Lost: Lost in the Funhouse

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).

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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.

William Gibson

Just out of high school, I had a mild obsession with William Gibson’s so-called cyberpunk novels. The first and most famous of these is Neuromancer, an incredibly prescient book that the Wachowski Bros. shamelessly ripped off in The Matrix. Neuromancer is the first in “The Sprawl” trilogy; Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive followed. I borrowed and never returned Neuromancer from Tilford; a few years ago I lent it, along with Burning Chrome, Gibson’s collection of short stories, to a student who in turn never returned them. I read Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive at the same time as my college roommate Jordan. I don’t know who has these books now.

In 1990 Gibson co-authored a book called The Difference Engine with Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine posits a Victorian England where computers have already been created and are in use. The novel explores the consequences of a technological revolution coming a 100 years early. This book launched what is sometimes called the “steampunk” genre. After TDE, Gibson spent the 90s writing three novels often referred to as “The Bridge” trilogy: the first, Virtual Light, was pretty good (it had a really cool idea about “organic computers”); the second, Idoru, was pretty bad, really; the last, All Tomorrow’s Parties, was downright awful (I couldn’t finish it–I was embarrassed for one of my favorite authors!) At the beginning of the new millenium, technology had caught up to Gibson’s cyberpunk visions, making some of the details of his Bridge trilogy seem outdated or just plain hokey.

I knew our time together was up when I passed on a $4 copy of 2003’s Pattern Recognition at Barnes & Noble a few years ago. Despite his fiction taking a dip, Gibson’s blog, as well as his essays (often published in Wired magazine–check out what is probably his most famous piece, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”) remain relevant and entertaining. Maybe his forthcoming novel, Spook Country, will prove more entertaining; until then, at least we have the Sprawl Trilogy.

(Check out more William Gibson covers at this gallery)