Review; Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth

Strangely enough, I actually really loved this collection of short stories. It is not something I’d usually read, or enjoy for that matter, and so as you can imagine I was strangely surprised!

In the author’s note, written in 1968 when the novel was published, Barth states that it’s:

“neither a collection nor a selection, but a series; though several of its items have appeared separately in periodicals, the series will be seen to have been meant to be received “all at once” as as here arranged.”

So I did exactly that. Over the last four days, I’ve read it from cover to cover, treating each new ‘story’ not as a separate entity but as another chapter.

220px-LostInTheFunhouse

The plot only appears in two chapters of the novel, while the rest of the novel tends to revolve around mythology and classics, but also questions why humans are on the earth and what will happen when we die. The main plot follows thirteen-year-old Ambrose, who goes on a trip with his family to Maryland. They travel there in the car and the narrator follows their journey, including the games they play in the car to defy boredom. Ambrose’s mum gives him money to have fun, as she does with his brother Peter and Magda, a family friend who is fourteen. Ambrose really likes Magda and is unsure how to act around her, however, his older brother Peter acts cool and relaxed around her, a “happy-go-lucky youngster”, making Ambrose jealous. They enter the funhouse, where Peter and Magda go off by themselves, leaving Ambrose alone. They go home to Maryland and he wants to be a funhouse operator, so he can “balance things out”.

Barth is an experimentalist and does not stick to the traditional plot and dialogue, beginning, middle and end. The book almost feels like we’re reading the author’s notes, following the way his mind thinks. Barth will write a small chapter that feels like the beginning of a book, but then,

“discarding what he’d already written as he could wish to discard the mumbling pages of his life he began his story afresh, resolved this time to eschew over and self-conscious discussion of his narrative process and to recount instead the straight-forwardest manner possible the several complications of his character’s conviction that he was a character in a work of fiction, arranging them into dramatically ascending stages if he could for his readers’ sake and leading them (the stages) to an exciting climax and dénoument if he could.”

Not only does he address the reader as if they are not there, but he talks directly to them:

The reader! You, dogged, uninsultable, print-orientated b—–d, it’s you I’m addressing, who else, from inside this monstrous fiction. You’ve read me this far then? Even this far? For what discreditable motive? How is it you don’t go to a movie, watch TV, stare at a wall, play tennis with a friend, make amorous advances to the person who comes to your mind when I speak of amorous advances? Can nothing surfeit, saturate you, turn you off? Where’s your shame?”

He’s almost blaming the reader for reading his story, asking if they have not got anything better to do. Barth uses really incredible writing techniques that makes the reader feel like they’re reading something they shouldn’t be. As if they’re reading his notes for an upcoming novel, and he has found them out and is asking why they’re reading it.

The Washington Post claimed that “we are all very much richer for this man” and Time said that Barth has produced a series of “constantly changing and enticingly elusive forms…Barth’s cunning is to turn daily life into mythology while turning mythology into domestic comedy”.

Barth experimented with many new forms of fiction within the short 200 pages of Lost in the Funhouse and will be a classic for years to come.

Overall rating: 4/5.

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