John Barth (b. 1930)
Contributing Editor: Julius Rowan Raper
Classroom Issues and Strategies
To call an author "a writers' writer" is often the kiss of death. Yet Barth in "Lost in the Funhouse" and in other works goes out of his way to draw to himself this label that sets him apart from more popular "men's writers" (or "businessmen's writers") like Ernest Hemingway or "women's writers" like Willa Cather. By foregrounding the writerly nature of his work, Barth, perhaps more than any American author before him, prevents his readers from ignoring the style and form of his work while they pursue the content. Rather than focus on the relatively accessible content about Ambrose, Peter, Magda, and the three adults, as a teacher I want students to speculate about Barth's reasons for so intrusively and self-consciously focusing on the writing process.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
At least three large explanations for the self-consciousness of Barth's works come to mind. In Chimera he will have the Genie report that in the U.S. in our time "the only readers of artful fiction [are] critics, other writers, and unwilling students who, left to themselves, [prefer] music and pictures to words." In short, a serious writer has to recognize that his only willing readers are other writers; that he or she is, in fact, a writers' writer.
A second explanation is that, for postmodern writers, especially for Barth, the traditional modes of fiction have been used up--in Barth's favorite term, exhausted. This is especially true of the bildungsroman, the story of the development of an individual, and even more so if that individual happens to be an artist. In our century, James Joyce had his Stephen Dedalus, D. H. Lawrence his Paul Morel, Sherwood Anderson his George Willard, Thomas Wolfe his Eugene Gant, Ernest Hemingway his Nick Adams, William Faulkner his Quentin Compson, and so on. " 'Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?' " indeed! Even this self-negating idea has to appear in quotation marks because it has been uttered before. Rather than ignore this remark, which could easily alienate already unwilling students (one of the three groups remaining among readers of artful fictions), I would note the curious detail that Barth has his own seemingly autobiographical portrait of an artist in the character named Ambrose Mensch (meaning roughly "Immortal Man"), who appears here and in other stories of the collection and figures as well as a major figure in the later megafiction, LETTERS: a Novel. Why would Barth devote such energy to an apparently exhausted fictional form? He obviously believes that problems of adolescents are important and that such stories can be told in a new way that "replenishes" (another key term for Barth) an entire mode of fiction. That new way must include "metafiction," an important postmodern device that allows novelists to write the criticism of their own fiction while creating the fiction itself. The reasons metafiction has become important in our time are another large topic that could lead the class to fruitful discussions.
A third explanation for the self-consciousness here is at once more personal and more cultural. The narrator of Ambrose's story is a writer trapped inside his story, unable to come to its end. He is a blocked writer. In a number of works, Barth fictionalizes the writer's block he apparently suffered after the two gigantic novels of the early 1960s. Self-consciousness and writer's block may belong to a single vicious circle; each may lead to the other. Barth takes writer's block as his theme so often that one suspects it represents more than a personal event--no matter how engrossing such "autobiographic" episodes may be to readers primarily interested in "real life." At this other level, the blocked writer provides an appropriate motive for producing the metafictional passages with which Barth frames his fictions, the seeming digressions that allow him to create an audience for his generally non-realistic stories.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In giving up the conventional mimesis of realism, Barth, however, elects the contrary powers of what, in Chimera, he terms the Principle of Metaphoric Means, "the investiture by the writer of as many of the elements and aspects of his fiction as possible with emblematic as well as dramatic value" ( Chimera 203). This device leads to an additional motive for Barth's frequent dramatizations of the blocked writer. Such writers may be metaphors for something important in our culture. Students in class discussion may want to explore possible referents for the metaphor by asking themselves what aspects of American or Western culture appeared especially "blocked" in 1968, a year that, it turns out, may stand roughly as the midpoint of the Cold War. What is there about contemporary culture that it has lost its ability to move forward in the progressive fashion that the Enlightenment, Positivism, and modern scientific thinking once promised?
Students may then move to the possibility that every individual is a potential writer, that each of us lives out a script that someone else will write for us if we do not write it ourselves, that many women and men seem caught, like the narrator of this story, in scripts they do not want and whose end they cannot find. The next step would be to explore the degree to which the devices Barth employs, including metafiction, parody, Metaphoric Means, and (elsewhere) myth and fantasy, could be used to frame the stories of blocked lives, to liberate one from such narratives, and to write more promising life scripts. In short, can Barth's postmodern approach free up blocked lives or replenish a stymied, possibly exhausted culture? If not, might the attempt to do so still comprise a tragic gesture with a touch of the heroic in it? Students could then weigh the elements of parody, satire, and muted tragedy in Barth's story.
