Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

Problems facing the narrator as storyteller are complex and everywhere expressed. The narrator questions whether thirteen-year-old Ambrose is capable of thinking the thoughts being attributed to him. The narrator discusses plot structure and wonders how in the world the story he is telling can be graphed along Freitag’s Triangle, representing exposition, complication, rising action, climax, and denouement or resolution. The narrator talks about literary symbols and mentions that, for example, diving into a pool would make a suitable symbol. He questions the relevance of the war to the story and inquires of himself whether there should be fireworks. He discusses the use of italics, inverted tags, and first-order and second-order metaphors. He worries over whether he is providing sufficient sensory detail to render the texture of the experience.

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At the same time that the narrator discusses these elements of fiction, he puts them to work. For example, in the paragraph in which he discusses the use of italics, he italicizes five passages. When he analyzes the appropriate use of point of view, he points out that the closer authors are to a character, the more they need to distance themselves from that character. Consequently, if the narrator is Ambrose, he would appropriately use the third-person point of view that he does.

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Though a description of the contents of “Lost in the Funhouse” suggests a tone of high seriousness, such is not the case at all. The story is based in a series of comic juxtapositions appropriate to the controlling metaphor of the funhouse. In a funhouse, one can get lost in secret mazes and experience fear and panic. Still, the overriding reason one enters a funhouse is to have fun; and a reader knows, if Ambrose does not, that whether the boy grows up to create funhouses or to go through them, he will certainly survive the awkwardness of adolescence.

Historical Context

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Literature of Exhaustion
In 1967, Barth published a now famous essay describing what he believed to be the state of literature at the time and sketching out some theories that he finished developing in a 1980 essay called ‘‘The Literature of Replenishment.’’ Because the essay was written at approximately the same time Barth was working on the volume that included ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse,’’ readers can assume a close relationship with the major theoretical points of the essay and the experimental form of the story.

The essay’s main argument, according to critic Charles Harris, is that contemporary writers, facing what Barth called the ‘‘used-upness of certain [narrative] forms and or possibilities,’’ must (in Harris’s words) ‘‘successfully combine moral seriousness and technical virtuosity.’’ What Harris calls ‘‘passionate virtuosity,’’ Barth had defined as the duty of the modern writer to use all his or her technical abilities, all the techniques, but still ‘‘manage nonetheless to speak eloquently and memorably to our still human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done.’’

Social Change
The year that ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ was published, 1967, was an especially tumultuous period in American social history, and Barth, as a writer and an intellectual with a faculty position, was right in the thick of it. As the Vietnam War escalated and domestic resistance to it stiffened, colleges and universities were often the site of angry student protest. These protests were primarily aimed at the nation’s leaders, but students also had other revolutionary causes to fight for.

Many students were involved in, or were at least sympathetic to, the civil rights movement, which was galvanized after the assassination of its leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. The profound injustices and inequalities that the movement exposed inspired many young students to question their relatively privileged positions in the social order and to demand more relevance and accountability out of the educational institutions where they were enrolled.

These revolutionary impulses were certainly political, but they were also cultural and artistic. Young artists and writers sought new ways of expressing their ideas, ways that would reflect the fragmented and fraught world they lived in. Modernism’s quest for order seemed to miss the point, as Barth argued in ‘‘The Literature of Exhaustion,’’ and much of the literature and art of the period reflects the writers’ and artists’ giddy sense that they could make-up new rules for themselves. As both a university professor and a writer of new kinds of fiction like ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse,’’ Barth could participate in the new kinds of creativity around him; but as a trained scholar, he also took on the more arduous task of analyzing the moment and laying down the beginnings of its theoretical foundation.

Literary Style

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Metaphor
Barth’s use of metaphor in ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ is anything but subtle. On several occasions the self-conscious narrator comments on the metaphoric and symbolic elements in the story. In the opening lines, for example, the narrator announces that Ambrose ‘‘has come to the seashore with his family for the holiday, the occasion of their visit is Independence Day, the most important secular holiday of the United States of America.’’ This is an invitation to consider Ambrose’s adolescent struggles as a move toward independence, from his family, from his paralyzing self-consciousness.

