed another crisis. The fever abated a bit, spirit revived. This turning point is the "ground-situation" for Lost in the Funhouse. The novel discloses the impasse to which Western thought has brought itself, predicts the necessity of a turning if there is to be a going on, and even points out some possible directions. I would classify the work as a comic tragedy. It evokes an effect very much like that of Wallace Stevens' "The Comedian as the Letter C," in which a quotidian Real eventually simply preempts all philosophical speculation about the nature of reality. Barth's novel brings us to the end of an era with the logical demise of a metaphysical paradigm.
Critics have addressed the issues I shall address, for example the problems of a human identity crisis and of the exhaustion of literature, of the author, of authority and motivation, of culture and art; they have noted the technique and thematic of artifice and ultimacy turned against themselves. My study is new only in the weight and concentration I give to a single fundamental Heideggerian insight and to its illumination of each story and of the work as a whole. My purpose is to trace the Cartesian-Kantian subject-object paradigm through the novel, exploring Barth's exploration of the implications and ramifications of that entrenched metaphysics.
The novel has at least three fundamental themes, which develop all at once all the time. They are the "progress" of literature, of language, and of a metaphysical assumption. The "progress" of each and all proceeds (but not chronologically, not logically) through the novel and almost reaches its ultimate logical achievement, that is, the end. As I have shown above, no matter which theme one tries to grasp, s/he finds s/he's taken hold of all three. They are separate aspects of one phenomenon, but it is the metaphysics that is responsible for the rest, in my view, and I shall try to untangle that thread from the weave without raveling the whole.
If this series of stories is a novel, as I take it to be, then who is the protagonist? If I generalize, conflate the characters central to all these stories, the protagonist is an author, telling a story, perhaps to himself. He is the subjective self, given Kant's revision of Descartes's philosophical schematic. The subjective self is cut off from the Other—the substantial, the real—; isolated but not sufficiently insulated; without immediate access to the real, but with mediated access somehow sufficient to impress him unequivocally with its solidity, its mass, its validity, this impression sufficient to put into question the validity, reality, of the the impalpable self. Given the metaphysical point of view and its development in the novel, protagonists as subjective selves must experience (if subjective selves can bring themselves to presume the experience of experience) a "little crise d'identité."
If this series of stories is a novel, how can we delineate the plot? "Once upon a time there was a story that began once upon a time there was a…." Follow the Moebius strip to the end. To the beginning, then, the source ("Autobiography"). Then just follow. Identify the principle: repetition? replication? reduplication? reproduction? continuation? Determine the design: circle? cycle? spiral? mirror? maze? what-all? Address the question: endlessly?
The metaphysical schematic is given in "Night-Sea Journey." (Never identified explicitly as such, it is the journey of sperm flooding upstream toward an ovum.) It is the perilous journey motif, a voyage of sorts, this time a self-protagonist struggling alongside the innumerable others, blindly no one knows whenceforth or why toward no one knows what. The self is helpless witness to pointless bravery pointlessly over-whelmed, and pointlessly he is himself singled out for survival. This journey is not the traditional episodic tale of adventure: temptations and fearsome opposition to be courageously ignored, avoided, escaped, endured, or fought, routed, vanquished. This journey consists of a vague, vast turmoil of washing-about, -along, -under. Death is arbitrary and abrupt on all sides, a constantly visibly real threat, but except for the early death of a particular comrade, a seer of sorts or a good guesser, there are no episodes, events. What there are are abstract speculations. Instead of fires, teeth, and cannon, our "hero" contends against an absurd absence-of-answer-to-his-questions. The what about him is terrible—take his word for it—but the unbearable last straw is simply the lack of concrete whenceforths, witherwards, whys.
If character and plot are submerged in situation, what surfaces are theories—shocking, irreverent, perverse theories. Perhaps the Maker created us accidentally, carelessly, stupidly, maliciously. Perhaps he regrets his error and would correct it—perhaps he is our enemy, destroyer! Perhaps he himself is nothing like ourselves, can't swim. Perhaps there are many Makers, other seas; perhaps Makers are swimming in their own Makers' floods, seas in seas in seas. In short, perhaps the universe is nothing like ourselves, is oblivious or hostile to us. Its design is inscrutable; we are mere effects to its cause.
The object of the journey is grounds for speculation too, of course. A shore would mean the end of swimming—and what of swimmers then? Our self's friend imagines an Other, a She, awaiting the sole survivor, different from him and complementary, both death and resurrection, end and beginning again. Our self-protagonist cannot conclude. The journey and the problem of the journey are absurd. Our self-protagonist concludes: obscene (the recurrence of this word throughout the novel subtly reiterates the indictment). Schopenhauer-like, he brings his will to bear against the surging flood. "No," he wills to will—how else can he oppose the senseless slaughter? But miserable lucky he—caught up in warmy rhythmic waves, he's carried off beyond himself to Love! Love! Love!
The metaphysical conclusion isn't metaphysical: life is physical. Pit his will against the matter (matter) if he will, will-he, nill-he, he will be lifted up and surged about by forces forcefuller than his. The Cartesian schematic has provided a dualism—matter and the thinking self—but something has gone wrong with the equilibrium: the res looks stouter than the cogito. The self struggles to survive his way—by way of his will to see, to justify, to rationalize, to turn into story. The She—that "vasty presence" (res)—draws him or drowns him as She pleases, overwhelming even his will. The self's judgment on the case: guilty; death penalty. But this self is not up to the task. He "wills" his negative will to posterity. "Hate love!" The injunction echoes through the novel. And throughout the novel the subjective self—the thinker, the writer, the artist—shrinks in validity and vitality in proportion as he withdraws from the milieu, "real life" going-on.
It is in a Cartesian-Kantian context that the real, the other, opposes and invalidates the self. In this context stories, which objectify the self, subjectify the world; the verification of the self is the dissolution of the real. The sum of the two processes is the difference—zero. Remove the Cartesian-Kantian framework and the justification for the fatalistic theme dissolves. And that we should and that it may is perhaps what this work suggests should happen.
The Cartesian theme is treated directly in "Petition." The subjective self is coupled to the objective body in a Siamese twin arrangement, the self on the body's back, both ways. The subject-object, spirit-body union of contraries amounts to one entity, of course. But union does not guarantee unity. This unit incorporates self-division. All the differences are significant, fundamental. The subjective self can understand but cannot speak; the other is vocal with nothing to say. The self is conscientious (reasonably so), the other sly. The self is a solitary thinker, a dreamer; the other lives practically, gregariously, in the "real world." The self is unemotional, detached, the other moody, irrational. The self tends toward the analytical, the other to synthesis. The self recognizes the duality he shares with his brother and is amenable to compromise; the other denies the division, attempts to repress, repudiate, the self. The self has a refined nature, finds pleasure in the conception and contemplation of abstract ideas, art; the other is filthily physical, clumsy, practical (and makeshift at that), gluttonous, lecherous, and so on.
The brothers compete for control of their life. In childhood their "antipathies … [smolder]," in adolescence burst into flame. They each impede the activity of, embarrass, the other. The crisis comes when they fall in love with the pretty contortionist Thalia. The solitary, analytical self with his natural disinclination to copulation finds repugnant the coarse, lascivious zest that characterizes his brother's courtship. Which brother Thalia loves is the question. Even when the self becomes convinced that Thalia has a twin too, is two Thalias, the prospect is no less bleak; for if there are two Thalias, one is inside the other (fascinating psychological suggestion), and a sorting out of lovers is out of the question. Both brothers are confident that they are Thalia's primary interest, but the self's confidence wanes; he doubts; his doubts grow; the uncertainty becomes unbearable: Thalia must choose one brother or the other. Thus the petition to the visiting Oriental potentate to sever the connection between his brother and himself even though it will mean the death of one of them. Death would be an improvement on the situation. "Death itself I would embrace like a lover," he writes, "if I might share the grave with no other company. To be one: paradise! To be two: bliss! But to be both and neither is unspeakable."
