John Barth (b. 1930)
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
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