I want to know why John Barth’s series of short stories in Lost in the Funhouse repulses me. I am aware that writing a paper on disgust is neither objective nor academic. In fact, as if intentionally compounding my already numerous academic faux pas, I am aware also that my choice of the words, “repulse” and “disgust” are faulty and inaccurate symbols for my experience reading Lost in the Funhouse. If simple verbs and nouns are unsatisfactory, maybe a comparison will, at least, prove a better illustration of what I’m going to call the “Literature of Repulsion.” Bret Easton Ellis, with his novel American Psycho, and Alice Munro are two authors in which I have felt a similar repulsion.
At its core, American Psycho is a satire on yuppie culture and capitalism. Ellis bombards the reader with brand names, sex, drugs and violence. Patrick Bateman–protagonist, investment banker and sociopathic murderer–narrates his story from a claustrophobic first person point of view for nearly 400 pages. To read the novel in its entirety is an exercise in pointless futility, which I would argue is the actual message the reader is to take away. Under this interpretation, the novel transforms into a postmodern art object rather than a story, because it’s not meant to be enjoyed. Paradoxically, if the reader enjoys the conceit–the senseless violence, the glorification of consumer excess, etc, etc–, the novel becomes a story. This transformation, however, necessitates a dilution of message and an engulfment by the culture it seeks to comment against. In this case, American Psycho’s portrayal of sex and violence ends up feeding from the same well as R-rated horror and action movies of the 80’s for which the common mode of consumption is entertainment. Thus the only way to read American Psycho is with repulsion.
Alice Munro, on other the hand, has the ability to write stories with such realism and insight into the human condition that one could make a strong argument for her as an author of top-notch horror stories. Her prose has a way of inducing uncomfortable cringes in the body and evoking a strong desire to look away.
The effect of Munro’s excessively mundane details, banal dialogue, and humanly portrayed characters serves to remove the veil and give the reader an up close, naked glimpse of who we really are. This technique requires incredible restraint from the author, specifically the lack of ego in the prose and the resolve not to exaggerate. There is, however, one peculiarity about Munro’s short stories. Her endings tend to reward the reader with a sense of pathos or understanding that ends up undermining all the horrificness that the reader was asked to wade through. These endings serve to put the veil back on, signalling that it was just a story all along. It is a weirdly pleasurable effect, like dying and finding yourself face-to-face with God at heaven’s gate.
Of my two examples of literary repulsion, Lost in the Funhouse most resembles American Psycho in that they both share a postmodern heritage–the former being a pioneer and innovator, and the latter pushing into new territory with its transgressive bent. It is out of the scope of this paper to explain in depth why the push to transgressiveness fails, but the short answer is that it does not remedy a major shortcoming in late 20th century postmodern literature. David Foster Wallace discusses this issue in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Wallace argues that “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and at the same time they are agents of great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” (21). One of the primary issues is that “the ironic tone of TV’s self-reference means no one can accuse TV of trying to put anything over anybody: as essayist Lewis Hyde points out, all self-mocking irony is ‘Sincerity, with a motive’” (30). I would argue that sincerity and heart is impossible to achieve in a self-conscious state of mind–“Sincerity, with a motive” being an oxymoron. What Wallace’s essay serves to do is expose the effects of postmodern techniques employed in popular culture, thus changing the way postmodern literature is read. In short, the reader of the 21st century is self-conscious of the self-conscious. Or to put it another way, imagine you’re ten-years-old, a big fan of late 90’s pro wrestling, and then one day you watch a documentary exposing wrestling as a soap opera for boys, and now you can no longer watch wrestling with the same joyful naivete.
So if you are like me, and grew up in the nineties watching a ton of television and somehow survived Y2K to witness, in all its glory, the global adoption of the Internet, where anyone can be a creator and where entertainment is always a few clicks away, then you can see why Barth’s sperm jokes1, fourth-wall breaking metafictional devices, and tales within tales can feel old hat, unsurprising. In a way, what is happening for a post-postmodern reader and writer is a cyclic parallel to Barth’s concerns about the “effective ‘exhaustion’, not of language or of literature, but of the aesthetic of high modernism” (Replenishment 206), which Barth discussed in his seminal2 essays “The Literature of Exhaustion” and “The Literature of Replenishment.”