Consideration of Metaphoric Means as a global device leads to a careful reconsideration of every aspect of the story, including seeming authorial mistakes. If in the postexistential world we are all writers, then not only must we watch how we dot our i's and cross our t's, but how we drop our apostrophes. For example, the narrator mentions "Peter and Ambrose's father" but speaks of "Ambrose's and Peter's mother." Is this a simple slip, or a telling one? Students may want to pay special attention to parallel usages in the story or explore the later adventures of Ambrose, Peter, Magda, their parents, and/or Uncle Carl in LETTERS.
It may appear that Barth's audience is made up of other writers, critics, and writing teachers. If we are, however, to write our way out of the (doomed?) scripts we inherited from our culture, then every thinking person may have something to learn from Barth. The risks Barth takes indicate he arrived on the literary scene when the success of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce in having critics prepare an audience for their difficult texts inspired him to trust that time would provide readers for his works. By 1968, however, like other metafictionists to come, he was covering himself by providing guidelines, sometimes ironic ones, for critics still working within the modernist aesthetic.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The most useful comparisons for Barth are to the international fictionists whom he cites as inspirations: Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Italo Calvino; and to the experimental writers who are his fellow postmodernists: Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Federman, Cynthia Ozick, John Hawkes, Donald Barthelme, Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles, and others. The most obvious contrasts are to traditional flat realists like Cather and Hemingway, naturalists like Theodore Dreiser, engaged novelists like John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck, and representative modernists like Faulkner and Joyce, especially as the latter two use the mythic method that Barth in Chimera and elsewhere stands on its head. Less obvious contrasts would be to the two contemporary trends that retreat from the more audacious experiments of the postmodernists: the minimalists like Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Ann Beattie; and the Magical Realists, who make minimal use of the fantasy devices that Barth, like Coover, Fowles, Durrell, and Pynchon, employs with such relish. Another sort of contrast can be made--in an age that commodifies not only space and time but also gender, class, and race--to Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, E. L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, among others. While for many of his contemporaries the message has become the merchandise, Barth persists in focusing on the challenges and powers of the fictional medium itself.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. "Lost in the Funhouse" cries out for student papers of two types. First, one might want students to try a reader-response approach, to let them work out their anger against the intrusive metafictional commentary, to identify the causes of their anger, and perhaps discover reasons for Barth's choosing this device. Next, students could employ a traditional close-reading approach to take up the following questions:
2. What are the indications in the story that Barth has taught creative writing courses? Is this story good pedagogy, or a parody thereof?
3. Why doesn't the narrator complete many of his sentences? How does this fit with Barth's interest in the literature of exhaustion? How does Barth attempt here to replenish the exhausted story of sensitive adolescents?
4. What is the temporal setting of the paragraph in which the narrator says, "I'll never be an author"? What is the author's problem here and how does Ambrose's problem mirror it?
5. What happened to Ambrose in the toolshed when he was ten? How did it influence his later life? Is the lyre important?
6. What does Ambrose see under the boardwalk? How does it affect him?
7. What is odd about Ambrose's invitation to Magda to accompany him through the funhouse? How can you explain it?
8. What metaphors for a life, or the world of fiction, can you develop as effectively as Barth does the funhouse?
9. How do the "head" and "eye" getting in the way affect the self-consciousness theme dramatized in the technique of the story? Is there a "human tragedy" in this problem?
10. Is Barth in danger here of turning the medium into the merchandise as well as into his message? What subject other than fiction itself would writers be in so expert a position to offer their readers? On what topic did Homer, Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Lawrence, and others purport to be experts? On what authority did they write of these subjects? Why might writers of Barth's period lack the confidence of earlier ones in exploring parallel realms of knowledge?
Key works appear in the headnote to Barth. Of these, the books by Morrell, Harris, Stark, and Waldmeir provide good points of entry. Weixlmann's annotated bibliography is a guide to more specific issues. Of course, there is Barth's own commentary in the works from 1968 onwards, especially in The Friday Book.