And the process of withdrawal or cutting-off, of shrinkage (and wastage), of retreat to the interior, is just the process this novel follows. Before our very eyes both the theme and the text trace a wasting corpus; the self and the language that expresses it diminish to moribund-if-not-dead shadows of themselves. The subjective self, thinker/writer/artist, is "not up to life." He evades or circumvents confrontation with life, consigns his own subjective experience of the reality about him and in him to idea, consigns idea to fiction, fiction to the status of the illusory, arbitrary irreal. Thus to oblivion. A matter of time.
Another exegetical clue is offered in the "Petition" story. The contrast drawn between the twins-at-odds, above, and a set of twins in the mystic East more amicably joined heart-to-heart (though even in the East, love is problematic to the design) serves to define the novel's perspective on the subject-object polarity-duality. The problem is a matter of construction, of design. The nature of the universe is not the problem of the novel: the nature of interpretations that attempt to deal with the nature of the universe is the problem. "'When will I reach my goal through its cloaks of story?'" Menelaus cries. "'How many veils to naked Helen?'" Attaining naked Helen is not the ground-situation of Lost in the Funhouse. The postmodern problem of penetrating how-many-veils is.
The Menelaus-Proteus metaphor has been alluded to above. In the story "Menelaiad" Menelaus' salvation lies in holding on to Proteus, no matter what form he takes. But in the ultimate encounter, when Proteus speaks to him in his own voice, Menelaus loses all sense of identity, any point of reference. The certainty that Menelaus grasps is uncertainty. Whether he is a form of Proteus' conceit or Proteus his can never again be ascertained. Undeceived, he understands the nature of things at last: deception. "'"He continues to hold on, but can no longer take the world seriously … all subsequent history is Proteus, making shift to slip me…."'"
In fact, all subsequent history is not subsequent. As "Frame-Tale" tells and "Echo" echoes: the ending is contained in the beginning. From Oedipus' pursuit (self-knowledge) through Tiresias' prophecies (that Oedipus' pursuit is Narcissus'; that the objectified self is no object, and the catch to the catch is the loss) to Echo's ambiguous misrepresentations of the same: all history is this series of stories. "Thus we linger forever on the autognostic verge—not you and I, but Narcissus, Tiresias, Echo…. Is Narcissus addressing Tiresias, Tiresias Narcissus? Have both expired?"
The self subjected to subjectivity, protagonist of the novel, is represented by the character Ambrose in three stories, "Ambrose His Mark," "Water-Message," and "Lost in the Funhouse." In the first story Ambrose's identity is established—as a self who has no established identity. Thus his identity as author is foreshadowed. He is deprived (through simple negligence) of the usual personal and social ceremonies of identification—a name, baptism; his paternity is uncertain, especially in the view of his father; the portent of his birthmark (a disoriented purple bee near one eye) is ambiguous.
In the second story Ambrose struggles to come to terms with the world of signs, significance. After a certain afternoon's dramatic proliferation of linguistic and semiotic perplexities, discomfited if not defeated, he finds among the seaweed washed up by the tide a bottle containing a message: "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN." (Blank.) "YOURS TRULY." A little Anonymiad. Life is suddenty charged with (enigmatic) significance.
In the third story Ambrose attempts to make to make a pass at Magda, whose figure is surprisingly well-developed for her age; but his preoccupation with his own feelings, his own self-aggrandizing fictions, prevents any success. He wanders off alone in the funhouse, "wherein he lingers yet." The author of the story, who has been narrating the story in an excruciatingly self-conscious manner, progressively withdraws from and finally abandons his story.
The pattern of withdrawal can be followed in the changing point of view in the three-story segment. The first story is narrated in first person (an unlikely Tristram Shandy point of view since it is an account of events surrounding Ambrose's birth and infancy up to the time when he is eventually given a name). The second story is narrated from a third person point of view, a distancing technique—but not from self-consciousness: "The more closely an author identifies with the narrator, literally or metaphorically, the less advisable it is, as a rule, to use the first-person narrative viewpoint." The point of view of the third story is removed one more remove, narrated by "an author" outright. What's more, the story slips out of the author's hand again and again until finally both the character Ambrose and the plot of his story get lost in the funhouse; neither is heard of again in the novel.
The Protean dilemma is refigured in the central metaphor of the novel, Ambrose's disappearance into the labyrinthine corridors of the funhouse. All day, like Menelaus in his turn, Ambrose has been grappling with reality, his self-consciousness cutting him off again and again from any effective move toward Magda. The climactic moment occurs when he stands before the endlessly replicating mirrors in the funhouse, as Menelaus came face to face with Proteus:
Stepping from the treacherous passage at last into the mirror-maze, he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person.
Ambrose's irony is like Menelaus' too—that his most radical revelation, the one that illuminates everything forever afterwards, the vision he sees "more clearly than ever," emanates from a series of distorting reflections of himself.
At this point Ambrose finds his nametag, which he dropped when he first entered the funhouse. He doesn't associate the name AMBROSE with himself at all, but with "the famous lightship" and with a certain dessert his grandfather favored. Like Menelaus on the beach, Ambrose loses his sense of identity.
So does the author of "Lost in the Funhouse," distancing and then removing himself from his story. First he involves himself more and more consciously with himself as author, with the writing of stories, with the problems of authorship and the nature of fiction, the problems of language and the nature of language. And for "problems" read "loss." As noted above, there is a law of diminishing returns at work in the novel. As the self enlarges its domain, consciousness, reality loses its; and vice versa. Here the principle is given in a comic exposé. The sensitive, imaginative artist-type is satirized as a self-deluded pretender, his fictions as excuses, evasions, refuges against an overwhelming reality. As he loses hold of even his fictions, his story empties of content, reduces to its bare structure, design. It can't be long till silence.
The problem is recapitulated in the mock-epic "Anonymiad." Besides recalling all the preceding stories' motifis and all the protean themes, this story in particular traces the reductio ad absurdum of the metaphysical paradigm. The story begins, of course, in the middle. "Of course" because all these tales about telling tales profess to do the same, to plunge in where they find themselves: in medias res. The yarn's been being spun since the beginning (see "Frame-Tale"). The ground-situation is a state of fallen-off (see the Moderns for details, laments). Where muses were are amphorae of souring spirits. For Agamemnon's hearty herohood find nameless, themeless, almost-lifeless minstrel. Instead of fecund Helen to inspire, reward, the stalwart(s), see mild milkmaid Merope. In short, for Truth read Fiction; and for Epic, last-gasp stop-gap.
The last lost word, the Anonymiad, is of course the history of the race entire: the portrait of the artist. His grateful fall into Experience, first forced stop and last on his voyage over the wine-dark sea (mirror and sequel to "Night-Sea Journey"'s journey) is, like Adam's, Descartes', and ours, "a flowered, goated, rockbound isle" where he is thrown ashore and abandoned, to his vast relief. Like Adam's? Who's to say? Like Descartes' (and Kant's) and therefore ours we know: the isolated subject (exactly what our "Petition"-twin desired).
