It’s been a while since I’ve written about a stolen book (ostensibly, this blog is all about book theft. But we’re easily distracted here). John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse is one of my favorite short story collections ever and it’s been MIA from my library for a couple of years now. The collection starts with “Frame Tale,” a one-page (front and back) meta-commentary that informs the whole text. “Frame Tale” is essentially a marginal strip which says “Once upon a time…” on one side and “there was a tale that began…” on the other. The accompanying directions (a number of the stories come with directions; some are to be read aloud, some are to be tape recorded and played back, some are to be read aloud along to looped recording) direct the reader to cut out a strip of paper and connect the opposing ends, creating a Möbius strip, a commentary on the infinite and cyclical nature of story-telling (Barth expanded on this theme in the three linked novellas of Chimera).
My favorite story in the collection is “Petition,” a letter from a distraught Siamese twin, but the most lauded tale in LITF is the title story. “Lost in the Funhouse” recounts the adventures of young Ambrose as he navigates a bizarre amusement park funhouse during a family vacation to the beach one summer. The story is shot through with sexual anxiety and familial tension; Ambrose’s confused (and sometimes confusing) narrative loops discursively, unwinding and then condensing as he trips over his own thoughts. David Foster Wallace riffs off of “Lost in the Funhouse” in his long short story “Westward the Course of Empire Goes” (from Girl With Curious Hair). Ambrose, a semi-autobiographical stand-in as Barth’s pubescent alter-ego, appears as a a much older writing teacher in DFW’s novella. Clever, hunh? And to think, some people hate post-modernism! I feel bad for these folks.
I think that this collection paired with DFW’s Girl With Curious Hair (or, even better Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) makes a great introduction to post-modern writing. The major tropes, themes, and devices are explored in these books in short, digestible chunks full of humor and (surprise!) emotion. Highly recommended.