Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 222

Throughout the story, Ambrose tries to comfort himself by thinking of a future time when he will have conquered his adolescent fears and solved his sexual conflicts through marriage and a “normal” family life. At the same time, however, he fears that he really is different from other people. In his precociousness he knows that he thinks more easily than he acts; that he articulates his perceptions within his own mind more lucidly than he converses with others; that he is intellectual, analytical, and introverted; that he is more of an observer than an actor; and that it is quite possible that he will not marry and live what he perceives to be a normal life.

The question that Ambrose must answer is clear to him. It is expressed in the first sentence of the story: “For whom is the funhouse fun?” The answer he gives is also clear: “Perhaps for lovers.” For Ambrose, though, the funhouse is a place of “fear and confusion,” as he tries to make his way through it. He knows that he could make funhouses, could create them for other people to enjoy, and he thinks that his future is already manifest: “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.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742

Just as the funhouse poses mirrors in front of mirrors, tempting the viewer to mistake image for substance, ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ seduces readers into believing the familiar literary truism that sex is a metaphor for language. What Ambrose learns in his journey through the three dimensional funhouse in Ocean City and the narrative funhouse of the story is that the opposite is true: language is just a metaphor for sex. Sex, in fact, is the ‘‘whole point . . . Of the entire funhouse!’’ Everywhere Ambrose hears the sound of sex, ‘‘The shluppish whisper, continuous as seawash round the globe, tidelike falls and rises with the circuit of dawn and dusk.’’ He imagines if he had ‘‘X-ray eyes’’ he would see that ‘‘all that normally showed, like restaurants and dance halls and clothing and test-your strength machines was merely preparation and intermission.’’

Ambrose’s fascination with and fear of sex derives not just from his age, but also from his special temperament. He knows that the funhouse is fun for lovers and that he’s not one of the lovers. Recalling the time when Magda initiated him into the world of sex during a childhood game, he remembers most poignantly not the passion or the physical pleasure, but the cognitive dimensions of the experience. Unable to ‘‘forget the least detail of his life,’’ Ambrose remembers ‘‘standing beside himself with awed impersonality,’’ cataloging the details of the scene in the woodshed, like the design of the label of a cigar box. Later he describes his ‘‘odd detachment’’ at that moment: ‘‘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.’’

One of the key elements in any funhouse is the hall of mirrors where visitors see images of images of themselves in strange and unfamiliar shapes. Of course, this awareness of self, or consciousness, is one of the distinguishing and most problematic features of humanness. Ambrose and his narrator alter ego are both marked by their exceptionally keen awareness of self. This is why they are drawn to the hidden levers of funhouses and are resigned to take pleasure in manipulating them rather than enjoying them.

Unlike lovers like Peter and Magda, Ambrose and the narrator are not capable of losing themselves in the play of reflection: ‘‘In the funhouse mirror-room you can’t see yourself go on forever, because not matter how you stand, your head gets in the way.’’ The problem with consciousness, the story suggests, is not just the paralysis and alienation it engenders, but that one never knows which self is the real one and even if there is a real one. As Ambrose says, ‘‘You think you’re yourself, but there are other persons in you.’’ After finally making his way back to the main part of the funhouse, Ambrose finds himself in the mirror-room, where ironically, surrounded by his own distorted reflections he sees ‘‘more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person.’’

Barth said in an interview in 1994 that ‘‘Fiction has always been about fiction.’’ Objecting to the critical term metafiction because he believes it has negative connotations, Barth explained: ‘‘Fiction about fiction, stories about storytelling, have an ancient history, so much so that I am convinced that if the first story ever told began with the words ‘Once upon a time,’ probably the second story ever told began with the words ‘Once upon a time there was a story that began Once upon a time.’’’

‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ is one of those stories about stories. The narrator tries to tell the story of Ambrose’s coming of age, but constantly interrupts the narrative to comment on its effectiveness and to call attention to the various literary devices he has in his tool box. Barth’s point, however, is not to diminish the art of storytelling or to suggest that, in the words of critic Eric Walkiewicz, ‘‘the possibilities of fiction have been exhausted and that he [Barth] has been reduced to making the most of what some . . . [critics] find to be an annoying selfindulgent brand of self-consciousness.’’ Rather, the deliberate exposure of the usually hidden works of fiction is a form of play. The story is a funhouse for readers, and the narrator is the same kind of ‘‘secret operator’’ that Ambrose aspires to become in the story’s last paragraph.

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