But if it were as simple as Lost in the Funhouse being rendered obsolete for the post-postmodern reader or the late 90’s pro-wrestling fan, I do not think my instinctual reaction would be that of repulsion. In fact I have come to realize that reading Lost in the Funhouse in 2016 is actually a fascinating transposition that further highlights the true hidden horror of Barth’s series of short stories.
My first hint of this “hidden horror” came from reading James Burton Fulmer’s paper “‘First Person Anonymous’: Sartrean Ideas of Consciousness in Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse.” Fulmer offers an alternative reading that pushes Barth’s metafictional experiments to the background and pushes forward a Sartrean reading. “It considers the nothingness of consciousness, as well as the resulting impossibility of being sincere or explaining an act. It explores the concepts of facticity and transcendence, existence and essence, as well as ego and spontaneity” (335). Fulmer points out that Barth’s first two novels The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, both deal explicitly with Sartre’s philosophy in their respective topics of suicide and abortion (335-336). Although I do not know much about Sartre’s philosophy, I do get the gist of existential philosophy and can see Fulmer’s reading of Lost in the Funhouse. In almost all the stories, Barth’s characters explicitly struggle with their existence. Some even contemplate suicide. For example, Ambrose at the end of “Lost in the Funhouse” “wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not” (Lost 97). Narcissus in “Echo,” once he knows himself has “resolved to do away with himself and his beloved. Together now, Adored-in-vain, farewell!” (Lost 101). Another example is the spermatozoa narrator in “Night-Sea Journey” as he deals with the conjectures of a cynical spermatozoa:
He quite agreed with me that if the issue of that magical union had no memory of the night-sea journey, for example, it enjoyed a poor sort of immortality; even poorer if, as he rather imagined, a swimmer-hero plus a She equaled or became merely another Maker of future night-seas and the rest, as such incredible expense of life. This being the case–he was persuaded it was–the merciful thing to do was to refuse to participate; the genuine heroes, in his opinion, were the suicides, and the hero of heroes would be the swimmer who, in the very presence of the Other, refused. (Lost 11)
Reading Lost in the Funhouse for Sartrean ideas of consciousness, however, does not resolve my repulsion. One reason is that “according to Sartre, sincerity is impossible for the same reason that explaining an action is impossible, and that reason is the nature of consciousness” (Fulmer 336). The problem here being that a Sartrean reading of Lost in the Funhouse is still entrapped in self-consciousness and thus still forces the reader to consider Barth’s metafictional experiments at the language level. Take for example “Life-Story” where “D comes to suspect that the world is a novel, himself a fictional personage” (Lost 117). Barth is working on two levels of self-consciousness–the meta-level and the narrative-level–and it becomes impossible to read one without acknowledging the other. The meta-level, under the right lens, I would argue, can transform Lost in the Funhouse to postmodern art object, revealing book and language as constructs. The implication being that Barth’s evocation of existentialist ideas most strongly takes the form of an object rather than through stories about human people. There is something instinctively repulsive about metafiction with an existential bent because it is this juxtaposition that ends up illuminating the postmodern art object. Paradoxically, getting to this explanation requires consciousness, even though, as Sartre suggests, that is impossible. To clarify my out of context reading of this Sartrean concept via Fulmer, I would point out that while the exact meaning is impossible, people are still free to create their own interpretations.
