An important work of literature in the postmodern canon is John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse.
I was first led to it by the last story in DFW’s collection Girl With Curious Hair. DFW does a sort of parody/homage to it. Anyone that has taken a 20th-century American lit course has probably had to read something by Barth, and it was most likely the title story in this collection.
Barth is known for his excessive meta-fictional devices and influence on writers, mentioned previously, like Pynchon, Wallace, and probably any serious postmodernist. Despite the term “excessive meta-fictional devices,” I find him quite easy and fun to read.
The devices serve a purpose and are usually humorous. Unlike some postmodernists that came after him, Barth is very much concerned with art expressing a human experience (mostly love). Although DFW ultimately rejected Barth, he very much agrees on this point…but we’ll get to that later.
I’ll mostly do this as an analysis of the title story.
Lost in the Funhouse is a short story “about” Ambrose’s trip to Ocean City where he enters a funhouse, and yes, gets lost. He enters with a girl Magda, but she continues on with his brother while he is left alone.
But really, it is not about this at all.
The funhouse serves as a metaphor for Ambrose’s first sexual experience.
In my reading, I actually don’t believe the trip happens at all, and the entire trip is a metaphor.
Funhouse as Metaphor
In typical Barth fashion, the funhouse is a multi-layered metaphor. A funhouse has mirrors all around. This means Ambrose must see himself reflected in all shapes and sizes. This represents his fractured subconscious about the experience.
His own head is also in the way of ever directly seeing the image in the mirror behind him.
This aspect of the metaphor is actually extensively rejected by David Foster Wallace.
Wallace interprets that aspect as Barth’s way of saying: literature can never directly make it to the reader. It always will hit the reader’s head first and be obscured and never directly viewed. In his words:
…that the necessity for an observer makes perfect observation impossible, …
Wallace changes the metaphor and says it is like a bow and arrow. Your arm will always be in the way of shooting directly, but the writer can take this into account and directly hit the reader.
This is all boring, though.
Let’s get to the truly interesting aspects of the story.
Barth, as a narrator, sometimes narrates, sometimes talks directly to the reader, and sometimes comments on the narration. It is these comments that are the humorous meta-fictional devices. The story becomes self-aware. It understands and points out the devices it is using.
Here is one of my favorite devices:
En route to Ocean City he sat in the back seat of the family car with his brother Peter, age fifteen, and Magda G____, age fourteen, a pretty girl and exquisite young lady, who lived not far from them on B_____ Street in the town of D____, Maryland. Initials, blanks, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth-century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality. It is as if the author felt it necessary to delete the names for reasons of tact or legal liability. Interestingly, as with other aspects of realism it is an illusion that is being enhanced, by purely artificial means.
The story is continually interrupted to go off on tangents like this. He wants to point out, explain, and make fun of the traditional devices he is using. In doing this he is actually creating new and original devices.
He doesn’t want the reader to become absorbed in the story and think that it is real. He wants the reader to be painfully aware that they are reading a story.
Another aspect of the verbal trickery of the story is to somehow assert the primacy of language to experience. All experience must be filtered through language.
Thus, instead of ever explicitly describing Ambrose’s experience, we only live on the verbal thoughts flowing through his head throughout the experience.
In fact, in searching for a certain quote just now, I came across another that reinforces my reading that the entire story is a metaphor.
With incredible nerve and to everyone’s surprise he invited Magda, quietly and politely, to go through the funhouse with him. ‘I warn you, I’ve never been through it before,’ he added, laughing easily, ‘but I reckon we can manage somehow. The important thing to remember, after all, is that it’s meant to be a funhouse; that is, a place of amusement. If people really got lost or injured or too badly frightened in it, the owner’d go out of business.
Or even the famous opening lines, “For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.”
Don’t read that as “funhouse.” Ambrose is really talking about the fact that it is his first sexual experience. He is trying to convince Magda that it can’t be too scary painful since people continue to have sex.
The funhouse is for lovers? It is scary and confusing for Ambrose? Come on, of course, this is what it is talking about.
All right. Let’s get back from that tangent to Ambrose’s head. He starts telling all of these scenarios of how his being lost gets played out. In one he actually dies.
This can’t go on much longer; it can go on forever. He died telling stories to himself in the dark; years later, when that vast unsuspected area of the funhouse came to light, the first expedition found his skeleton in one of its labyrinthine corridors and mistook it for part of the entertainment. He died of starvation telling himself stories in the dark;…
This all emphasizes the main effect Barth is striving for. All human experience is mediated by language. Language is so primary and important that a mind preoccupied with other stories could completely miss the experience itself.
It seems I’ve gone on longer than I should have, but I feel like I haven’t done the story the slightest bit of justice. It is great and packed full of interesting things. And this is just one of many stories in the book. I highly recommend this to anyone who aspires to understand modern literature.