The Second Section of Purity as Franzen’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”

That title is quite the mouthful. Here’s what it means. A year and a half ago I wrote a post explaining how David Foster Wallace’s short story/novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” was a parody of Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” in order to describe his philosophy of literature. What I want to write here is an interpretation of Franzen’s second section of his latest book, Purity, arguing that this describes Franzen’s philosophy of literature.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, you probably know I subscribe to the idea of valid interpretations of literature. If we consider any well-supported interpretation as valid, then all interpretations are valid making all interpretation meaningless. So I want to give some background context before I start in order to make my case stronger. I really believe this was Franzen’s intent with the section.

Franzen has been describing his philosophy for quite some time in essays and interviews (see this article for more background on this). I’ve either become more aware of it or he has become more vocal or a shift has occurred. In any case, his views seem mostly in line with what DFW described in “Westward” which had to do with love, the relationship between writer and reader, and how to build that relationship. As far as I can tell, he’s never actually included this philosophy in his fiction like DFW did with “Westward.” This makes it plausible that the time has come for such an undertaking.

One of the key points is the similarity in material from Barth and DFW for this section. The most common interpretation of “Lost in the Funhouse” is that the funhouse is about Ambrose’s first sexual encounter. The second section of Purity is framed around various sexual experiences of youths be they lusftful, loving, abusive, and so on. If not taken as metaphor, the whole section comes across as strange and out of place. The wording and detail provided seem excessive and unnecessary as backstory (presumably most readers will read it that way). As metaphor, all these details make sense and certain bizarrely specific sentences point to the interpretation I’m going to give.

Lastly, the section is titled “Republic of Bad Taste.” One learns in the section what this refers to, but as a primer to the section it seems to indicate that the section is about taste, bad taste, and maybe what would make good taste. In other words, the section as metaphor for literature itself. I understand that each of the pieces of context are weak in and of themselves, but I think taken as a whole along with how tight this interpretation is gives sufficient evidence for this as an intended interpretation.

Warning: The content below contains minor spoilers. It will not cover beyond the second section, so if you are planning on reading the book, no major plot points are revealed that aren’t alluded to in the inside flap description. Also, this content is NSFW due to sexually explicit material.

For those who haven’t read the novel, we need a starting point. Here’s a synopsis of the section. Andreas lives in Stasi controlled Germany (probably East Berlin, I can’t recall if this was specified). His father is a somewhat high ranking Stasi officer. His mother sleeps around and Andreas finds out someone else might be his father. He writes subversive poetry which shames his parents, and he breaks off relations. He goes and lives in a church and runs sessions to help at-risk youth. He sleeps with tons of them (none underage). Here he meets Annagret. She tells him about being abused in the past, and he falls in love with her. They carry out the murder of the abuser and then separate for years to not get caught.

First, there is a clear “Anxiety of Influence” dynamic established with the parents. Andreas’s mother and father exert great influence over him, yet he wants to do his own thing. He also meets a person who claims to be his real father. Andreas tries to deny this out of embarrassment, but deep down he knows it’s true. Within this interpretation, we should read this as when someone points out influences in your writing you aren’t proud of.

The other main idea presented in the section is of what art is for. Andreas as a child drew pictures of naked women to masturbate to. This couldn’t be less subtle. He literally creates masturbatory drawings; a way to say we all go through a youthful phase where we only create art for our own pleasure.

Most current aesthetic theory shuns this form of creation. As with DFW, the post-modernists like Barth provided useful fodder, but ultimately got it wrong. The language games of these writers were neat, but didn’t connect with people. Franzen even has his character Andreas write a poem, “Muttersprache/Mother Tongue,” which is a language game itself about influence.

Franzen’s character states this frankly as, “I’m worried there’s something wrong with me. All I want to do is masturbate.” The reply he gets suggests that we are to view this type of art as immature and all great artists eventually grow out of it: “You’re only fifteen. That’s very young to be having sex with another person.” This whole exchange makes very little sense as a defining moment of backstory, but framed in this interpretation as a metaphor for artistic creation, it comes across as necessary to drive the point home.