Charles B. Harris in his paper “The Anxiety of Influence: The John Barth/David Foster Wallace Connection” mentions that “Barth’s starting point is that human ‘reality’ is constructed, mediated by our symbol systems” (Anxiety 103). If that is the case, maybe underneath all of Barth’s cleverness, wordplay, metaphor, parody, mythology, allusions and references there is really nothing. Take for example, “Menelaiad” at the seventh nested story when some version of Menelaus asks the oracle “Espouse? Espouse her? As lover? Advocate? Husband? Can’t you speak more plainly? Who am I?” (Lost 158). The oracle responds with blank spaces inside the quotes and outside of the nested quotes (Lost 158). There are a couple things to point out here. First is the ambiguity of “epouse,” which Menelaus cannot decide the meaning of marriage, what role he is to play, an idea that speaks to modern times. Marriage is a loaded word, and thus points out a feature of language, the capacity for multiple meanings, much like an image. This feature can also be seen as a drawback, because the possibility for alternative interpretations allows for the possibility of misunderstandings as illustrated by Menelaus’ frustration at the oracle’s crypticness. Secondly, is the blank space. There is, first, the outside white space, that breaks conventional formatting of paragraphs and seems to enact, using language, silence before and after the oracle’s response. And then there is the blank space between the quotes, which is different than no spaces inside the quotes. The former possibility suggesting more potential meanings aside from silence. For instance, an inaudible whisper or a blank to be filled in. Or in Benzi Zhang’s paper “Paradox of Origin( ality ): John Barth’s ‘Menelaiad’,” the nested quotes are interpreted as a mystic effect, “like breaking boxes on all layers only to find that there is nothing at the center” (201). Zhang goes on to say that the “blank at the center of oracle’s answer implies that language is a paradox that denies the certainty of any original ‘truth.’ Oracle’s puzzling answer is like a Zen master’s enlightenment, which is paradoxically above human language yet must be communicated in it” (201). I do not completely agree with connecting the blank space to a Zen Master’s enlightenment in that I interpret the oracle’s nothingness as more akin to the representation of zero and null, which are both symbols for versions of nothingness, but do not purport a larger meaning in the way of a Zen koan.
As with Menelaus who travelled through seven layers of nested narratives only to get nothing from the oracle, the reader goes through a similar journey. The initial layer being the cleverness, gags, jokes, wordplay and gimmicks that Barth employs, which work on an aesthetic and pleasure level. Once the reader no longer sees Barth’s metafictional techniques as clever and amusing, they move into the next layer, which requires that they be self-conscious of the writer’s craft, for which they are helped along by the previously discussed juxtaposition of narratives about storytelling and metafictive interruptions. And assuming Barth agrees with Sartre in regards to the impossibility of sincerity due to consciousness, then it’s possible that the reader, like I did, will conclude that Lost in the Funhouse lacks heart. Harris, based on his interpretation that David Foster “Wallace misperceives an absence of love in Barth’s work” (Anxiety 119), seems to think otherwise. This perceived and possibly intentional misperception, Harris says, leads Wallace, in his novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” to describe metafiction as “the act of a lonely solipsist’s self-love” (Anxiety 119). In Harris’s paper “‘A Continuing, Strange Love Letter’: Sex and Language in Lost in the Funhouse” he suggests that the “relationship between sex and language–ultimately, between sex and art” (107) is Barth’s main concern in Lost in the Funhouse. Harris makes the connection that like “the act of sex, the acts of reading and writing are forms of love–love in the mythic sense, love as the desire to overcome all dualisms and to heal permanently the primordial breach between man and the other” (123). I am more inclined to agree with Wallace’s critique of metafiction and Barth. The lack of heart is a necessity. As the narrator in “Echo” says, “To see the truth is one thing, to speak about it another” (Lost 101). To see is to innately experience truth. To speak can be false. The speaker may be lying or the listener may not take the words to heart. This is the pattern of conflict that arises in the stories of Lost in the Funhouse. Harris seems to confuse discussing love on an intellectual level as being the same as experiencing love on a visceral level.