What cast him out, set him forth? Aegisthus', Clytemnestra's, Merope's and his own weak heart's ambiguous ambitions; in his own case, the vain conceit that there was in Fact an Other to be gained to make him whole: sad, sere Experience. Never mind what matter(s) he had in mind; the rock's the thing, the Cartesian limit: elemental encounter with absolute reality. If the ground-situation for this novel is the postmodern turning-point, Barth's vehicle-situation is this story in its protean forms, figured most boldly here with the minstrel isolated on a deserted island, the subjective self set off against the Ding an sich.
First he dreams a woman. (There are no "real" women here. Merope is a name he will forget [though something lingers], Helen a name he names the goat [romantic hope either way].) He dreams her in a story with optional endings, his favorite one an option he's forfeited, the fact of Merope. His lyre lost, he discovers his voice, his realm, his happiness: his imagination.
After the first some years of singing, he discovers writing. It's that that saves him. He vacillates twixt joy and deep despair; it's fits and starts with him (another motif that rhythms the novel). History ensues: a series of beginnings. The first six eras (muses corresponding) are joyful in the main. With the invention of writing he imagines readers, improvises a system (amphorae) of disseminating his works, discovers fiction. The doubts his fancy falls into—that readers never receive, can't decipher his works—his fancy assuages with assurance that Zeus, Poseidon, say, get them, get them. And even barring that verification he's confident of the fact, the being, of his works, therefore himself, for they are objectified in the universe. "[S]omewhere outside myself my enciphered spirit drifted, realer than the gods, its significance as objective and undecoded as the stars'." The self is no safe depository for anything of significance, gives no guarantee of existence, carries no weight on an absolute scale. But outside the self in the "real" universe, in ink, on parchment, in an amphora, set safely (i.e., physically) adrift on the sea, the cogito confides itself to the res; the object can be objectively verified (isn't that, too, tautology?).
At any rate, our minstrel comes to his seventh and eighth epochs. He "[has] begun to run out of world and material," has already published, since he came to write, "effusions of religious narrative, ribald tale-cycles, verse-dramas, comedies of manners, and what-all." Now he manages to rouse himself to write a round of realistic, then romantic, on to fantastic, comic fiction. But he's aging, waning, out of "new [things] to say, new [ways] to say the old." He loses inspiration altogether, interest then, then memory, identity.
Then Something happens. Word comes. Never mind from whom if anyone. "[A] new notion." A sign, signifying: another: a writer—possibly, of course, himself, possibly another: a reader. The old boy is on his feet again. One jug remains, one goat (-skin then) and time for one more masterpiece, piece: this Anonymiad, "written from [his] only valid point of view, first person anonymous." He works the work, expending his last muster. He sets his one thing more once more afloat. There it washes, a mayhap undecipherable symbol signifying fiction, submitted to the Real. Last reflection of "Night-Sea Journey": the flood has dimmed, the surge subsided to a gentle, rocking wash. The sperm of urgent negative resolve has turned tale, the tale confided to the ebbing tide. No determined defiance of predestination here, but a tentative gesture, one last grateful gamble on any destination at all. The night-sea journey spawned a fiction. The fiction is at last cast upon the waters. How fertile fiction is the sequel must show.
Is this novel a dark apocalypse? Well, yes, the subject(s)-object(s), the plot(s), the stated theme(s), the language tied to the metaphysics, talk themselves into an ending, the end. The novel articulates the postmodern ground-situation. A burgeoning present and no system of seeing or interpreting to account for it, no language to express it; everything sayable already said, said in all the possible ways to say it. The metaphysical paradigm in shreds, used-up, and language caught in a cause-effect cycle with it, part and parcel of it now, trapped with it in its doom. Nothing to do but make clown suits out of both, mock them once for all, have done with them forever. It's only a matter of time now, not much time.
And yet, as we have seen, this novel teems with robust energy, life going on. The ironies and contradictions between the themes stated and enacted and the wit, the joyful play with which the moribund-if-not-dead is exposed and debunked (the style, as Michael Hinden identifies it, "self-exhausting and yet comically triumphant" [in Critical Essays on American Literature, edited by James Nagel (1980)]), the provocation of LIFE, evokes a counter thrust of counter themes, indicating though not articulating the case of a vigorous universe, of a fallible human condition, laughable but not absurd. The situation, at least in the novel, cannot be taken to be as negative or as nihilistic as Tony Tanner [in City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (1971)] and Jac Tharpe [in John Barth, The Comic Sublimity of Paradox (1974)] have assessed it until these counter elements have been counted, as critics are attempting to do in both philosophical and psychoanalytical contexts. I shall not attempt to nominate this counter substance but only to point generally in its direction.
One element that subverts the apocalyptic tenor is the irony in the wit and in the energy of the wit that sets against all dire projections of doom a quotidian stability. To the ground-situation, above, the vehicle-situation (shade of Scheherezade's) is the novel itself. The soul of the novel is its wit, which Tharpe and others have characterized as Rabelaisian, an exurberant exhibition of life, as any passage will serve to show. In spite of the ostensible gloom, the novel insinuates an effect of reassurance.
The irony is found, for example, in "Life Story" where the problem of the author (the protagonist) unable to differentiate himself from his protagonist, his life from his fiction—the old Proteus-Funhouse dilemma—is reduplicated out of the story into the author's author's study and by the logic of the reduplication into our own living rooms (middle-class, educated, 20th-century living rooms). The improbable effect, however, is that it is not our reality that disappears into the fiction so that we dissolve before our own eyes; it is the ideas of reality and fiction that dissolve, resolve into each other. The most significant implication of the work is that philosophy has gone astray, that perhaps it is not life that is absurd, but a way of "reading" it, a way of reading reading it.
Another element at play and at odds with doom is the motif of plans, designs, open options. Of course, this element indicates uncertainty, instability, as clearly as freedom or hopeful possibilities. Since plans, designs, and options almost always prove to be extraneous to actual performance in this novel, we cannot construe the motif as a sign of hope, of rescue. We are merely tempted. The story "Title," e.g., not only presents the case that literature—and man—is moribund-if-anything, but it confronts the problem of fatalism directly and sketches several options available to us yet. "Title" is a Waiting for Godot meditation and response. The story and, therefore, whatever consciousness it objectifies are merest skeletal remains. Lost are the "novel, literature, art, humanism, humanity, the self itself," claims (what remains of) the narrator. All that isn't finished is the story. The ghost traces of characters wait for the end, only their conversation delaying it. The conversation consists of "her" interruptions (to, she mocks, the Progress of Literature,… to its demise), if "she" is indeed the source of interruption, if indeed, that is, "she" "is." She is all that remains of Scheherezade: the possibility of an interruption. It is uncertain whether the conversation is dialogue or monologue.
The "Title" problem is Ambrose's problem in "Water-Message": the "message" in both cases is the medium: form, sign, design, intent, refiguring the old minstrel's problem in "Anonymiad": nothing left to say nor any way to say it. Something (memory perhaps) of the form remains: beginning (middle) and waiting-for-an-end. What remains of content is the all but empty blank. But "Hold onto yourself." There are three, no four, alternatives to ringing down the curtain: (1) "rejuvenation: having become an exhausted parody of itself, perhaps a form … may rise neoprimitively from its own ashes"; (2) replacement of the "moribund what-have-yous" by the "vigorous new," the end of one thing the beginning of another; (3) his own recommendation (and Borges'), a stop-gap expedient: "turn ultimacy against itself to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new." The fourth possibility (Beckett's); "Self-extinction. Silence."