The dominant use of metaphor in the story, however, is the funhouse itself, an exceptionally rich and fertile device for Barth. According to critic Gerhard Joseph, ‘‘The funhouse becomes the excruciatingly self-conscious symbol for the many distorted perspectives from which he [Ambrose] views his troubled psyche, a barely disguised reflection of the authorial narrator’s own disintegrating self.’’ Just as Ambrose envies Peter and Magda’s unconscious ability to ‘‘find the right exit’’ the narrator laments his inability to lead us through the maze: ‘‘We should be much farther along than we are: something has gone wrong; not much of this preliminary rambling seems relevant. Yet everyone begins in the same place; how is it that most go along without difficulty but a few lose their way?’’ The narrator, like Ambrose, is lost in the funhouse. His sentences betray him and his plot ‘‘winds upon itself, digresses, retreats, hesitates, sighs, collapses, expires.’’ The power of the funhouse as symbol for narrative is that it celebrates the playfulness and inventiveness of language while also acknowledging that everything is (just) representation, that storytelling is not a clear lens through which readers view reality, but one of many mirrors in which we see the play of a multitude of images.

Postmodernism
The term postmodernism on its most basic level defines the literary period that follows modernism. But this definition is also the least helpful. The term, which literary and cultural studies borrowed from the field of architecture, has come to dominate scholarly discussions about contemporary literature and culture since the 1980s. Some of the ambiguity of the term comes from a dispute about whether it signifies the end of modernism or modernism in a new phase. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms says that postmodernism ‘‘may be seen as a continuation of modernism’s alienated mood and disorienting techniques and at the same as an abandonment of its determined quest for artistic coherence in a fragmented world.’’ In other words, the postmodern writer no longer expects a coherent pattern of images and meanings in the world, nor does he or she strive to give shape and meaning to the confusion. Instead, a writer such as Barth selfconsciously plays with the disconnectedness that he inherits.

In addition to contributing many novels and short stories to the genre of postmodern fiction, Barth is also one of the movement’s most articulate spokespersons. Even at the time he was writing ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse,’’ he had already begun to clarify his thoughts about the state of literature and published them in 1967 in a now famous essay called ‘‘The Literature of Exhaustion.’’ As he told an interviewer in 1994, he and some other writers of his generation ‘‘share a feeling that the great project of modernism, the art and literature of the first half of the century, while an honorable project, has essentially done its job.’’ He is interested, he goes on to explain, in ‘‘shaking up bourgeois notions of linearity and consecutivity and ordinary, realistic description of character, ordinary psychological cause and effect.’’ In a remarkably clear explanation of the practice of postmodern literature, Barth explains in the same interview that he and writers like him ‘‘begin with the assumption that art is an artifice, that it has an element of artifice in it. And so far as wanting our reader to forget that they are reading a novel, we are more inclined . . . to remind them from time to time that this is a story, not that this is only a story, but whatever else it is, it is a story. You’re enthralled, you’re spellbound, if we are doing our work right, by a storyteller, and do not confuse this with reality. Art ain’t life.’’

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 124

Bowen, Zack R. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Fogel, Stan, and Gordon Slethaug. Understanding John Barth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Morrell, David. John Barth: An Introduction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Schulz, Max F. The Muses of John Barth: Tradition and Metafiction from “Lost in the Funhouse” to “The Tidewater Tales.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Scott, Steven D. The Gamefulness of American Postmodernism: John Barth and Louise Erdrich. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

Waldmeir, Joseph J., ed. Critical Essays on John Barth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Walkiewicz, E. P. John Barth. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Ziegler, Heide. John Barth. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 160

Sources
Cassill, R. V. Review of Lost in the Funhouse. Book World, Sept. 15, 1968, p. 16.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press, 1990

Davenport, Guy. Review Lost in the Funhouse. New York Times Book Review, Oct. 20, 1968, p. 4.

Harding, Walter. Review of Lost in the Funhouse. Library Journal, Sept. 15, 1968.

Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth, University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Joseph, Gerhard. ‘‘John Barth.’’ In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.

Morrell, David. John Barth: An Introduction, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1972.

Plumley, William. An interview with John Barth. In Chicago Review, Fall, 1994, Vol. 40, p. 6.

Walkiewicz, Eric. John Barth, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Further Reading
Bowen, Zack. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth, Greenwood Press, 1994. This excellent and up-to-date introduction to Barth’s work provides background, context, biographical and critical information.

Fogel, Stanley. Understanding John Barth, University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Another updated introductory critical text that contains an excellent bibliography and index.

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