Fiction can make readers cry, but it requires the fictional dream remain undisturbed, which Barth clearly and purposefully subverts. Harris concludes his paper with: “As a record of that struggle, art remains as vitally necessary to the survival of the human race as does sex. ‘A continuing, strange love letter,’ it preserves the ontological conversation that is man” (Strange 124). Harris’s concern is with the ontological implications of love and art in Barth’s text, which if true supports Wallace’s critique. Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, as if responding to the academic work of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and Jame Joyce’s Ulysses, seems to invite scholarly discourse, but potentially in a parodic way. Barth’s author note states that the Lost in the Funhouse is “neither a collection nor a selection, but a series” (xi) and that “the series will be seen to have been meant to be received ‘all at once’” (xi). The phrasing is peculiar because it implies that this way of reading the book is not necessarily the right way. In fact, I think the author’s note is a red herring. Barth’s use of “series” is meant to throw off readers searching for cohesion. Reading for a common narrative thread between the stories only leads to frustration, a feeling that the author is toying with the reader, the joke being that there is no central narrative, only connections that can be interpreted in many ways. I am inclined to believe that this alienation serves a purpose beyond the aesthetic. The repulsion is necessary to elevate Lost in the Funhouse to art. In “The Literature of Exhaustion” there is a description of a technically up-to-date artist, which I believe Barth categorizes himself as:
In the third category belong the few people whose artistic thinking is as au courant as any French New Novelist’s, but who manage nonetheless to speak eloquently and memorably to our human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done. (67)
Although I understand that we cannot take an author’s self-proclaimed views on art too seriously, this particular viewpoint, in its genericness, seems like something most artists would strive for. The problem of writing about the human condition in Lost in the Funhouse goes back to the impossibility of sincerity in the postmodern mode, and also the decentralization of meaning, for which the burden is offloaded from the writer to the reader. Marjorie Worthington in her paper “Done with Mirrors: Restoring the Authority Lost in John Barth’s Funhouse” suggests that “at the same time Lost in the Funhouse seems to invite increased reader participation in the construction of textual meaning, it also engages in an attempt to revalidate the figure of the author as a powerful and conscious constructor of narrative” (124). I agree with Worthington that the deconstructionist and authorial readings can coexist. What is the authorial interpretation, but yet another point of view? Worthington makes a strong point that “a talented author figure is necessary to lead literature through the maze exhausted forms is also a recognition of the necessity of a coherent, if constructed, subjectivity at the heart of the narrative” (133). This echoes Barth’s third category of artist, which requires virtuosity to achieve. Authorial power, however, does not solve the problem of sincerity. It merely gives the artist the capability. I will cede that heart is not required to speak about the human condition. We can speak about it from a self-conscious perspective. For instance, we could take a scientific or academic approach. But would it be memorable? Certainly it’s possible. Which brings me to the final layer that the reader must unveil, which is the possibility that Barth’s pointing out that the meaninglessness of life is central to the human condition, that after removing all the veils is not a naked Helen, but nothing at all. Although Barth uses language to lead the reader to this potential conclusion, I would argue it’s the realization that what we have in our hands is a postmodern art object that most fiercely elicits this primal repulsion. Like the Möbius strip the reader is asked to construct in “Frame Tale” (Lost 1-2), the reader cannot tell which side is reality and which side is fiction. Instead both are merged into one continuous strip. Or alternatively, if the reader agrees with Barth via Harris “that human ‘reality’ is constructed, mediated by our symbol systems” (Anxiety 103), they can think of it as always being one side. I would also argue that the construction of the Möbius strip, the physicality of tearing and folding a page from Lost in the Funhouse serves to further ingrain in the reader’s consciousness that what’s in front of them is a book.
