Let’s cut to the chase here. No beating around the bush. Right in the intro to this story, it says:
The title story, “Lost in the Funhouse,” like his other short experimental pieces in the collection, suggests that Barth is self-consciously concerned with what happens when a writer writes, and what happens when a reader reads.
What this means is that this story is really damned meta. Flaubert went on record saying that the author should be like god in the world, everywhere present and no where visible. John Barth clearly holds no truck with Flaubert, because you can’t go two lines in this story without running into him.
This is what I’m talking about, from the very beginning of the story:
For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion. He has come to the seashore with his family for the holiday, the occasion of their visit is Independence Day, the most important secular holiday of the United States of America. A single straight underline is the manuscript mark for italic type, which in turn is the printed equivelent to oral emphasis of words and phrases as well as the customary type for titles of complete works, not to mention.
See what I mean? However, you quickly adjust to the tone, the style. ‘Oh,’ you think, ‘Mr. Barth is forcing us to become aware of the story as medium, to become aware of the very act of our reading his story.’ And, that realized and accepted, you’re off, following his tangents and asides, his questions and doubts, and somewhere in the middle of all that, Ambrose’s story.
Does it work? For the most part, yes. The third quarter kind of dragged for me. By then the novelty had worn off, and since it’s about 17 large pages worth of small type, it became a bit of a slog. But Mr. Barth (can I call him John?) is pretty witty, light on his feet, and you find yourself following his existential tap dancing with interest. He often stops and asks himself where his own story is going, if it’s on topic, or irretrievably off; he is madly in love with fragments, with saying things for effect, and then stepping back and admiring his own words, italicizing them so you can’t miss the stylized and artificial nature of what he just said.
It’s like he read Ulysses, was super impressed, and gave his own crack at it. The result is interesting, mildly annoying, amusing and perhaps could use a little paring. ‘Ha ha!’ you say, then again, ‘Ha ha!’ Mr. Barth turns and gyres and amuses and winks, and you keep on chortling until you kind of get tired, and then you’re going, ‘Ha ha, got it, okay already.’
But it’s good. Mr. Barth builds some genuine sexual tension (and creepily keeps on insisting, for effect, that all these young girls are remarkably physically developed for their age). You really get deep into Ambrose’s head, and Mr. Barth achieves, at the very end, a wistful sense of estrangement, of Ambrose peering at the rest of humanity through a window, screened off by his own sensitivity and insecurity.
It’s as if Jim Carey had written Joyce’s The Dead, really. A ton of seemingly frivolous, over the top detail and asides that set up the rug to be pulled out from under your feet, leaving you with a serious epiphany. Joyce himself defined an epiphany as:
a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself.
It is in the trivial moments of life, when things are vulgar, common, that a chasm can open up under your feet and reveal to you some inner truth.
Mr. Barth clearly took this to heart, drank seven Red Bulls, and then wrote Lost in the Funhouse.