Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

A book of its time, wildly experimental on the edge of forms, flirting with an identity and abandoning it with glee and malice. This was fun stuff, and I recommend it.

John Barth describes his experimental amalgamation‭ ‬-‭ ‬I hesitate to use the word‭ "‬collection‭" ‬-‭ ‬as something of a novel,‭ ‬in its way.‭ ‬Though individual pieces stand alone as individual stories,‭ ‬once they are placed together they take on a new shape,‭ ‬of a novel-like-object, like mirrors joined together becoming a maze.‭ ‬

The story of Ambrose,‭ ‬then,‭ ‬is the arc of the whole.‭ ‬From the moment of conception,‭ ‬to his imprisonment in the funhouse and iterative imaginative ramblings,‭ ‬the‭ "‬novel‭" ‬tumbles through a series of ideas that form the life of the main character.‭ ‬Despite the clear narrative arc and a beginning that feels like a coming-of-age-as-an-artist novel,‭ ‬that coming-of-age is broken by the mirror maze,‭ ‬and the subsequent Grecian-themed short pieces that follow,‭ ‬re-imagining characters from Greek myth‭ ‬-‭ ‬especially from the era of the Trojan War.‭

Ergo,‭ ‬this is a short novel broken by an accidental entrapment of the mirror maze into Ambrose's solipsism.‭ ‬Naturally,‭ ‬there is a larger metaphor in place,‭ ‬of the artist striving for a perfect union with something other,‭ ‬larger.‭ ‬He can never achieve it,‭ ‬truly,‭ ‬without destroying the self.‭ ‬Each story seems to have elements of self-creation and self-destruction,‭ ‬transformations.‭ ‬Menelaus is transformed by his jealous rage against what he discovers to be a cloud Helen,‭ ‬created by the Gods to taunt him‭ ‬-‭ ‬or so he believes...‭ ‬-‭ ‬and the poet of the Anonymaiad finds perfection of his art only when faced with pure negation on the island apart from his lover,‭ ‬his courtly intrigue.‭ ‬The very first story,‭ ‬of semen swimming upstream to some perfect union will be utterly decimated by union with the object of desire,‭ ‬the female egg.

As an in-between form‭ ‬-‭ ‬part novel,‭ ‬part collection‭ ‬-‭ ‬I wonder which form‭ "‬won‭"‬,‭ ‬so to speak.‭ ‬When these two antagonistic forces are merged,‭ ‬does the work count‭ ‬-‭ ‬formally‭ ‬-‭ ‬as a collection or a novel‭? ‬Barth,‭ ‬alas,‭ ‬does not get the final say in the matter.‭ ‬The story that,‭ ‬I think,‭ ‬best defines this in-between state is the Menelaiad,‭ ‬when Menelaus wrestles with Proteus,‭ ‬and experiences what might as well be a reflection of Ambrose's fate,‭ ‬lost in the mirror maze. ‭ ‬In this,‭ ‬the two conflicting works of art‭ ‬-‭ ‬novel,‭ ‬and short story collection‭ ‬-‭ ‬find a fragmented mirroring state,‭ ‬as if the reflection of Ambrose's mind poured into the mirror maze also comes back into him.‭

As the creator of all these fanciful tales inside the maze,‭ ‬tricksy Proteus,‭ ‬constructing all the world around Menelaus as if creating a dream is Ambrose,‭ ‬blessing Menelaus with an imagined happy ending that will not arrive for Ambrose,‭ ‬lost in the maze.‭

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