Thursday, April 07, 2005

Book 1: Lost in the Funhouse, by John Barth (Infinite Feast XV)

When I chose Lost in the Funhouse for the latest installment of "Infinite Feast", I had no illusions about what I was getting myself into. My first introduction to John Barth's seemingly boundless imagination was The Floating Opera and I've been an avid fan and admirer of the Maryland-born author ever since. Like other so-called "post-modern" authors (Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace), Barth's work both refutes and embodies the nearly indefinable label. Lost in the Funhouse was his first venture into an organized collection of short fiction and owes a tremendous debt to Borges' Ficciones and labrynth metaphors. As in all of Barth's work, the stories contained in Lost in the Funhouse are unconvential and push the limits of form, content, and style in literature.

Danny and I both agreed that the title story was our favorite. In the introduction Barth cites the story as being minimally autobiographical, but to call the story a memoir would be like saying Gravity's Rainbow is a war novel. At some points in the piece, I'd have a hard time stating "Lost in the Funhouse" was a short story at all. Barth follows a young man along with his parents, older brother, and the brother's girlfriend on a trip to Ocean City, Marlyand during World War II. The spectre of the war floats over the story and yet is central to the plot (it reminded me of World War I and To The Lighthouse). In the same way that, the author floats over Barth's characters, constantly reminding both reader and characters that this is indeed a work of fiction. Barth's characters are frequently aware of their status as figments of another's imagination and yet, at the same time, realize their relative freedom. The metaphor to humanity can be drawn: our lives are both determined and free, restricted and limitless. In this story, Barth draws out that comparison beautifully. Especially appealing was the way Barth would point out how his story failed to follow the course of other fictions, or how the plot wasn't progressing. This would be a theme throughout all the stories, as through the fictionalized writers of the stories, Barth questions his own (and perhaps all experimental writers) ability to create. At question here is not just writing, but the entire creative process.

Barth asks a lot of his readers and sometimes his mind proved too much for me to handle. This was especially true in the book's final two Greek myth-based stories, "Menelaiad" and "Anonymiad", where a conflux of narrative voices combine to the point where it is near impossible to know who is speaking at any given time. But, with both stories, though I'm sure a lot went over my head, I was still left with something great to take away. In "Menelaiad", the idea that love defies explanation and yet remains essential, emerges from the deconstructed retelling of Helen and Menelaus. In the introduction, Barth advices that some of the stories are best when read aloud or heard on tape. Perhaps this is the only way to decipher the multi-layered complexities of some of these stories. Barth's prose is highly allusive and reading him is like having a conversation with Stephen Hawking about space - you're constantly reminded of your own lack of knowledge.

While each story is its own distinct work, it feeds into the larger themes of the work. Across stories, Barth questions the writer's role in the world, if he even still has a place now that the novel has been officially declared dead. The idea that everything has already been said or written seems to haunt his characters. The ideas lingered in my mind for days afterward. In "Night-Sea Journey", Barth uses sperm (sorry to ruin the surprise, but as Barth says in the afterward, the main character is not a fish and leaves the rest for the reader to figure out. I solved the riddle only after prodding from Danny) for his characters, bringing out their short lifespans and the unknown purpose of their lives as being eerily akin to all of humankinds, even paralleling the terminus of fertilization with heaven. It's a marvelous and innovative choice on Barth's part, something only he could pull-off (no pun intended).

I could go on ad infinitum, but I know I'd still leave something unsaid (looking back over this, I realize I already have, having completely ignored the ever-present topic of sexuality present in this and all Barth's work). Barth has that effect on the reader. At the end of our discussion, Danny and I had reached the same conclusion. Barth is not for everybody. Perhaps he is only for college level English classes, literature professors, and readers that are willing to explore difficult, experimental fiction. However, maybe the limited appeal isn't such a bad thing. The world needs writers like John Barth. He's a voice willing to be different, willing to challenge the reader's assumptions, willing to do what other writer's would find too risky or just plain weird. Some of the pieces succeed more than others. But his failures are well worth the read. By the end of the book, I had a smile on my face. I still hadn't found my way out of the funhouse, but I had come to like the place so much, I didn't really care if I had to stay forever.

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