Andreas then tries to strike out on his own and leave his influences behind. The feeling is so strong, he wants to kill his parents. “It didn’t speak well of his sanity that he actually had to squelch the impulse to run after her and kill her with whatever came to hand.”

He finally evolves into a better person when he meets Annagret. He falls in love with her as she tells him a story that he can intimately identify with. This brings us exactly to DFW’s idea that literature is important because it teaches us we are not alone. Just as Andreas hears a story familiar to his own experiences which causes him to fall in love with the author, we are to read Purity and find traces of our own weird and terrible lives that bring us comfort and fall in love with the author.

Annagret is under the control of her abuser, and Andreas decides to free her by killing him. This is like the author/reader relationship that DFW idealized. After the deed is done, Andreas admits his love for Annagret and she replies, “I barely even know you.” Well of course! We as readers are Andreas who have fallen in love with Franzen/Annagret who is telling the story. We may feel something, but he certainly doesn’t know us.

In a moment where the metaphor goes so far that I have to wonder how anyone could overlook it, Andreas has to bury the body while it is raining outside. This makes the ground wet, and he keeps leaving his footprints all over the muddy ground. To put it as a blunt cliché, he leaves his footprints all over the work he is doing for her.

The author/reader relationship is summarized in another line that must seem strange if the story is read as realistic, but fits perfectly into this interpretation. “He had a confusing twinned sense of her closeness and complete otherness. Together they’d killed a man, but she had her own thoughts, her own motives, so close to him and yet so separate.” This is exactly how great literature works. You feel close to the characters and author, yet you remain completely separate.

[Sorry if there are more typos than normal. I had a teething puppy nipping at me while editing.]


Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

This is mostly meant to be a direct continuation of the last post, but there is so much to say about the importance of this short story for understanding Infinite Jest that I needed a full post to do it. I will try to stick to this thesis, but I get so excited about unraveling all the complexities and parallels in this story that I may wander off at times. This story may, in fact, be more complicated and difficult to read than Infinite Jest, so be warned.

Let’s start with the basics. The main character is a writer that wants to write a new type of fiction. He claims that it will use the old metafictional devices, but also move past it and stab the reader in the heart. We already saw this idea in the last post, but this story is a way for DFW to tell us how he intends to do it, i.e. it serves as a reader’s guide to Infinite Jest. That’s why this story is so important for prep material (if you choose to do such a thing).

What is going on takes a moment to digest. Here goes. The work is a criticism of the shortcomings of metafiction. But it is a metafictional story using those very devices to do the criticism. The main critique is of Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” To do this, Barth is literally a character in the story as Professor Ambrose who wrote the aforementioned story (LitF from now on, because that is getting annoying to type), but this time it is an autobiographical nonfiction work instead of Barth’s fiction (recall that the main character of LitF is Ambrose). Summary: Prof Ambrose wrote LitF in DFW’s story and is leading a writing workshop.

Ambrose (despite being a “real” character already) from LitF is fictionalized as Mark, the main character in “Westward …” through a retelling of LitF. LitF is a story about Ambrose travelling to Ocean City and getting lost in a funhouse at the amusement park. DFW uses wordplay in the retelling and has Mark travelling to a McDonald’s commercial actors reunion where there will (of course!) be a Ronald McDonald “funhouse.”

I said I wouldn’t do this, so I’m going to cut myself off there. I trust that if you’ve read LitF, and you take some time to meditate on the above two paragraphs until it stops being so confusing, then you can continue to unravel this ridiculously convoluted metaphor and story within a story that is a retelling of that story (which is already in the story …). Stop. I must stop. But it is just so much fun to unravel (for example, the funhouse in LitF is being franchised which is an insult that post-modernism has become commercial).

So what is DFW trying to tell us? Well, Barth uses his story to tell us how he sees metafiction. His metaphor is the funhouse of mirrors. In LitF he writes, “In a funhouse mirror-room you can’t see yourself go on forever, because no matter how you stand your head gets in the way.” This is the exact type of critical theory conundrum that DFW faces. He wants to affect the reader. But words and texts and people’s thoughts (i.e. “heads”) are always in the way. You can’t ever truly get to the person.

