"Once upon a time there was a story that began…" begins the first story in this landmark collection of postmodern fiction. Barth's instruction is to cut out the phrase and loop it around on itself so that it repeats endlessly. [amtap book:isbn=0385240872]
Barth had written four novels by the time he turned his attention to the short story. Inspired by Borges, he sought to marry form and content in a collection of stories that explored the nature of storytelling itself.
He succeeded in spectacular fashion. Lost in the Funhouse is a stunning work. That's not to say that it's all enjoyable; sometimes these stories are baffling and sometimes they are just downright frustrating. Occasionally, as Barth ties himself in one postmodern, metafictional knot after another, you'll want to grab him by the lapels and make him stop.
It's still stunning, even then.
And when it works, as it does brilliantly in the title story (but not the story 'Title', which is a different piece) it's wonderful. Lost in the Funhouse, the title story, is both the tale of a young boy lost, unsurprisingly, in a fairground funhouse, and of the struggle of the author, trapped in the workings of his story.
It's the third of three stories to focus on Ambrose, a young boy growing up in Barth's native Maryland. The first, 'Ambrose His Mark' is excellent and vaguely - only vaguely - reminded me of Kafka. The second, 'Water-Message', is a coming of age story that closes with a gentle metafictional nod.
Much of the book explores the relationship between the written and spoken word. The collection's original subtitle was "Fiction for print, tape, live voice" and several of the pieces are meant to be read aloud.
In the second half of the collection Barth explores Greek mythology in his own idiosyncratic way. The final story, 'Anonymiad', is excellent and reminiscent of The Sot-Weed Factor while also drawing on The Odyssey. It is also, of course, about storytelling and, in particular, the shift from an oral to a written tradition. Barth portrays the transition in a way that is both sympathetic and witty.
'Menelaiad', meanwhile, nests narrative inside narrative inside narrative in a way that is essentially impossible to follow without the aid of a diagram. I didn't even try, just allowed the writing to wash past me, picking out scraps of meaning as they went by.
If you're frustrated with Barth, the feeling is mutual. "The reader!" he writes at one point, "You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented bastard, it's you I'm addressing, who else, from inside this monstrous fiction. You've read me this far, then? Even this far? For what discreditable motive? How is it you don't go to a movie, watch TV, stare at a wall, play tennis with a friend, make amorous advances to the person who comes to your mind when I speak of amorous advances? Can nothing surfeit, saturate you, turn you off? Where's your shame?"
Plenty of readers will consider themselves saturated by the halfway point of this collection. It's well worth trying, though. This is an important book.