In his introduction to this collection of tales, John Barth warns that writing shorting stories isn't his strong suit; he'd rather write novels. Well, I thought, you don't have to read the goat entrails to see this isn't an auspicious augur since *reading* short stories isn't my mine; I prefer novels. Could it be worse? As writer and reader we were perfectly matched: that is, perfectly wrong for each other. What a surprise then! Turns out either writer and/or reader were both happily mistaken and/or correct yet fortuitously found the slim exception to the rule. *Lost in the Funhouse* is a remarkable book--a stunning sampling of erudition, wit, originality, and linguistic pyrotechnics of such deft complexity I dare you not to get lost at least half a dozen times and I double-dare you not to laugh out loud at least as many.
Be forewarned: these aren't the O Henry! type short stories of your grandpappy's day--the kind with clear-cut beginnings, waistlines, and back ends. They aren't cluttered with all those moth-ridden, mold-covered boxes of conceptual costumes from the prehistory of narrative: stuff like character, conflict, setting, dramatic progression, etc. If you're looking for Hemingway or Steinbeck, read Hemingway or Steinbeck. There are characters in Barth's fiction--"voices" properly speaking--but who are they, who are you, who is the author? There is a setting--but exactly where is it, where is anything, are we only *just* imagining it all? There is a story, of sorts--but it's fractured, inconsistent, starts somewhere, progresses a while and could end, like life, like this sentence, at any time, anywhere.
The subjects of these stories are as wildly unlikely as the method of their telling, including: a sperm's journey; Menelaus and Helen after the Trojan War; a young boy's surrealistic experience in a decrepit funhouse by the shore. The stories are linked, so says their author, but only in the most oblique of ways, so says this reader. But it's not important--they each stand alone, linked most obviously by Barth's main concern: the difficulty--if not the sheer impossibility--of telling a simple story at all, of getting at the truth, or the fiction.
Many will be perplexed beyond all patience with *Lost in the Funhouse,* others will dismiss it as self-conscious postmodern prattle, but those who keep going through this maze of distorting mirrors, secret passages, creepy terrors, and ribald comedy will find themselves passing themselves in opposite directions, mystified, charmed, and not a little disconcerted. Barth tells a complex story by *not* telling a story better than most writers tell a story. He clearly knows his way around the conventions and uses them to illustrate how utterly inadequate the conventions are to describing our experience. Barth doesn't bring you to the end or even back to the beginning; he brings you back to the middle which is where you showed up in the first place, exactly where you were when you first realized you were lost.
You can't reader yourself out of this funhouse no more than Barth could write himself out of it and it's at that point you can begin to relax and enjoy the goofy, cheesy horror of it all.