Node Your Homework!
John Barth's short story 'Lost in the Funhouse' attempts to be a perfect marriage of style, form, and content. Using the structure of a funhouse or a labyrinth as its guide, it constructs and reflects the mind of a precocious adolescent.
When the story starts, the path is clearly marked. The characters are sitting in a car, making a journey they have often made. Everybody knows where they are going; the interjection in the story of facts about punctuation, grammar, and the like serves to illustrate this fact. But as the story winds on, it attempts to create a constant mood, a sense of confinement, of no resolution. Every possible resolution, every possible climax or story, leads nowhere. Ambrose can't just die, can't just switch off his life. There is no blind Negro girl, no easy moral or simple solution. There is just his thoughts winding in on themselves like that funhouse, a constant maze.
This spiraling, maze-like structure is achieved through the use of third-person limited omnicient POV. We are not sure if we are seeing through Ambrose's POV within the funhouse, through the author's eyes, or through the eyes of an adult Ambrose who has somehow escaped the funhouse (this could be the author).
The third-person POV, whoever it represents, creates an extraordinary sense of claustrophobia, as every event, association, and thought is seen through this precocious mind. This is a mind that revisits thoughts ('As James Joyce once wrote', 'she was very well-developed for her age', Peter's constant teasing of Magda) in new configurations, using them like the funhouse mirror itself and making it hard to see anything outside Ocean City, Magda, Peter, and Ambrose's own feelings of inadequacy. The story is successful in this regard because it traps us like Ambrose may or may not be trapped in that funhouse; every statement leads to an ambiguity, or a correction. At certain points, the internal reality of the story breaks down:
'Naturally he didn't have nerve enough to ask Magda to go through the funhouse with him. With incredible nerve and to everyone's surprise he invited Magda, quietly and politely, to go through the funhouse with him'. (pg 90) Moments like these serve several functions. By calling into doubt the reality of the story, they serve the metaphor of the funhouse, a place where things are changed and mutated. They also reinforce the questions of narrator and authorship that wind through the story: is this a story being written and constantly revised by John Barth? Are these Ambrose's ramblings as he sits, dying 'telling stories to himself in the dark' (pg 95)? How much of the story is 'true' in any sense?
These questions illustrate that the story is, as Barth hints in the last sentence, an elaborate structural creation more then a coherent narrative. If we take the last sentence of the story: 'Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator-- though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed' as a statement of authorial intent, then every time we question the truth of the narrator and the narrative we are demonstrating how successful Barth is in his purpose. It is noteworthy that the few specific funhouse attractions he mentions are means of upending and disturbing balance and vision: the mirrors, the revolving drum, the spinning disks.
All this formal invention is put towards answering Barth's own question (or is it a quotation?): 'Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, then the problems of sensitive adolescents?' It is here that the reason for Barth's continual evocation of James Joyce becomes relevant. Like Joyce did in 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' and several chapters of 'Ulysses', Barth rescues this moribund genre through original formal invention. By placing us firmly in the eyes and mind of an ultimate 'sensitive adolescent', somebody who is too bound up with metaphors, stories, and other literary devices to enjoy the simple fun of a funhouse, an older brother, and a girl ('His brother was a happy go lucky youngster who'd've been better off with a regular brother of his own'), Barth magnifies all his problems and thoughts a thousandfold. Little things gain significance, and the thought of one girl becomes almost everything.
That is not to say the story is without humor, but like Fat May's laugh it is a mocking humor, a self-reflexive humor. Ambrose's dreams of a life with Magda are stiflinglu bourgeoisie, complete with pipe and sweater. He is also pedantic to a fault, and as he realizes, 'nobody likes a pedant'. Still, the novelty of the story's form and its complete structural continuity (there is nothing in it that does not reflect the idea of the funhouse) invite some sympathy with Ambrose, and the palpable sense of fear and confinement as the reader realizes there is no escape from the story is masterful.