Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, 1968
LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE
by John Barth, 1968
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.
"Lost in the Funhouse" is the pivotal story in a collection of related fictions that trace the conception, youth, maturity, decline, and renewal of not only a writer (Ambrose) but also of life and fiction in general. 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. The tragic implications are felt through the realization that the choice between art and life of necessity excludes thereafter the one not chosen. Ambrose chooses art, but he does so reluctantly.
The story is an example of metafiction, as are most others in the collection, for it is not only about Ambrose's trip to the park but also about writing a story about Ambrose's trip to the park. The narrator—Barth? an older Ambrose?—frequently steps in and comments on the writing strategy he is using at the moment. For example, after the introductory section the narrator observes, "The function of the beginning of a story is to introduce the principal characters, establish their initial relationships, set the scene for the main action," and so forth. The narrator seems to be trying not so much to instruct his reader as to keep straight in his own mind what he should be doing. Indeed, the narrator is having as much trouble with his story as Ambrose is with puberty. At the end of the paragraph in which the narrator summarizes the purposes of the beginning, he suddenly realizes that he is five pages into his story without having gotten past the beginning: "And a long time has gone by already without anything happening; it makes a person wonder. We haven't even reached ocean city yet: we will never get out of the funhouse."
We can see the fun house already taking on at least two connotations. It is the physical structure in which Ambrose gets lost. It also is the story we are reading and with which the narrator is struggling, constantly getting bogged down or lost, introducing events out of sequence, jumping ahead to the fun house before the family even reaches the park, offering more than one ending, and so on.
As the opening lines suggest, the fun house is also sex and love: "For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion. " Why can Ambrose not simply relax and have fun? For one thing he is just entering adolescence, and the fun house clearly has sexual connotations for him and the narrator, a confused adolescent of a writer: "If you knew your way around in the funhouse like your own bedroom, you could wait until a girl came along and then slip away without ever getting caught, even if her boyfriend was right with her. She'd think he did it! It would be better to be the boyfriend, and act outraged, and tear the funhouse apart…. Not act; be." The direction the thought takes in this passage is from furtiveness—the phantom molester—and dissimulation—act outraged—to actual passion—be outraged. It is a path Ambrose would like to take but cannot.
His problem is not simply that he is an adolescent, typically confused about sex and wary of the future, but also that he is a budding writer, a calling that will set him apart from life. His recollection of an earlier sex game with Magda indicates his problem. He recalls during the sex act "standing beside himself with awed impersonality." He also recalls the same scene later in the story: "But though he'd breathed heavily, groaned as if ecstatic, what he'd really felt throughout was an odd detachment, as though someone else were Master. 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." What Ambrose is obviously already doing is distancing himself from experience, taking notes, preparing to write. Later, fantasizing about finding his great love, he imagines her as someone who will appreciate him as a writer.
The end of the story finds Ambrose lost in the fun house of fiction, committed to it but with a sense of resignation and loss: "He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he's not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he'd rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed."
One of the most provocative short stories of the post-World War II period, "Lost in the Funhouse" shows Barth at the top of his form. He is a great innovator whose fictions would be worth the reader's time for their technical virtuosity alone, but he is also a writer with a profound grasp of the human spirit in conflict with itself, its world, and its art.
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