The funhouse in “Lost in the Funhouse” can be read as a metaphor for the human condition, specifically that we, like Ambrose, are all trapped inside its walls and distorted mirrors. Whether the reader is aware of this reality or not is what makes them an Ambrose or a Peter, respectively. “For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers” (Lost 72) is how the narrator, presumably Ambrose, starts “Lost in the Funhouse.” Barth seems to suggest that love is a necessary veil to survive in the funhouse. Like the night-sea journey, if it “has justification, it is not for us swimmers to ever discover it” (Lost 5). It is why “Peter and Magda found the right exit; he found the one that you weren’t supposed to find and strayed off into the works somewhere. In a perfect funhouse you’d be able to only go one way” (Lost 85). Peter and Magda escape the physical funhouse because they cannot see the metaphysical one due to the distraction of love, an innately primal emotion. More importantly, love implies companionship, it implies a meaningful relationship like the joy and pleasure of reading a book that pulls you into the fictional dream, hence why Barth subverts the reader’s expectations and in an attempt to put us in Ambrose’s state of self-consciousness. Unlike the cynical spermatozoa in “Night-Sea Journey,” Barth chooses not to tell the reader directly, but instead uses metafiction, metaphors and juxtapositions to communicate his point subliminally. For example, the book is called Lost in the Funhouse but within the series is also a story called “Lost in the Funhouse.” This juxtaposition implies two layers of funhouses, which inductively could imply an infinite number of funhouses similar to the nested narratives of “Menelaiad” where the existence of various versions of Menelaus depend on the outer narrative. Like shapeshifting Proteus, the funhouse is a short story; the funhouse is a book; the funhouse is language; the funhouse is consciousness. The paradox is we cannot escape the funhouse by being aware of being inside the funhouse. Realizing you’re in a funhouse only serves to illuminate the meaningless of life.
In “Menelaiad” Barth seems to suggest that it is possible to ignore the existence of the funhouse. Zhang points out that Menelaus ignores the possibility of Helen’s adultery and decides to love her anyway (206), which parallels Proteus’ explanation of Helen’s position. She “chose you without reason because she loves you without cause; embrace her without question” (Lost 161). More specifically, Zhang’s interpretation is that “Menelaus comes to accept the limitation of words in spite of the possible untruthfulness of them” (206). The limitation of words here, to me, speaks to the ambiguity of language, which allows for the creation of multiple narratives or realities. Menelaus chooses to say, “I believe all. I understand nothing. I love you” (Lost 162). To believe without understanding, to love without reason is typically thought of as naive, and can be read as going back to a pre-modern mode of thought. “Night-Sea Journey” is another story where self-consciousness is overcome by “‘Love! Love! Love!” (13). The narrator ends up joining with the Her despite the fact that the veil has been lifted for him. This results in the continuation of the cycle of life. The circularity suggests a primal gravity toward repetition, stasis, and the status quo which overrides the narrator’s self-conscious knowledge. This begs the question: is it possible to remove all the veils?
By thinking about Lost in the Funhouse and writing this meditation on my repulsion, I have strangely and unexpectedly extracted something meaningful, which paradoxically could repudiate my argument that the book is a postmodern art object representing the meaninglessness of life. But I do not think it does, because the meaning I get is of a personal nature, a single reader’s interpretation. Like our spermatozoa hero in “Night-Sea Journey,” I have felt compelled to create meaning even if that interpretation is one of meaninglessness. It is, however, a self-conscious meaninglessness, which is paradoxically meaningful. This paradox illustrates the problem of being lost in the funhouse. Reader interpretation is a way to extract meaning, a way to tell stories in order to make meaning out of an inanimate object–a book and the printed symbols on its pages–all of which prevents the reader from escaping the funhouse. This problem also afflicts the writer whose existence depends on the reader. D continues to exist in “Life-Story” so long as his story is being read, thus creating a metaphysical connection through language, the possibility of another bringing credibility to his reality:
Read him fast or slow, intermittently, continuously, repeatedly, backward, not at all, he won’t know it; he only guesses someone’s reading or composing sentences such as this one; the net effect is that there’s a net effect, of continuity and an apparent consistent flow of time. (Lost 128)
The uncertainty of readership is problematic for D. If he knew for sure that no one was reading, then he would not exist as a character in the imagination of his readers. The uncertainty is fostered by D’s self-consciousness, which projects the possibility of readers, and thus creates his meta-narrative, for which his existence depends on his own mind, through language. D is able to escape his dilemma by using his self-consciousness against himself. Specifically he uses logic, a syllogism that goes: In the corpus of all fiction there has never been a character that believed they were a fictional character; D is a fictional character who believes he is a fictional character in a story; therefore D is not a fictional character (Lost 129). This syllogism, however, is fallacious since the premise is false. The corpus of all fiction is relegated to D’s knowledge, which requires that D rule out the existence of other fictions, which clashes with his belief in the possibility of someone out there reading. D also does not consider that more fictions can be created; all stories have not been told. Thus, like Menelaus ignoring Helen’s infidelity, D chooses to believe his syllogism is logically sound; he creates a new narrative for himself, and returns to his wife who wishes him happy birthday and kisses him to “obstruct his view of the end of the sentence” (Lost 129). By blocking the sentence, D is able to leave the funhouse in the same way Magda and Peter do.