In the almost-empty blank, to which language in this story is reduced thematically, Barth replies to Beckett's (and Proteus-style, in Beckett's voice):
[T]o write this allegedly ultimate story is a form of artistic fill in the blank, or an artistic form of same, if you life…. The storyteller's alternatives, as far as I can see, are a series of last words … or actual blank. And I mean literally fill in the blank…. The fact is, the narrator has narrated himself into a corner, a state of affairs more tsk-tsk than boo-hoo, and because his position is absurd he calls the world absurd. That some writers lack lead in their pencils does not make writing obsolete.
Barth's plan for the Rerouting of Literature, like his plans for the stories in this novel, gets rewritten many times. For our purpose here there are two points to reiterate: the author blames authors' "accursed self-consciousness" for the condition of literature, and in order to rescue the corpus from certain oblivion he reverses the priority that history and this novel have given to reality over subjectivity:
[T]he fact is that people still lead lives, mean and bleak and brief as they are … and people have characters and motives that we devine more or less inaccurately from their appearance, speech, behavior, and the rest … and they do these things in more or less conventionally dramatic fashion … and what goes on between them is still not only the most interesting but the most important thing in the bloody murderous world…. And that my dear is what writers have got to find ways to write about … or … their, that is to say our, accursed self-consciousness will lead them…. [Fill in the blank.]
In this story, where Barth seems to write directly about what he is trying to do in this work, are found the articulation of a state of mind and an era, Barth's in both cases, exhaustion of possibilities in both cases, and also a series of sets of schemes to avert the catastrophe imminent. We can choose between an exhausted logic and inexhaustible life, but if we choose life we must abandon or redefine our logic. Barth seems to opt for abandoning our logic and redefining as we go on.
Barth's diagnosis of and prognosis for the state of literature and man agrees in many respects with Alain Robbe-Grillet's views in For A New Novel, especially in the essay "Nature, Humanism, Tragedy," written at about the same time as Lost in the Funhouse. Robbe-Grillet claims and demonstrates that the late-moderns, absurdists, e.g., Beckett, are not de-humanist or inhuman-ist to depict the absurdity and prophesy the disappearance of man; it is, Robbe-Grillet claims, precisely their essential, uncompromised humanism that has led them rationally to tragic resolutions. For his own part, he believes that the metaphysical paradigm is in error and has rendered literature and philosophy unnecessarily anthropomorphic and anthropomorphism unnecessarily tragic. He recommends that we face the fact of an empty, impersonal universe, abandon tragedy. The future and language are for exploring in.
But is it not a delusion to think that we can think of man "in" a universe unrelated to him, given his proclivities as we define them—sensory, intellectual, emotional—since this thought (as well as every sensing/thinking/feeling) sets up or depends upon relationship already? Besides, the Other maintains the advantage. Man continues to define man-ness as weakness, dullness, diversion, error. Though Barth agrees with Robbe-Grillet that the paradigm is wrong, the correction he indicates is essentially different. He does not opt for further objectification of Kantian objectivity. He shows that we have played the paradigm out to the end. The next turn is not delineated. But the turning is not a turning from the domain of "subjectivity"; it turns instead from "objectivity," that idea, which cancels out the heart's desires. It is ideas that have reached a deadend. In "How to Make a Universe," Barth's "first proper public lecture," delivered in 1960 well before he began to write this novel, Barth said:
[A]s soon as Being is conceived of—that is, as soon as it's represented as a concept (opposed to not-Being) and therefore made problematical—the problem can't be solved. Even to say "Being simply is" is to impose upon Reality the human conceptions of noun, verb, and adverb, the human logic of grammar and syntax, and thus to falsify it, since there are no categories in Nature's warpless, woofless web. [The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfictions]
Barth does not escape the Cartesian-Kantian schematic, but he suspends its nihilistic force; or he suspends above or in it something enigmatically human.
In his now-familiar "The Literature of Exhaustion," written during the Lost in the Funhouse period, Barth congratulates postmodern authors who manage yet "to speak eloquently and memorably to our still-human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done." Thirteen years later in a twin essay, "The Literature of Replenishment," he again describes literary masterpieces as works "not only artistically admirable but humanly wise, lovable, literally marvelous." Something unthematized among the vestiges of the traditionally "human" offers perhaps the "ground of being" in this novel, perhaps the clue to the unaccountable "significance" that the language manifests, a thisness that outwits, outlasts, the subverting/subverted notions that inform the language literally. At this point Heidegger's post-philosophy nonconceptual thinking assists the reading of Barth and of the postmodern situation. The rational paradigm which since Descartes has separated and since Kant has increasingly alienated the human as subject from a world of things in themselves neglects or denies and suppresses: human being, always already ontically/ontologically in-the-world, the world always already engaged as it is drawn into history by and in that relationship. My point here is that Lost in the Funhouse, which does not propose to propose a new paradigm, explores the inadequacy of the current one, and that the "argument" of the novel is compatible in many essential respects with Heidegger's argument against the Cartesian-Kantian dichotomy, especially in Being and Time. The novel's treatment of language per se is also often compatible with Heidegger's. For reasons such as these, I expect, William V. Spanos, in "A Preface" to a collection of essays published in 1976 to initiate and stimulate Heideggerian studies among Anglo-American literary scholars, listed this novel among postmodern works which without direct communication with Heideggerian thinking parallel it ["Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature: A Preface," in Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature, edited by William V. Spanos (1979)]. Barth's thematization and demonstration of language as a medium exhausted conceptually but powerful essentially to evoke "meaning" which has no conceptual reference follows the deconstructionist route through exhaustion or totalization to provoke a surprising radical revitalization of language.
In an era distinguished for its increasingly neurotic language-consciousness, Barth writes an exposé of the phenomenon. He strips language to its bones: in "Lost in the Funhouse" he unfrocks the operator behind fiction, busy with his funhouse machinations; but both here and in "Autobiography" he shows that the story has a being of its own. In "Title" Barth reduces language to snytax. But still the story's story persists! These are not hoarse, dulled, diminished echoes. They are stories of hoarse, dulled, diminished echoes. This is not the "book … of a man who cannot really find any sanction for writing either in world or self, yet feels that it is his one distinguishing ability, the one activity which gives him any sense of self," as Tanner claims [in City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970]. These are telling explorations as well as fascinating stories. Exposing the operations behind, beneath, and in authors and stories and language, they discover by demonstration that the operations can not account for the effects, that stories persist quite healthily regardless of "content" or "form." Something of language transcends and includes systems that explain it.
"Ambrose His Mark" is a tour de force on the nature and significance of signs. The primary disclosure—here as in the novel as a whole—is that language itself is not the thing. "This is what they mean by ','" Ambrose occasionally suddenly understands. The "this" is the thing. Language is meaningless, sound only, structure only, until one "gets" the "this" it "means." Language does not imitate; it points. Language does not represent; it gives. In "How to Make a Universe" Barth compares the artist to a Zen master: "He does not describe reality; he points to it. He gives you a little piece of it."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6310
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 Finnegans Wake, emblematic of Viconian eternal return, but to make a circuit with a twist to it, like a Möbius strip.
When Gabriel Conroy composes the concluding words of Dubliners in "The Dead," he forges a Möbius connection of living and dead by juxtaposing the final Christlike (and hence resurrectable) image of Michael Furey against that of the dying priest in the opening story, "The Sisters." Father Flynn's ideas of the world seemed so lunatic that they "made them think that there was something gone wrong with him." Fat May, who sits outside the funhouse, laughing inexplicably at nothing, complements the image of the priest sitting, laughing inexplicably, in the confessional.
