LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE a short story by John Barth (1968)

I read this story to plug a gap in my literary knowledge and as background research as part of my re-reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The style and experimentation certainly helps put Wallace’s magnum opus into context.

When you read of Barth’s Ambrose it hard not to think of DFW’s “communicatively challenged” Hal Incandenza : “Ambrose was at that awkward age. his voice came out all high-pitched as a child’s if he let himself get carried away: to be on the safe side, therefore, he moved and spoke with deliberate calm and adult gravity”. 

Above all it is the self referential, ‘metafiction’ of Barth’s story that is most striking and entertaining.  Wallace didn’t use this postmodern device so much in IJ but you find the influence in his shorter fiction, notably the closing story in his Girl With Curious Hair collection called Westward The Course Of Empire Takes Its Way.

Barth constantly draws attention to the way the beginning, middle and end has to be constructed with advice that could have come from a ‘how to write fiction’ manual e.g. “middles have the double and contradictory function of delaying the climax while at the same time preparing the reader for it and fetching him to it”. 

John Barth

In cinematic terms this is equivalent to a camera pulling back to reveal the manufactured set in order to break the illusion of reality that movies seek to create. Think perhaps  of Lar Von Trier’s Dogville, where chalk lines and sparse scenery give a theatrical backdrop instead of any elaborate sets or props.

Musically it reminded me of Matching Mole’s Signed Curtain where Robert Wyatt’s lyrics merely itemize the elements of the song :   “This is the first verse / And this is the chorus/ Or perhaps it’s a bridge / Or just another part /of the song that I’m singing”.

This heightened self-consciousness of the writer as both an effective communicator and manipulator of his readers  is both witty and disorienting.

One thing Barth is saying, I think, is that the writer is constantly torn between being an active participant in the story (as the teller) and being a clinical observer of the events described :  “Strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene”.  

All good writers need this level of detachment but also need to demonstrate a humanity too. Lost In The Funhouse makes this delicate balancing act vivid and visible.