DFW’s metaphor is a bow and arrow, because Mark, the main character, is a pro archer. He has a beautiful description in “Westward …” of how an archer must take into account that the arrow doesn’t fly true. So to hit the bullseye, the archer actually makes adjustments ahead of time, aims off-center, and ends up hitting the center.

He’s saying that Barth can’t hit the reader, because he’s aiming at the wrong place: the head. Writers that strike at the reader’s heart also fall short, because they aim at it too directly. This new type of fiction will take this into account and aim in between. The result will be a piercing of the reader’s heart in a new and more serious way.

Mark’s girlfriend is post-modernist writer in Ambrose’s workshop. Without going too far into it, the thing to pay attention to with her is that she is the epitome of the type of metafiction that DFW wants to do away with. Remember, DFW wants to keep some metafiction and throw out other parts to invent a new type of fiction. This character is a guide to the parts he wants thrown out.

This is a long story, and so I can’t help you through every detail. Another general principle to keep in mind while interpreting this is that the arrow is meant to be a stand-in for the pen. So when the arrow “kills” things/people, you should figure out what those things/people are representing. For example, Mark writes a story about a person named Dave (oh no, Mark who is Ambrose is a stand-in for DFW writes a work of “new fiction” with Dave as its main character …).

Dave has a lover named L– (presumably meant to be “literature”). But L– commits suicide (as the post-modernists brought the death of literature) with the arrow. Dave is innocent, but feels guilty and hence admits that (after translation out of the metaphor) his writing helped bring about the death of literature. Of course, Mark makes an appearance in this story that he wrote causing yet another story within the story with a character as the person that wrote the story, but also a stand-in for someone else (which sets up a weird endless loop that DFW is Mark, Mark is Dave, and Dave is DFW …). I seem to be losing my way again, so I’ll end this line of thought.

Hopefully you have a bit of a feel for what “Westward …” is doing. I’ll end this post by going through my thoroughly well-worn copy of the story and pulling the quotes that I think are the most important to focus on for understanding how and why DFW wrote Infinite Jest.

“…they want to build a Funhouse for lovers out of a story that does not love. J.D. himself had said the story doesn’t love, no? Yes. However, Mark postulates that Steelritter is only half-right. The story does not love, but this is precisely because it is not cruel…. The way to make a story a Funhouse is to put the story itself in one. For a lover. Make the reader a lover, who wants to be inside.”

“Please don’t tell anybody, but Mark Nechtr desires, some distant hard-earned day, to write something that stabs you in the heart. That pierces you, makes you think you’re going to die…. The stuff would probably use metafiction as a bright smiling disguise, a harmless floppy-shoed costume, because metafiction is safe to read, familiar as syndication; and no victim is as delicious as the one who smiles in relief at your familiar approach.”

Barth’s LitF famously opens with, “For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.”

DFW turns it around and beautifully sums up what he is doing with his closing lines:

“For whom?
You are loved.”

Minor Preparation to Get the Most out of Infinite Jest

I’ve been reading the biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max, and it reminded me that for years I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on some of the preparation you can do to have a much better experience reading Infinite Jest.

First, I’m not doing this out of some condescending “let the self-declared expert tell you how you must read this” type of thing. I actually get asked this question semi-frequently, and I want something I can direct people to. My first answer is usually, “Just do it.” You can get a lot of enjoyment out of the novel without delving into the philosophy of the meta-fictional devices.

On the other hand, if you are going to spend a few months of your life reading a 1000 page beast of a novel, then you should be willing to do some minor preparation. I estimate a dedicated person could easily do these reading assignments in less than a week. I picked these for both brevity and clarity after years of reading everything he’s ever written and watching/reading tons of interviews with him, and reading as many things as I can that he points out as influences.

This will take two posts. One on everything and why I chose it. The other on understanding his story Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. If you are really pressed for time, then my advice is to finish reading this post. Read that story. Then read my soon to come explanation of why that story is the most important thing he ever wrote in trying to decipher why he writes in the way he writes. That story is a Rosetta stone to understanding his later works.

Here’s my reading list:
Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth (a short story)
“The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme (a short story)
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (a very short novella)
“Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” by David Foster Wallace (a short story/novella)

That may look like a lot, but each story can probably be read in one sitting, although I recommend going slowly through that last one. Let’s take them one at a time.