Both books begin with a series of first-person narrations of young people, a series of loosely associated Bildungsroman experiences, later broadened into the personal experiences of increasingly older characters, and finally into a study of institutions, before returning to a writer-centered focus on the death-life cycle. Joyce was not to address openly the process of making self-conscious fiction until Ulysses, but it is a topic that structurally and thematically permeates his Künstlerroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a story so self-conscious it might have been written by the Minstrel of "Anonymiad." Our final glimpse of Stephen Dedalus's literary artistry is his diary, committed to posterity amidst a combination of hysterically joyous and despairing platitudes.
The great difference between Funhouse and Joyce's first two volumes of fiction is that Barth's statement of self-conscious intent is openly made, even trumpeted, with all the self-reflexive difficulties of its composition blatantly and painstakingly examined. His narratives always obviously work inward to their own composition rather than outward, like Joyce's, to the description of a world separate from as well as a part of their author, who ultimately pretends to stand by, "indifferent, paring his fingernails," even while we see him in the agony of squeezing a villanelle out of his own humiliations and feelings of sexual impotence.
The concluding diary entries of Portrait recapitulate the introductory overture of sight and sound images filtered through Stephen Dedalus's early childhood perception, which begins the book, implying that he will eventually write the novel of his discovery of the means and subject matter for his narcissistic representation of himself. Barth follows the same idea with an author-character living a fiction of his own devising, a motif that permeates Lost in the Funhouse. All the Portrait activities, like those of the Funhouse stories, are those that Stephen participated in and transformed into the artistic consciousness that narrates the novel. In a sense Portrait and Funhouse both use variations on the protagonist/narrator technique of Gabriel Conroy's conclusion of Dubliners.
As Charles Harris tells us [in his 1983 Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth], Ambrose is really the "narrator/protagonist of Lost in the Funhouse. As is the case with Dubliners, Ambrose appears in three chronological accounts of his youth. His doppelgänger appears in intervening stories, which are projections of events and attitudes in the Ambrose narratives, and, as he becomes distanced in time and more overwhelmed by the problems of composition, we can see him identified with the self-conscious author-narrators of the later stories. Andrea and Magda of the Ambrose stories evolve into ur-heroines for the rest of the fiction, while Peter, Ambrose's brother, becomes an archetypical sibling rival, and the problem of self-identity is transformed into a metaphor for the problems of creating self-conscious fiction. In this last respect, then, Lost in the Funhouse becomes for Barth what Dubliners and Portrait were for Joyce.
The above character transformations, eventually depicted metaphorically in Proteus's identity changes in "Menelaiad," are circumscribed by the Möbius strip, which structurally embodies the "Frame-Tale" and thus the rest of the book. The water messages that Ambrose finds are his fictionalized and metaphorized links to the stories themselves, really about his and the minstrel/surrogate's love affairs and devotion to the sterilities and problems of creating fiction, or funhouses for others, as Ambrose tells us in "Lost in the Funhouse" and reiterates halfway through, in "Title." Following the path of the Möbius strip, the reader returns not once but many times to the beginning, made strange by the reader's facing a direction opposite to the one he did on the previous trip. In the final circle, at least one of the jars set adrift in "Anonymiad" returns in "Night-Sea Journey" as the self-conscious primal progress of the existential sperm, who presumably is to become Ambrose in the next story. By draining, then "humping" the jar before loading it with his manuscript and setting it adrift on the sea, the minstrel/author/self-creator, Ambrose, has committed the ultimate self-reflexivity, in "authoring" himself both as writer and seed-bearer. The doubt-riddled, existential sperm begins his journey through self-narration, passing himself many times, always in angst, in identity and creativity crises, driven by primal forces to a sexual union in which the self is obliterated, singing "Love! Love! Love!" just as the boy in Joyce's "Araby" murmurs "O love!, O love! many times," as they both press onward toward the unknown they are forced to define in some sort of ultimate epiphanic fiction.
Hector Mensch, the husband of Ambrose's mother, in keeping with the notion of self-generation, had such doubts about the boy's parentage that he was driven into an insane asylum, and Andrea, Ambrose's mother, is described as beautiful and sensual, a ripe object for Oedipal affection, and an inspiration for Ambrose's later version of Helen and her relations with the gullible storyteller Menelaus. The story "Ambrose His Mark," while realistic, is narrated from baby Ambrose's point of view by an older Ambrose who refers in passing to events that won't happen for years after the story's present.
The second Ambrose story, "Water-Message," takes place when he is in the fourth grade, and depicts him as a creative if increasingly solitary youngster. The mature third-person narration is free of the self-consciousness of the emerging pubescent narrator of the third story, "Lost in the Funhouse." Thus the chronological maturity of the narrators of the early stories runs contrary to the age of their protagonist, even though narrator and protagonist are ultimately the same. In "Water-Message" Ambrose concocts a wish-fulfillment story of a romantic relationship with Peggy Robbins, whose romantic escapades had earlier been darkly hinted by the older boys accompanying his brother. Ambrose's tale, which makes him the recipient of her favors, immediately precedes his finding a blank message in a bottle, addressed "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN," and signed merely, "YOURS TRULY." Once Ambrose has seen the message, its blank character invites him to fill in the mystery for himself, to supply the composition, to provide the fun for the fictive lovers rather than to be a lover himself. His life will be in a sense vicarious, and can become any reality his fictive mind can make it. The whole foreshadows the similar epiphany Ambrose extracts from his later funhouse adventure, all confirming the mark of the tale-teller, St. Ambrose, whose name he has inherited. In this naturalistic fiction, or fictive creation-represented-as-truth, Ambrose bears the name and sign of the elocutionist, the storyteller, who is destined to fill in the blanks of his own water message. They will stem in part from his own experience and in part from his libidinous, literary, and romantic projections of the meaning of that existence.
Two other tales interrupt the continuing autobiographical account of Ambrose's childhood: "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction" and "Petition." Both deal with the problems proposed by Ambrose's discoveries. The first was presented by Barth at guest readings as a tape to which he both intermittently listened and retired from the stage. In it the self represented in fiction stands disembodied: a voice crippled by the vagaries and distortions of its author, conceived from the Author/father's background out of penless expediency. Neither self-fulfilling nor true, nor artistically endowed with the stuff of greatness, it becomes a soul in a sort of media limbo contributing to its own being, presumably suggesting courses for its own activities, but incapable of drawing to its own conclusion—the beginning of Ambrose's problems as a self-conscious writer.
"Petition," Barth's first attempt at the epistolary form, involves a sort of ingenuous, if primitive, Freudian approach to Ambrose's problems with his brother. Imposing Barth himself as a biographical prototype of Ambrose creates a number of problems, especially with chronology. If Ambrose were roughly Barth's own age (his pubescent voice was breaking about 1943–44), the petition, dated April 21, 1931, would have been written by an Ambrose a little less than a year old. Scholars have pointed out the actual visit to the United States of a dignitary reminiscent of Majesty Prajadhipok in 1931, so an older Ambrose would have to do a little research to give historical credence to his Siamese twin conceit. The narrator is mature enough to have envisioned the physical complications of a back-to-front arrangement with regard to defecating, lovemaking, and so on, and used them to his advantage in the letter writer's depiction of himself as practically without smell, and with little potency other than that of the imagination. Certainly such a comparison between brothers—one crude, licentious, and physically self-gratifying, the other deprived of freedom in his brother's shadow, spiritual, introverted, literary, and self-pitying—is a reflection of Ambrose's scarcely repressed feelings in his sibling situation with Peter, the sexual jealousy played out against the hilarious backdrop of the inescapable subservience of the smaller brother's position in life. The dilemma of authorial involvement has, as we will repeatedly see in Barth, its comic side.
