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."