Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

The stories in the volume Lost in the Funhouse received mixed reviews when they appeared in 1968. This is not to suggest that individual reviewers were ambivalent or undecided about their assessment of the book. Early reviewers either loved it or hated it. Since then the book and its title story have taken their places in American literary history and are widely regarded as among the best of the genre. ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ is frequently anthologized and still offers fresh challenges to readers and critics thirty years after its initial publication.

Writing in the New York Times Book Review in October 1968, Guy Davenport called Barth’s book ‘‘thoroughly confusing,’’ and not ‘‘quite like anything for which we have a name handy.’’ By the end of the review, however, he recognizes what Barth is up to in writing about writing and says that he ‘‘has served his readers as handsomely as the best of storytellers.’’ R. V. Cassill, another early reviewer calls the book ‘‘pure folly’’ and ‘‘blitheringly sophomoric,’’ except for the final story, ‘‘Anonymiad,’’ which he calls ‘‘dazzling.’’ On the other side of the critical divide, Walter Harding says the book’s title story and a few others ‘‘are outstanding . . . [and] have all the verve and hilarity’’ of Barth’s novels.

Several book-length studies of Barth’s work appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, which raised his critical profile and gave readers some needed explanation. Two of these works, David Morell’s John Barth: An Introduction and Charles Harris’s Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth, remain essential reading today for any student of Barth’s work. In general the critics of this period focused on careful explication of the texts. They helped connect Barth’s scholarly and theoretical writings with his experiments in fiction. Morell, Harris and others from this period also identified other works in literature that were similar to the stories in Lost in the Funhouse, such as James Joyce’s classic modernist novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

As postmodernism gains more currency in both critical and popular circles, Barth’s famous story about the funhouse of language remains at the center of serious literary debate. ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ has given another generation of readers and scholars the opportunity to work out their theories of language and storytelling.

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