Yet in "Petition" the obvious authorial involvement never becomes an open reflexivity; there are no authorial comments on compositions, and the whole piece is written as if the conceit of the twins were a fact of fictive existence. The story thus becomes doubly satiric in the extent to which an author (Ambrose) can be psychologically involved in his story about a narrator (the letter writer) pretending to neutrality, while at the same time the schizophrenic psychology behind the twin's exercise in scrip-totherapy is readily apparent. The anguished creativity of the petitioner is that of the petitioner's creator, Ambrose. Barth playfully leaves open the question of whether Ambrose's angst similarly mirrors his creator's. The story forms a fitting introduction to the fraternal rivalry of the two autobiographical Ambrose stories that surround it, so that we are led to question where self-conscious fiction leaves off and traditional narrative begins.
In most of the criticism of "Lost in the Funhouse," little is made of the naïve character of the authorial intrusions, especially in the first few pages of the story. First, the narration is laced with the eighteenth-century affectation of dates, names, and places composed partially with dashes ("19―," "B―Street" "D―, Maryland," "Magda G―," etc.) as if some delicately prudent sensibility dictated that reality be humanely obscured by the author, whose real reason was to imply verisimilitude through the device. Also in the first few pages we are struck by admonitions about technique that one might easily find in an elementary creative writing text, coupled with other naïve bits of freshman erudition ("as mentioned in the novel The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos …," or, "The Irish author James Joyce, in his unusual novel entitled Ulysses, now available in this country, uses the adjectives snot-green and scrotum tightening to describe the sea"). All of these things point to an early attempt by an adolescent author. Yet "Lost in the Funhouse," youthful and error-filled as it may appear, becomes the most discussed story in the collection, with ultimately emerging meanings about the structure and plot line of the whole book. The narrative remains shrouded in intriguing ambiguity, even if on the surface it appears totally accessible. A blatant self-consciousness is increasingly apparent, as the very writing of the story promotes more and more sophisticated narrative anguish about composition in addition to the emerging Küntslerroman lessons of the situation to Ambrose. The story is about its own compositional maturation as well as Ambrose's personal epiphanies regarding his place in life and the fiction he will write, and, indeed, is writing. Throughout there are sentences broken off as if thoughts were either abandoned or so obvious in their conclusion that they did not have to be written, and interruptions in which the authorial intrusion becomes part of a quote on which it is commenting:
"I warn you, I've never been through it before," he added, laughing easily; "but I reckon we can manage somehow. The important thing to remember, after all, is that it's meant to be a funhouse; that is a place of amusement. If people really get lost or injured or too badly frightened in it, their owner'd go out of business. There'd even be law suits. No character in a work of fiction can make a speech this long without interruption or acknowledgment from the other characters."
Barth's donnée is that Ambrose sees himself as a character in a fiction even as he is participating in "real" acts that in Ambrose's perception become fictional metaphors. Thus, the reader is given a window on Ambrose's creative cogitations even as he translates external action into fiction. Ambrose's story is represented as an artistic recreation of his experiences while they happen, a snapshot in time already distorted by hindsight and distance. Even though Barth seeds the story with first-draft mistakes and out-of-place guidelines to make the creation seem spontaneous, we can only assume that Ambrose had to have written it at a later point in time. The sequence is tantalizingly close to what Ambrose's creative father, Barth, gives us in the development of his own compositional theories through the Ambrose fiction. In his introduction to the Anchor Books edition of Funhouse, Barth tells us that Ambrose's visit to Ocean City, Maryland, had only a rough counterpart in Barth's youth to a visit to Asbury Park. The rest is an Ambrose-like self-conscious embellishment.
Oddly enough, the concluding paragraph of this complex artifice is apparently intended as a traditional revelation of truth for its protagonist and the faithful reader, a cornerstone of fictive bedrock which will explain style, meaning, structure, and the rest:
He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he's not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.
Most critics take this at face value, but with Barth that's dangerous. Certainly the statement is Ambrose talking about himself, trying at his neophyte stage to give a traditionally satisfying conclusion to the story. The Byronesque romantic desperation of the outcast artist represents the same sort of naïveté Stephen Dedalus conveyed in the conclusion of Portrait, when he vowed to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. But many Barth critics have accepted Ambrose's statement of intent as an adequate psychological metaphor for the author's own motivation, in a book in which his intentions regarding fiction are purportedly made clear. I don't think we should be so easily taken in. While Barth explores the range of possibilities and dilemmas of writing fiction in Lost in the Funhouse, and exemplifies them through the fiction of the stories, the last statement of the title story is yet another funhouse artifice—like the thrice repeated "Love!" at the end of "Night-Sea Journey" or "the absurd, unending possibility of love" at the conclusion of "Menelaiad"—rather than a guiding principle through Barth's works. It is merely an imitiation of the satisfactory conclusion so ardently sought in such openly self-searching compositional fictions as "Autobiography," "Echo," and "Title."
The division of the stories into two complementary or mirror segments was pointed out early by Gerald Gillespie, who saw the first seven stories as forming a "preponderantly contemporary, biographical sequence" and the second seven as being a "preponderantly historical and mythical sequence," with "Echo" providing the same introductory function as "Frame-Tale" ["Barth's 'Lost in the Funhouse': Short Story Text in Its Cyclical Context," Studies in Short Fiction 12 (1975)]. The biographical aspect of the first half of the book has certainly not vanished in the latter half, but the compositional struggle obviously attributed to Ambrose in the early section was later represented by other voices. Like literature in general, Lost in the Funhouse begins its own endless repetitive cycle regarding textual composition, and the search for new ways to say old things augments the dilemma of the writer's inextricable involvement with his own personal history. That these two problems are interchangeable is what "Echo" is all about. The names of Narcissus and Echo mean what they say, as their emblematic roles become apparent in relation to self-reflexive fiction: Narcissus concerned with authorial self-portraits in other guises, and Echo with the retelling of others' old stories with artful embellishment. This Barthean revamping of the traditional dilemmas is certainly clever enough, as is the heavily chiasmic style, with splits in sentences causing mirror images in structure as well as verbiage. Thus, the clipped aphoristic tautologies permeating the prose create a bilateral sense that seconds the mirrored images of the problems the two alteregos of the writer encounter.
The problematic wrinkle in the story is Tiresias. We never exactly know what his problems are, whether he is as attracted to Narcissus-like temptations as everyone else, whether his wisdom can be equated with some indistinguishable higher truth that opaquely forms a desired end of literary endeavor, whether his knowledge and experience are really a hindrance or a benefit, and, indeed, whether his story is distinguishable from either Narcissus's or Echo's. Whether Tiresias is some sort of aging, experienced writer who knows the answers but is unable to make good or at least practical use of them, or whether his presence is meant to provide that indispensable ambiguity or doubt, has not, at least in my mind, been successfully addressed in Barth criticism. The problem itself intrigues. Clearly, while both have been exceptional storytellers, Narcissus falls on hard, self-absorbed times, and Echo's endless life of repetition seems equally unattractive, no matter how clever her embellishments. Might not, then, the entire tale be a sort of metaphoric account of that old artist, Tiresias, the only one who sees, understands, and knows all, including its hopelessness?
