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Lost in “Lost in the Funhouse” or John Barth is a Pretentious Writer

The title story from John Barth’s 1968 collection Lost in the Funhouse, begins with a reasonable question, the sort of question that promises an answer by story’s end: “For whom is the funhouse fun?” Barth goes on by beginning an answer. “Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.” And there you have the setup of this story. The funhouse, for Ambrose, will not be fun, and, apparently, Ambrose is not a lover or has no lover or is a jilted lover or somesuch. The only thing that remains for us to discover in the rather long denouement that Barth imparts to us is the precise mode and manner of Ambrose’s lack of fun.

At around the time he was writing “Lost in the Funhouse,” Barth wrote “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which argued that language gets all tuckered out after a period of time. Okay, he doesn’t put it in that sense. Instead, he argues that if one were to write in the mode of, perhaps Joseph Conrad some 70 years after Conrad’s greatest work was written, the writer would be creating an anachronism. A realist novel, which he sites specifically in the nineteenth century before offering examples that severely muddy his position, is a dead form. The true artist, Barth would suggest, needs to be up to date in the techniques of writing.

This argument leaves me with a couple of questions. First of all, why is it the language that grows exhausted? Why not the subject matter. “Lost in the Funhouse” deals with themes of love, sexuality, and coming-of-age that can be traced at least as far back as Shakespeare. More to the point, Barth here has essentially rewritten Joyce’s “Araby,” accomplishing a great deal less in a great deal more space. Perhaps the true “literature of exhaustion” is that which poseurs like Barth use to exhaust their readers. Might the obsessive need for formal innovation actually be exactly the opposite that Barth suggests it is? Instead of needing technical innovation to remain relevant, the tinkering technician reveals a lack of substantive ideas regarding the topic.

Again, I would like to compare this story with “Araby.” In Joyce’s story, not a word, not an image is wasted. There are moments of ambiguity, but these ultimately help to create the character of the boy and lead to his recognition of his own folly. “Lost in the Funhouse” takes the reader to a fair of sorts, Ocean City and the funhouse, provides an unrealistic love interest, Magda rather than Mangan’s sister, and culminates a realization of youthful vanity. In the course of rewriting “Araby,” however, Barth feels compelled to graft on rather wooden metafictional elements.

A single straight underline is the manuscript mark for italic type, which in turn is the printed equivalent to oral emphasis of words and phrases as well as the customary type for the title of complete works, not to mention. Italics are also employed, in fiction stories especially for “outside,” intrusive, or artificial voices, such as radio announcements, the texts of telegrams and newspaper articles, et cetera.

How is this helpful? Barth might explain that these typographic intrusions, and the later discussions of characterization and, most strangely, Freytag’s Pyramid, help to underscore the artificiality of Ambrose’s experiences with Magda and at the funhouse. Perhaps he means to remind us that Ambrose’s life is a fiction that the boy is creating at the same time that he is a character in a fiction that Barth is creating. Frankly, I would prefer him to circle some element and label it as “important symbol.”

I am not such a philistine to say that literary technique is unimportant, but Barth, at least in this story, seems to have allowed the technique to overwhelm the poverty of ideas that he brings to his writing desk. He reminds me of a very clever fellow who feels compelled to remind us constantly of his cleverness.

One need only read such realist (and Christian) authors as Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry to recognize that the the vessel of the realist novel is quite alive when a write possesses something profound to pour into it. And lest I seem to privilege the Christian writers, I would Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Joyce Carol Oates as authors who needn’t burden their prose with affectations of “technique” in order to present something new and vital.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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