“The Balloon” is probably the least important of the list. This is a short story that DFW talked about in several interviews. It was a story that basically changed his life. He wasn’t a literature or creative writing major in college, but this story made him see writing in a different light. It made him want to be a writer.

Here’s how I understand this. All the fiction that DFW wrote was deeply philosophical. He majored in philosophy and as a grad student took lots of critical theory. He was obsessed with the theory behind the relationship between author, text, and reader. This wasn’t abstract for him. Because he wanted to develop a relationship with his readers through what he wrote, he needed to understand what the nature of that relationship was.

What Barthelme’s story does, which was so novel at the time, is put the theoretical considerations right in the story plainly for all to see. This is essentially a defining characteristic of the post-modernists of the time. The story as a whole has some macro-structure (“plot” if you want to use that term), but the individual sentences have a micro-structure which is informing you as you go how to interpret the macro-structure.

The story is very enigmatic. Just as you are thinking, “What in the world is going on?” you encounter characters who say things like, “We have learned not to insist on meanings.” This isn’t the type of place where DFW ended in his writing, but it makes a lot of sense why he started here. The story is difficult, but the reader who is willing to put in the effort to think about the individual sentences is rewarded by being helped by the author, i.e. a back-and-forth rewarding relationship is built. Both sides have to put in effort, which is a key idea that will keep coming up.

As linked above, I’ve written about “Lost in the Funhouse” before. You can read that for details. Some might go so far as to call it “the canonical” example of post-modernism. The main importance on this list is that “Westward …” is simultaneously a parody of it, a rewriting of it, and a tool to get some messages across. I dare say it is impossible to to read “Westward …” and have any idea what is going on without having read “Lost in the Funhouse” first. We’ll discuss it a bit more next time.

Last is The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. This book takes place over something like 10 seconds. The plot (and full main text!) of the novella is that a man walks into a mezzanine and takes an escalator up to the next floor. That’s it. What makes this so compelling is that there are about 130 pages of footnotes telling you what the guy is thinking through this whole process.

The book is a page turner. I’m not joking. It gives you a glimpse into the mind of another human in such a raw and unfiltered way. It, of course, is really funny at times, but the fact that it is funny is because you know your thoughts do the same exact types of things. You chain together all sorts of seemingly unrelated stupid things.

The reason for putting this on here is two-fold. First, DFW constantly talked about the importance of literature being that it makes you for a moment feel less alone. Here’s the quote, “We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can alow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” This book comes as close as any that I can think of to achieving the idea of truly identifying with a character.

The second reason I chose this book is actually the key one. The way the book does it is not by any of the conventional means. It achieves this truly magnificent feat purely through the use of footnotes. DFW loved this book. Now ask yourself what is the most daunting part of Infinite Jest? Most people say it is the extensive use of endnotes.

We’ll get more to the endnotes next time, but I think The Mezzanine holds the key to one of the reasons DFW used them. They aren’t purely distraction. They aren’t meta-fictional wankery. They aren’t highfalutin philosophical nonsense. DFW read a book that achieved what he considered the goal of literature, and it was done using this device. If you can understand the use in The Mezzanine, then you will be well on your way to understanding the use of the endnotes in Infinite Jest.

We’re only halfway there, but if you’ve made it this far and you want some extra credit, then I also recommend finding a copy of Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace. It is a good resource if you want to delve deeper into the philosophy and critical theory of what he was trying to do. Also, DFW is trying to surpass his post-modern idols, so it helps to be familiar with post-modernism in general. If you aren’t, then The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon is a pretty short but classic book in that style as well.

Some Thoughts on Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence

I recently learned that some Barnes and Noble has an “essay” section. This will be my downfall. I was glancing through it and stumbled upon something that sounded fascinating. If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, then you’ll know that influence is a topic that is endlessly fascinating to me.

I’ve talked about the importance of expanding your influences in Literature, Originality, Influence, and the Anxiety Thereof. Of course, I referenced Barth’s essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” in it and Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. I bring these two things up a lot, actually. Even this horrible post back in 2008 shows this topic has been kicking around for awhile.