The next four "stories" are presented in alternating patterns: "Two Meditations" pretends to complete omniscience, as opposed to the confessional self-reflexivity of "Title," while "Glossolalia" embodies the dark prophecies of six seers predicting disaster, and "Life-Story" returns to the self-confession of compositional difficulties by the authorial protagonist. "Two Meditations" and "Glossolalia" share several common stylistic traits in that both are heavily mannered compositions, and both seek to (re)present ancient themes in new and clever ways, as if they were retold by the ingenious Echo. The two meditations are parallel aphorisms, which, except for the conceits of their variant imagery, are clichés hackneyed almost beyond salvation: "the straw that broke the camel's back" and "the Monday morning quarterback." Yet they appear striking and original, worthy of thought and speculation, because of their virtuosity of contextual style. By linking the two descriptions of Armageddon with bodies of water near Buffalo (Niagara Falls and Lake Erie), the first with violent destruction due to mysterious, almost supernatural forces, the second just as inexorable a deterioration due to quiet, voluntary, but lethal pollution, Barth creates a sort of rudimentary unrhymed sonnet in which the second, shorter, part serves as conservationist counterpoint to the first. Instead of varying the rhyme scheme between octet and sextet, Barth employs an almost regular metric cadence of iambs and anapests to "Niagara Falls" and increased alliteration in "Lake Erie." The perennial truths are further rejuvenated by Barth's metaphors, which are varied enough to be described by one critic as "bizarre correspondences," but which might more charitably be regarded as poetic conceits: falling plaster, falling bookshelves, the crumbling lip of Niagara Falls, snowflakes and avalanches, stars exploding, tea taxes and revolution, and the indignity of spouses in the first section; and Oedipus' parricide and incest, Venice slipping into the sea, South American revolution, and the pollution of Lake Erie in the second. The ancient quality of the causes intersects with the immediacy of the present: the plight of Lake Erie, the crumbling lip of the Falls, and so on. While the story is apparently Echo-authored, Tiresian elements abound, especially in the extended blindness references in Oedipus which conclude the second piece. Both contain the wearied wisdom of despair that characterizes all Tiresias's predictions, made by an existential seer continually hounded for the truth of impending doom and futility.
The verbal counterpart to "Two Meditations," "Glossolalia" again links a series of six first-person, nonauthorial narrative messages to a general cliché, "Shit happens," which could easily be Tiresias's theme song. The Echo-oriented verbal ingeniousness here is that all six lamentations have exactly the same metric pattern as the "Lord's Prayer," and really should be sung to the well-known tune to appreciate the blasphemous irony fully. Far from the familiar message of hope, the speakers or storytellers invite investigations of both the form of the message and the complexity of the deceit, which may be as "dismaying" as the unhappy message it brings. Barth's endnote informs us that "anything examined closely enough" is bound to have the same grim result. It begins to look as if Barth's existential despair is more and more associated with the mysterious truth Tiresias shares with him.
The last speaker, the author himself, spells it all out as he links the two intervening attempts at unselfconscious fiction to the reflexive struggles of the author in "Title" and "Life-Story." Tiresias is really the muse: "Ill fortune, constraint and terror, generate guileful art; despair inspires."
Again, as is the case in Dubliners, each successive story carries some seed of a previous one. The reference in "Two Meditations" to the apparently resigned spouse who harbors murder in her insides leads in "Title" to the double entendre of the writer's inability to satisfy the interwined demands of his own creative muse and his domestic life, or to find the right words to produce an adequate aesthetic response to their relationship. The story is again about writing a story, the first-person narrator writing about a third-person narrator who is doing the same thing. The woman is either a character in the frame or in the frame author's story or both. At any rate, she becomes identified with the author's own alter ego, constantly questioning, as the whole is presented as a dialogue between the author and himself, in an attempt to project his own domestic dilemma and that of his culture and literature on the story he writes. His sense of despair is therefore compounded by its redundancy; his story, his life, and his artistic tradition are all unsatisfying, meaningless, and so on, the end never quite written, the closure nonexistent.
"Life-Story" is another attempt of the writer to present a more traditional form of narrative, while at the same time having as its plot the problems of writing such a narrative. Barth repeatedly informs us of the precise time and date as the narrative progresses. The female is identified as the writer's wife, and the date as his birthday. The problem crystallizes into the classic narcissistic dilemma: If the writer is writing about a writer writing about a writer, and so on, does not the infinite reflexivity work in the opposite direction? Is not the writer, even as he writes, little more than a character in his own life's fiction? The problem of seeing our lives as a piece of fiction is one Ambrose has had to deal with from the outset of his biographical pieces, and if he is now the mature Barthean author of the second half of the book, what makes the present story appear more satisfactory than its counterpart, "Title"? Only the reader's appreciation of more traditional verbiage. Even if it is a parody of clichéd style, we can recognize the humor, and be appeased at the domestic tranquility of the surrender to sexual normalcy. "Life-Story" appears as a bridge among the previous three pieces and the brilliant artifices of the last two stories in the collection.
Both chronology and authorial voice remain as constant during the last half of the book as they did in the first (Ambrose) half. Barth gives us, as he has warned, plenty of indication that the author is himself a fictionalized Barth surrogate (even if they have different birthdays) who has just been writing the penultimate selection of "Glossolalia"; who has alternatively wavered between homilies cloaked in realism and the torments of self-revelation regarding the creation of literary artifacts in "Title"; and who now, although bothered that he still thinks himself a fictional character, has managed to effect some sort of truce that will enable him to be inside the last two stories, yet be outside them too. The reconciliation will provide a combination that will raise the issues the author has so desperately reiterated all along, and yet afford him the opportunity to be honestly a part of their resolution. The plan would allow Ambrose to exist independently of Barth and the two storytellers of the last two stories, and yet permit them all to participate as separate, and, at the same time, multiple consubstantial entities. They will all be Menelaus, the minstrel, Ambrose, Ambrose's creation of the writer of "Life-Story," and Barth, a variation on Narcissus, Echo, and Tiresias.
In "Menelaiad," a derivation of The Odyssey and the even older sources that gave us "The Wife of Bath's Tale," the self-effacing, self-pitying, self-reflexive seeker/cuckold narrator assumes the guise of Menelaus, a Narcissus figure who overwrites mythically inspired narrative as a revelation of his own history; that is, the history of his love and search for answers regarding his chosen, Helen—the Magda of the mature fiction of Ambrose grown to full narrative potential. We learn six lines into the story that the narrator is not the voice of Menelaus, but Menelaus himself, or all that is left of him: the tale surviving the subject and teller both. The Echo figure also assumes the role of Menelaus, bound to tell and retell the same story to any passerby, interested or not, and to recapitulate the frame narrative in six layers of stories that the seeker-after-truth, Menelaus, must recount before the answer to his ultimate question, "Why?," is revealed or perhaps falsely revealed to him. The Tiresias figure, seer/portent-reader, who knows the meaning of past and present as well as future, assumes the role of Proteus, the shape-changer from whom the meaning of how to go about learning the ultimate answer to "Why?" must be wrested.
The frame story about why Helen chose the self-proclaimed inferior, Menelaus, over all the other suitors, and why she so persistently refuses to reconsummate their marriage, involves what happened on their wedding night, replayed on their reuniting after Troy. Before the answer is wrested from Helen, the answers to leading questions in similar quests each have to be gotten in turn. The ultimate path to take in order to learn how to deal with Helen is only through the Tiresian Proteus, whose message is twofold: to the direct question of why she chose Menelaus, "Helen chose you without reason because she loves you without cause; embrace her without question and watch your weather change"; and to the indirect question about how to go about the search and the relating of it, Proteus shifts shapes so often, assumes other roles so convincingly, that Menelaus is never even sure, as he hangs on to Proteus's ever-metamorphosing tail, that he himself has not become Proteus, and Proteus him, that everything simple does not appear in another form. If Menelaus is potentially everything, a constant shape-changer himself having merged somehow with Proteus (even their beards intertwine), then he is also nothing, but, as the conclusion states, a nothing that can be related over and over again: his own story, exactly like the sperm created by the minstrel who becomes Ambrose, who becomes his story, who makes the Funhouse masterpiece we are reading. Here at last the disturbingly vague character of "Echo," Tiresias, becomes the mysterious interlocutor as Menelaus incorporates all three principals of "Echo" in his own character.
