Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673

In “Lost in the Funhouse,” the author, John Barth, writes a story about someone, a narrator, who is himself writing a story about Ambrose, a boy of thirteen. In writing the story about Ambrose, the narrator also comments on the techniques of fiction and the problems and concerns that confront a writer of fiction who is trying to write a story. To complicate the matter further, the narrator may or may not be Ambrose. If the narrator is Ambrose, then Ambrose is writing a story about Ambrose writing a story about Ambrose.

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“Lost in the Funhouse” is from a 1967 collection of related stories (also titled Lost in the Funhouse) that constitute a short-story cycle. As frontispiece to the collection, Barth provides the printed makings of a M_bius strip and directions for readers for cutting and assembling it. Should readers follow the directions to fashion the Mobius strip, the strip itself would read in an eternal cycle: “Once upon a time there was a story that began” once upon a time there was a story that began, and so on. This continuing cycle or pattern of infinite regression is similar to a series of mirrors reflecting one another or to the kinds of reflecting mirrors one finds in funhouses. The funhouse is where the narrator/Ambrose is, and, in reading the story, readers, too, are lost in the funhouse that Barth creates.

Though all of this sounds very complicated, and may be on a first reading, Barth provides for the uninitiated a more or less traditional narrative about Ambrose that has all the conventional elements of fiction, including setting, characters, conflict, foreshadowing, suspense, symbols, and plot. Clearly, the protagonist in his story, Ambrose, is a precocious thirteen-year-old, who, along with his family, is making an annual trip to Ocean City to celebrate Independence Day.

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His family consists of his mother and father, his Uncle Karl, and Peter, his fifteen-year-old brother. Accompanying the family is Magda, a fourteen-year-old-girl, who is the object of most of Ambrose’s attention and the source of most of his conflict. The family is making the trip in an automobile with the front seat being occupied by the father, who is driving, the mother, who sits in the middle, and Uncle Karl, who is next to the window on the right. In the backseat, the arrangement is duplicated (or mirrored) with Magda between Peter and Ambrose.

Though the children are really too old for it, the mother insists that they play the game of sighting the Towers that they have always played to while away the time, as they make their way to the ocean shore. This time Magda wins and is rewarded with a banana, a piece of fruit difficult to obtain in wartime America. The second half of the trip is consumed by the game of cowpoker played between Peter and Magda on one side and, on the other, mother and Uncle Karl.

When they reach the amusement area on the Boardwalk, Mother jokingly distributes money to the “children” so they may partake of the various foods and games. Some time is spent at the pool because the ocean surf is spoiled by oil, said to have spilled from tankers recently torpedoed offshore. During all these activities, Ambrose is introspective and jealous of his brother Peter, who is able to behave naturally with Magda, while Ambrose is virtually dumbstruck by his love for Magda and his inability to behave as be believes a “normal” boy would. Ambrose is unable to get out of his mind an event that took place the year before, when he and Magda were alone in the woodshed, and he is unable to tell Magda how he feels about her.

When Ambrose, Peter, and Magda enter the funhouse, Peter and Magda laughingly go off together, leaving Ambrose behind to find his own way through, and he experiences the panic of feeling lost and alone in a mirror-maze of thrills and terrors, false starts and betrayals, digressions and hesitations, and erotic fantasies and expectations.

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