Lost in the Funhouse is a short story collection by American author John Barth. The postmodern stories are extremely self-conscious and self-reflexive and are considered to exemplify metafiction. The book appeared the year after the publication of Barth's essay The Literature of Exhaustion , in which Barth said that the traditional modes of realistic fiction had been used up, but that this exhaustion itself could be used to inspire a new generation of writers, citing Nabokov , Beckett , and especially Borges as exemplars of this new approach. Lost in the Funhouse took these ideas to an extreme, for which it was both praised and condemned by critics. Each story can be considered complete in itself, and in fact several of them were published separately before being collected.
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John Barth The title story is the centerpiece of the book. Most agree, however, that he succeeds in his declared intent to present old material in new ways. After graduating from public high school in , he enrolled in the prestigious Julliard School of music with dreams of becoming an arranger, or orchestrator.
He soon shifted his interest, however, and enrolled in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and began his lifelong involvement with literature and writing. By the time he had received his B. Barth continued at Johns Hopkins and received his M. After the birth of his second child, he was forced for financial reasons to discontinue his doctoral work and accept a teaching position at Pennsylvania State University.
After his first novel, The Floating Opera, was nominated for the National Book Award, he was promoted to the rank of assistant professor. Three novels later, in , he was promoted to associate professor. He moved to Buffalo to become professor of English at the State University of New York in , was divorced in , and remarried in Finally, in , Barth returned to his Maryland roots and became a professor of English and creative writing at Johns Hopkins.
In he retired with the rank of Professor Emeritus, but has remained an active and productive writer. His latest novel, The Tidewater Tales, was published in The first is his early and sustained interest in music. Although he discontinued his formal study at Julliard, Barth has remained fascinated with playing the role of the arranger in his fiction. The second aspect of his life reflected in his work is the landscape and history of his native Maryland where he has lived for nearly all of his life and where much of his fiction is set.
With Ambrose are his older brother Peter, their mother and father, their Uncle Karl, and a fourteen-year-old neighbor girl, Magda, to whom both Ambrose and Peter are attracted. Having learned that the beach is covered in oil and tar from the fleet off-shore, the group decides to go through the funhouse instead. More profoundly, however, he also realizes that he is constitutionally different from his bother and Magda: he is not the type of person for whom funhouses are fun.
Confused and separated from the others, Ambrose takes a wrong turn and loses his way. During the process of finding his way out of the dark corridors and back hallways, he comes to some realizations about himself and about funhouses. Specifically, he understands that his crippling self-consciousness also comes with a gift, an extraordinary imagination.
Ambrose is not only just becoming aware of his sexuality, he is experiencing the first inklings of his artistic temperament. Not technically a character, Fat May the Laughing Lady is a mechanical sign at the entrance to the funhouse whose laughter and bawdy gestures Ambrose feels are directed toward him. On an earlier occasion, she is the girl who provides Ambrose with his first and unsatisfying sexual experience as part of a game.
In fact, she likes to tease her sons because of their attention to Magda. 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. Of the entire funhouse! 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.
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.
On several occasions the self-conscious narrator comments on the metaphoric and symbolic elements in the story. The dominant use of metaphor in the story, however, is the funhouse itself, an exceptionally rich and fertile device for Barth. Yet everyone begins in the same place; how is it that most go along without difficulty but a few lose their way?
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 s. 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.
Instead, a writer such as Barth self-consciously plays with the disconnectedness that he inherits. And so far as wanting our reader to forget that they are reading a novel, we are more inclined. As the Vietnam War escalated and domestic resistance to it stiffened, colleges and universities were often the site of angry student protest. 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.
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.
The stories in the volume Lost in the Funhouse received mixed reviews when they appeared in 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. In general the critics of this period focused on careful explication of the texts.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton teaches American literature and writing classes at the University of Texas. She writes frequently about the modern short story.
In this essay she suggests that readers can enjoy the funhouse even if they are privy to its hidden works. Will it always be a place of fear and confusion for Ambrose, or will he learn to appreciate the pleasure of its apparent pointlessness?
Are lovers the only ones who find it fun? I argue that the. The right armpit of her dress, presumably the left as well, was damp with perspiration.
If anything, Barth is suggesting that for the right kind of reader the pleasures of the funhouse can be enhanced by having special knowledge of its inner works. Both Peter and Magda had been through it before, the narrator says, but perhaps they are seeking just to repeat the experience, not to have a new one.