Anyway, so I was glancing through this essay section, and saw a book titled The Ecstasy of Influence. How could I not check it out? This book is a must read for anyone as obsessed with this topic as I am. There isn’t much new, but it feels good to read about a successful author grappling with these issues in a real life context. If these issues are boring to you, then stay far away from this book (unless you’re having trouble falling asleep or something).

A truly bizarre thing happened while reading the book. The new Harper’s came (I wrote my last post on the Nicholson Baker piece from it), but another major piece in the magazine was Franzen’s essay “A Different Kind of Father.” It is basically about dwelling on influences and trying to determine who his major influences (i.e. literary father) would be. The coincidence was made a little creepy when he started talking about Pynchon and literary coincidences turning into conspiracy theories when I had been thinking what a strange coincidence it was that this article appeared right when starting the Lethem book on the same topic.

Back to The Ecstasy of Influence (clearly a play on Bloom’s title The Anxiety of Influence). It is broken up into parts based on themes. Each part has a few chapters which are either short memoirs, essays, or even short stories with analysis. The fact that it isn’t all essay keeps the flow going nicely. I was really excited when in the Preface he had already mentioned John Ashbery, John Barth, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo. These are all people I write about a lot. The book is practically my blog if you throw out the math. OK. Not really. But it was sort of feeling that way from the Preface.

The second chapter is all about postmodernism in SF (speculative fiction). I was delighted to find that Lethem makes almost the exact same argument in one of the essays that I made in the first post I referenced above. Roughly that people writing SF should be familiar with all these modern day trends like postmodernism so that they can incorporate the techniques into their works to create much more effective literature. Or maybe not. Your choice. But if you aren’t familiar with these techniques then you can’t make the choice. You’re limited by what you know. He also does an interesting deconstruction of Philip K. Dick and his influences (warning: it is an essay from his youth and he is sort of embarrassed by it now).

The flashy highlight of the book so far was the title essay. It first appeared in Harper’s (is there a question in anyone’s mind why I subscribe to this magazine anymore?), and although it focuses much more on the plagiarism aspects of influence it is still incredibly well-done. You learn at the end that the entire essay is made up of quotes from other people that he tied together to make one coherent (original?) essay.

To wrap up, the book is great so far. It brings up all these difficult issues in all sorts of ways. Sometimes he uses fun anecdotes and other times serious essays. They are always very readable. The main issues addressed so far (if you haven’t caught on yet) have to do with the following:

What is meant by originality? To be taken seriously as an artist do your influences have to be (in)visible? If you copy someone else too much are you unoriginal? How possible is it to cut ties from all people before you? Is this even a desirable thing to try? Should you be embarrassed or flattered when people compare your work to someone you admire? Where is the line between imitation and plagiarism? And so on.

My favorite quote so far is an interesting definition of postmodernism (in literature). Lethem is talking about Eliot’s The Waste Land and how the excessive notes in it seems to define modernism in terms of its anxiety of influence contamination. “Taken from this angle, what exactly is postmodernism, except modernism without the anxiety?” Of course, Lethem was just quoting someone else at that point …

Literature, Originality, Influence, and the Anxiety Thereof

I really do plan to get back to some math soon. I thought I’d share an argument that I first learned from the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” by John Barth. It is something that used to come up all the time when I was an undergrad music major. It usually comes up now in the form of literature. I’ll phrase it in terms of literature, since this is the form it appears in Barth’s essay, but it works for any art form.

The reason this came up recently is because I was watching an interview with Patrick Rothfuss. From what I’ve seen, he takes the craft of writing about as seriously as any author I’ve seen, and he really wants to better himself as an author in any way possible. He was asked what sorts of fiction he reads outside of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I was shocked to hear that he basically doesn’t. It reminded me of this argument. Similarly, the music composition students that I used to talk with had basically no interest in listening to or analyzing current living composers.

I can’t remember now, but I think I’ve made this argument on the blog somewhere before. It’s well worth repeating, since people always seem surprised by it when it comes up. There is this disconnect that because art is “subjective” it doesn’t build on itself. People seem to have the opinion that art just spreads off in random branches of originality and you don’t have to pay attention to what your contemporaries are doing. Some go so far as to claim that paying attention to your contemporaries blocks your ability to be truly original through subconscious influence.