Barth/Ambrose/Menelaus's tale is typically an ancient one retold in hilarious updated slang and such mocking bawdy revelation that the whole thing centers on sex. Menelaus, as the title indicates, is the multiple protagonist, his love quest the penance, and his acceptance of everything that Helen tells him the key to a paradisiacal life of submissive solitude in her embrace. Parodying The Odyssey, as mentioned previously, the story also has overtones of "The Wife of Bath's Tale." The errant knight is similarly counselled into submission and fulfillment in the form of the love of a beautiful woman once he suspends belief in his own inclinations and sensibilities. That the Wife's tale is a self-serving wish fulfillment of an over-the-hill domineering matron, whose fifth marriage was, in its own embattled way, a magnificently perverse love story, affords a parallel narcissism to complement Menelaus's own. One wonders if the all-wise, shape-changing, loathly lady will ever be content to be as loyal and servile as the Wife cracks her up to be, just as we wonder at the veracity of the alternative chaste Helen yearning in Egypt to be reunited with her husband, who is supposedly chasing a falsely conjured dream. Even the alternative "cloud-Helen" is not an original creation of Barth, any more than its recitation in H.D.'s Helen in Egypt was an original version of the feminist prototype, a tale probably earlier than the traditional patriarchal Homer's.
The key, concluding word, "love," inexplicable but satisfying if not investigated too exhaustively, reminds us of the recent controversy over the Gabler edition of Ulysses, which purports to add the answer to what many critics, including Richard Ellmann, regard as the key question in Joyce's novel: "What is the word known to all men?" That Hans Gabler answered the question with the word "love" set off an international feud among Joyce scholars, whose faith in the efficacy of the word opened new horizons for them, and the skeptics, who called Gabler's editorial procedures into question. The strength of the word, now accepted as an article of faith or disbelief, rivals its biblical counterpart in proclaiming love (charity) to be the greatest of the three natural attributes: "the absurd, unending possibility of love," with which "Menelaiad" ends, involves an act of faith not only on Menelaus's part, but also on the reader's. The reader, like Menelaus, has followed, clinging to the Protean shifts in narrative voice, up and down the labyrinthine dead ends of mirrorhouse discourse, hoping to be let out into the light of understandable truth at the end, the attempt expressing a love of literature and some hope of satisfying the epiphanic quest. We have joined Menelaus in pursuing an answer, an epiphany that will justify our perpetual search, even when we know, as Barth will tell us in Chimera, that the key is in the pursuit itself. William J. Krier expressed it beautifully: "Love between a storylistener and Menelaus, metaphorically comparable to the love which exists between 'Menelaus' and Helen, will make Menelaus real" ["Lost in the Funhouse: 'A Continuing, Strange Love Letter,'" boundary 2 V (1976)].
Barth takes care to indicate that Menelaus's story is probably not the real one—the one we are supposed to believe—when the narrator's methods and facts are continually challenged by his fictive listener, Peisistratus, our critical surrogate in the frame tale of "Menelaiad." He, like us, listens while his master, Telemachus, it is hinted, is off swiving Helen, even as her tale of fidelity/infidelity is being unfolded by her cuckolded/credulous husband. Peisistratus speaks for the reader when he admonishes Menelaus regarding the tale-teller's "mannered rhetoric and … shift in narrative viewpoint." The rewards are real. Like Leopold Bloom, Menelaus invites identification. Both Mensches (what's in a name?), Bloom and Menelaus have projected long lists of their wives' would-be lovers; both are steeped in self-doubt, but go through a debased, comic everyman quest for self-identity in terms of their wives' constancy. Their low comic normality invites a pity and fear that Aristotle would not have predicted from an audience supposed to identify with their betters, the very comic ignobility of both protagonists inviting an identification that traditional nobility could not. Finally, in Barth's story, our search for the truth parallels Menelaus's and brings us closer to the protagonist as companion sojourners, as we, Proteus-like, change forms and identity with Menelaus. Proteus represents the epitome of that which you can't catch hold of and keep, the slippery ambiguity which makes great fiction both a challenge and a pleasure. Like us, as Krier says, "Menelaus discovered the necessity of love for his [our] survival"
In the last story, "Anonymiad," Barth returns by a commodious Vicos of recirculation to the beginning, or rather middle, of his book. The minstrel/anonymous claims, "I begin in the middle—where too I'll end, there being alas to my arrested history as yet no denouement." The story, like Joyce's "The Dead," is a recapitulation of the entire collection. Mirroring the book of which it is a part, "Anonymiad" begins in medias res, but, as with all Möbius strips, beginning, middle, and end are the same. While Joyce's stories begin and end with the dead, Funhouse begins and ends with creation. The minstrel "humps," then fills amphorae with the text of "Anonymiad," the surrogate for all the Funhouse stories, and sends them on their way to his lost Merope to become the fictive sperm of "Night-Sea Journey." The literal sperm of the minstrel (his life experiences) line both the jug and the text that records the events, written on the skin of the nannygoat, Helen, a muse surrogate for Helen of Troy, from whom the literary history of Western civilization springs. The minstrel invokes her inspiration, just as Menelaus founded all of his tales of truth-seeking on his worship of her enigmatic favor. In a deed reminiscent of Yeat's painter whose brush consumes his dreams, Helen, the nannygoat-muse, is murdered after a long period of fruitless attempts by the minstrel to catch her prompts his near indifference to his task. The muse is finally sacrificed to provide the means of composition. In the last stages only the drive to write remains, and the story, presumably the "Anonymiad" itself, becomes as much a tale of what the story and concomitantly its parallel text, Lost in the Funhouse, will be as it is the Küntslerroman of the aspiring writer, Ambrose/minstrel. It is the tale of composing a tale; at the same time it preserves a traditional integrity as a love story. Either the story, as the artifice of the writer, will sail away, or the minstrel, who has taught himself to swim, will become the sperm paddling his way upstream on the way to Merope's egg. In the Funhouse context, writer and story have become interchangeable.
The amphora bearing the minstrel's last text is called Calliope, the name not only of the muse who presides over Greek poetry, but also of the Funhouse in the title story. The book folds back in on itself like the strip constantly recreating echoes of previous Funhouse stories, just as they in turn are founded on echoes of stories told from time immemorial. Parallels to such events as Ambrose's discovery of the "Water-Message" in the minstrel's discovery of a previously launched amphora that washed up on the beach provide empirical examples of the recapitulatory motif, while the continuing self-reflexivity of the minstrel's compositional difficulties, his subject matter and the problem of novel recreation, as well as the relationship of words and ideas among author, text, and reader, are all restatements of the philosophical and compositional problems inherent and explicit in the earlier stories.
"Anonymiad" is the ultimate creation of Ambrose and all his surrogate storytellers throughout the book. It is a remarkably ingenious narrative depicting the difficulty of writing such a narrative, one containing recognizable "real world" events and motivations, coupled with a philosophy of despair tempered by hope and love and related in the all-important words that create, modify, obfuscate, and deny even as they affirm the hope that produces them. Ambrose and his creator have matured through a long self-referential cycle, which is about to renew itself once more in the funhouses that follow.