Just like the Moebius strip, the story invites, even compels, re-reading. At one point, the narrator even gives readers a hint. On the other hand he may be scarcely past the start, with everything yet to get through, an intolerable idea. All three of the possible interpretations of the passage will lead somewhere, and, Barth seems to suggest, visitors will be rewarded for exploring all the possibilities. The story ends by answering the question posed by its beginning.
For readers the story has become a funhouse with almost infinite possibilites. I mean, rather, the neglect, in recent years, of commentators. Though perforce hastily conceived, these reviews were not entirely wrong, for there are a number of pieces in the book that strike us today, as they did then, as mere baubles, toys for and of an exhausted imagination.
Indeed, this is the line of attack most reviewers took toward the work: you have circled back so fully on your own self-awareness, Mr. Barth, where can you go from here? But what the reviewers failed to see is that this question is largely answered by the book itself.
Thus, these stories anticipate the brilliant novellas of Chimera, which in turn anticipate God-knows-what. It seems that Barth, if he wanted to, could go on in this vein forever. The story is extraordinary as well because it is what it says it is, a funhouse. For something which in outline is so serious, even sentimental, the tale is riddled with howlers, puns, silliness, and simple, small jokes, in all of which we too become lost, and like Fat May, the mechanical laugher on the boardwalk, are left wheezing and clutching our sides.
The joke is a throwaway, really, but one that involves both craftiness and craft. Of course, by making such an admission, Barth obviously destroys any illusion of factuality in his own piece of fiction. Yet the joke is just beginning. For imbedded in the matrix of the narrative are all the clues we need to come up with the exact date more accurately, the exact day in one of two possible years on which the events of the story take place.
July fourth it is, but what of the decade? But we know further, from numerous small references, that it is wartime. On the other hand, because of the fear of German U-boats, it cannot be as late as ; the war in Europe was over before July of that year.
The story must take place on July 4th, , 43, or Yet even one of these years can be eliminated. This coin, with its zinc and steel coating, was called a gray or white penny.
However, this penny was minted only in So, granting even that white pennies were in wide circulation in Maryland by July of that year, the events of the story could have happened only on July 4th of or more likely But what is the point of all this? And that, of course, is part of the joke; that Barth would go to such trouble to conceal from us, yet provide all the clues to the discovery of, an essentially meaningless fact.
After all our careful groping down this one dark passage in the funhouse of this fiction, we come upon just one more dead end, and must turn around and stumble back and start over again. Barth molds together in this tale so many aspects of the technique of fiction, and yet does it so brilliantly and with such seeming ease, that all questions of aesthetic success are definitely not aside.
Barth can crack jokes, offer asides, rewrite, question the validity of his characters, question the worth of his story, question the worth of himself as a storyteller, while at the same time he can keep what narrative there is going, and keep the reader interested in it and in the jokes, asides, etc. All the while, he attempts to come to terms with his budding, befuddling sexual cravings and his increasing sense of alienation from those around him and from the world in general.
It is, in short, one version of the classic modern tale of the outsider, the sensitive, grown-up child with powerful gifts of observation and rumination who must inevitably settle for the oyster of art since the pearl of love apparently will forever elude him.
But this is hardly a concern. More important, many contemporary writers know it as well.
Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, 1968
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Lost in the Funhouse
The main protagonist is 13 year old Ambrose who gets lost in the funhouse — any discerning reader would not have to work hard to see how a story of a pubescent teenage boy in the company of an uninterested teenage girl could find himself, both literally and metaphorically, lost in the funhouse. However, considered alongside the theories I have discussed on this website, another layer of interpretative reading materialises that, I believe, secures Barths postmodern presence within a much wider contextual standing. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. In a metaphorical mirror-room, the reader is presented with the same old familiar vision, an arbitrary intermediary that the author and reader fruitlessly partake in. His first-person narrative voice disregards the already-established third person omniscient narrator and thus, unnerves the readers preconceived notions of how a story should told within a text. Very early on in the story, the narration is interrupted, the author shattering what appears to be realism in order to convey to the reader the process of writing and the literary and linguistic conventions that are associated with such a text.
A Mind for Madness
John Barth is no doubt best known as a novelist, but his one collection of short stories, Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice , is so startling in its virtuosity that Barth's place in the history of short fiction is also assured. In "Lost in the Funhouse" Ambrose travels to an amusement park on the Maryland shore with his parents, brother Peter, and Peter's girlfriend Magda. As the title suggests, Ambrose gets lost in the fun house. More important, by the end he realizes the direction he will henceforth take in reference to art—he will be a writer—and life, specifically in terms of sex and love.