Here is part of Barth’s argument. No one would ever dare to say this type of thing about any branch of science or math. You would be laughed at. Imagine saying you could do something completely original in physics by ignoring the last 50 years of research so you aren’t influenced. The obvious problem with this is that in order to do something new, you will have to completely reinvent all of the past 50 years of physics (at least in your area) before getting to the new part. What is the point of trying to do that when you could just intentionally learn it in a small fraction of the time and get on to your new ideas. In fact, even coming up with a new idea might be impossible without having seen the recent advances that open your mind to ideas that were inconceivable beforehand.

To put it bluntly, trying to make some awesome original art without being up-to-date on what has been done doesn’t make you a visionary. It makes you an idiot. The main objection to this is probably that in art as opposed to science you don’t have the same type of building. You don’t need to be completely current on what every contemporary author is doing in order to build off in some direction or try something new. This is in part true, but let’s try to put this in perspective.

If you were to take a one semester course whose primary goal was to expose you to as many significant advances in just some very narrow frame like American literature of the past 40 years it couldn’t be done thoroughly. This is with an intensive study by someone who knows what they are doing with this goal in mind. Think about how hopeless it would be to try to invent all these ideas yourself whenever you need one of them. It is just about as hopeless as the scientist who tries to ignore the past 40 years of science.

I claim that not only is it a good idea for a serious genre author to make an attempt to keep up with modern literature, but it is almost certainly the most important thing they can do to better themselves. Forget about the worries of being unoriginal due to influence. You are certain to be unoriginal if you don’t keep up, whereas if you know what people have been doing, then at least you have some chance of building upon it in a unique direction. It will not only improve your writing to have these modern techniques at your disposal, but it will make you a much more interesting writer as well. I quote Barth, “In any case, to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or the Chartres cathedral, if executed today, might be simply embarrassing ….”

Nothing is as frustrating as getting into these types of arguments with people who want to think that being a good artist is all about this lackadaisical, touchy-feely, everything goes attitude. That is just some romantic fantasy. All the great artists have put a lot of hard work and study into it, and part of that study is understanding what other great people in your craft have done. Don’t take my word for it. Try it out. You’ll probably find that not having to reinvent the wheel every time you need a particular technique actually frees up your energy to use on creating something that is actually new.

Examples: For anyone interested in these sorts of ideas you should check out The Friday Book by John Barth which has his essay in it. The ultimate example I’d have to say is Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence which is basically a book long case study of how some of the great poets influenced each other and overcame those influences to create something new (an impossible task if they weren’t reading each other I might point out).

I edited this post since it was too long already. I had included three interesting examples originally, but realized it almost hurts the argument to see examples. All the examples I thought of could be written off as singular, fringe cases, so I haven’t included them now. As a game, just take any of the hundreds of lists out there with names like “100 Best Novels” or whatever and try to find even one novel on that list that didn’t liberally borrow techniques from a contemporary. For you genre writers out there that think you can get away with staying within the genre, a quick glance at the Modern Library list and the Time Magazine list shows many great genre authors like George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, and more. Every one of these authors would have been severely hindered without being up to date on modern fictional techniques that mostly weren’t appearing in the genre.

Lost in the Funhouse

I’m in the position where I’m too tired to start thinking about a new algebra problem, but it is too early to legitimately call it a night, so I’ll just shift gears and do a new post. It has been one of those days where about everything that can go wrong does. So how about thinking about a little humor.

A very important work of literature in the “post-modern 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. He does a sort of parody/hommage 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 post-modernist. 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 post-modernists 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 think I’ll mostly do this as an analysis of the title story. Lost in the Funhouse is a short story “about” a boy’s (Ambrose) 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 whole entire trip is a metaphor.

In the typical Barth fashion, the funhouse is a multi-layered metaphor. A funhouse has mirrors all around. This means that 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 Wallace. Wallace interprets that aspect as Barth’s way of saying that 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. “…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 for the duration. 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.

Alright. 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 by 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 so 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.