But what of Ambrose who is unable to to ignore his self-consciousness? Because he cannot commit suicide and is stuck in the funhouse, he chooses to “construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator–though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed (Lost 97). Ambrose’s decision to create funhouses for others is a way to create meaning using language. Like D, he cannot be sure that others will read his stories, but he has no choice but to believe in that possibility. To be a “secret operator” gives Ambrose a purpose, a meaning to his life, even if he would rather be among the lovers. Ambrose is able to create meaning for himself in a situation that appears futile, where all around him are the distorted images of himself. Even if his reasoning may be true or false, self-consciousness makes it impossible not to create meaning, for without it, it would be as if he did not exist.
The nameless minstrel in “Anonymiad” who is stranded on an island alone survives by telling stories as well. In fact, he writes the first fictions on goat vellum and sends them out to sea in bottles with his sperm in hopes his stories will be read by others. Here is what the minstrel says of his discovery:
That is, I found that by pretending that things had happened, which in fact had not, and that people existed who didn’t, I could achieve a lovely truth which actuality obscures–especially when I learned to abandon myth and pattern my fabrications on actual people and events. (Lost 193)
Truth, the minstrel suggests, does not depend on consensus reality. In fact, truth gets obscured by that reality. The minstrel, as storyteller, uses carefully worded language to tell stories that express a purer truth, even as the story blends real and fabricated events and people, including his own story about being stranded on an island. Whether his beliefs are true or not, it is clear that the minstrel believes in the power of his fictions. Ursula Mackenzie in her paper “John Barth’s Chimera and the Strictures of Reality” points out that the death and suffering brought on by World War II presents a truth about the human condition that people may not want to bear. “The fear of social reality may lead to a creation of alternative fictional realities as an escape, or an attempt to shock the reader into a recognition of the danger inherent in that reality” (91). Mackenzie, however, suggests that Barth is doing neither of these things, because art cannot redeem or spare us from the horrors of life. Instead she validates Chimera by concluding that the “human mind is a free-ranging creature and the element of fantasy in all our lives should indicate the validity of the truth presented to us in this novel: that we need to allow our imagination a certain freedom from the strictures of reality” (101). Essentially fantasy and imagination are ways to “enrich our spirits along the painful way” (101). This is slightly different than escapism or facing consensus reality head on. Instead what Mackenzie proposes is a middle-way, a balance between escapism and acknowledging the reality of life. A similar balance is struck in Lost in the Funhouse. Through Barth’s metafictive intrusions, the reader is physically repulsed into seeing the potential emptiness of humanity, but at the same time the protagonists in the book create their own meaning by telling stories that allows them to live on despite the horrors they face.
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Mackenzie, Ursula. “John Barth’s “chimera” and the Strictures of Reality”. Journal of American Studies 10.1 (1976): 91–101. Web.
Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. New York: Back Bay, 1998. 21-82. Print.
Worthington, Marjorie. “Done with Mirrors: Restoring the Authority Lost in John Barth’s Funhouse”. Twentieth Century Literature 47.1 (2001): 114–136. Web.
Zhang, Benzi. “Paradox of Origin(Ality): John Barth’s Menelaiad.” Studies in Short Fiction 32: 199-208. Web.