It was while reading DFW’s long story (novella, really) "Westward Goes the Course of Empire" (from Girl with Curious Hair) that I first heard of John Barth’s classic story, Lost in the Funhouse." DFW’s story itself was an attempt to destroy the world created by "Lost in the Funhouse;" in "Westward Goes," DFW referrs to "Lost in the Funhouse" as "the greatest metafictional story ever." Then I saw on Girl With Curious Hair’s copyright page that DFW tells us that portions of his collection were first scribbled in the margins of "Lost in the Funhouse."
I quickly realized there was a serious gap in my reading.
When my copy of Barth’s collection Lost in the Funhouse arrived, I first turned to the book’s seventh story, "Lost in the Funhouse." (Unlike some collections, Lost in the Funhouse is meant to be a cohesive whole, and you may even see some benefits to reading it all in order.) Some of Barth’s technique seemed somewhat dated (largely because so many writers were inspired to imitate the very story I was reading), but it was clear that I was in the presence of a master. Regardless of my familiarity with the metafictional aspects, the story was brilliantly conceived, a layered work that both captured the tried-and-true essentials of voice and plot while making implicit, profound points about writing and authorship.
Perhaps the most efficient way to describe "Lost in the Funhoues" is as follows: In the story Barth includes a diagram, with four points labeled A, B, C, and D. A corresponds to a story’s beginning, B it’s instigating incident, C it’s climax, and D its conclusion. Included at the beginning of Lost in the Funhouse is a strip of paper (the longest and shortest story ever). On one side are the words "ONCE UPON A TIME THERE" on the other side ""WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN". We are encouraged to cut the slip of paper out and connect points A, B, C, and D (labeled on the corners of the paper) to make a mobius strip. If you were to do that, the points A, B, C, and D on the strip would bear the same relationship to one another as do the points A, B, C, and D in "Lost in the Funhouse."
I’m finding the rest of this collection to fit this template in one way or another. Some of the stories here have the trappings of the conventional short story–plot, 3-D characters, symbols–but sure enough, Barth finds ways to subvert them (both subtlety and not-so-subtlety). Others of these stories are clearly written to challenge preconceived notions of what a short story is. One of them can have any one of 4 narrators (the 3 characters and Barth himself). Another one consists of the story telling itself.
All the pieces in this collection are united by the common goal of pushing the form forward, of a conscious attempt to not repeat what has come before. It’s an admirable goal, and history has clearly spoken as to whether Barth achieved it or not.
Hopefully, I’ll have time to write more about this collection in upcoming weeks. There’s lots here to talk about.