Done with Mirrors: Restoring the Authority Lost in John Barth's Funhouse

By Worthington, Marjorie | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Done with Mirrors: Restoring the Authority Lost in John Barth's Funhouse


Worthington, Marjorie, Twentieth Century Literature


Although narrative self-consciousness is by no means specific to the contemporary period, the particularly rampant metafictional self-reflexivity demonstrated in Lost in the Funhouse has often been touted as one of the principal traits of postmodern fiction. As Linda Hutcheon says, "What we tend to call postmodernism in literature today is usually characterized by intense self-reflexivity and overtly parodic intertextuality" ("Historiographic" 3). Postmodern fiction, then, often exhibits a metafictional quality. Metafiction is typically defined as "fiction about fiction--that is, fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity" (Hutcheon, Narcissistic 11). In other words, metafiction focuses as much if not more on its own processes of creation as on a "story" in the usual sense. John Barth, widely considered to be the preeminent American metafictionist, directly confronts issues of selfhood and authorship in his Lost in the Funhouse series. [1]

However, instead of challenging the primacy of authorship, Barth's metafictional experiments serve to cement the author into a position of authority over the text. Linda A. Westervelt writes: "John Barth ... takes the inner division that results from self-consciousness and, by metaphoric extension, makes it a resource--namely, the subject of his fiction" (42). Many of Barth's works not only employ but also thematize the complications arising from an increasingly intrusive narrative self-consciousness that arises, according to Jerome Klinkowitz, from Barth's sense that his era ad rejected the Cartesian definition of ego so central to traditional novelistic design. A hero could no longer speak with confidence and coherence and so define himself, since under contemporary philosophical pressure the old cogito, ergo sum had become a farcically painful lie. (408)

Although Barth's heroes are unable to define themselves through their narratives, they experience an almost desperate need to continue the attempt. The result is that most of the stories in the series depict narrators as authors so aware of themselves and so concerned with the effect of this awareness on their waning creative powers that they cannot avoid continually inserting their presence into the stories they narrate. Their overt authorial presence threatens to derail the narratives, making them unable to come to a fruitful end. Instead, they twist and turn on themselves, leaving the reader with the difficult and perhaps impossible task of sorting out product from process, story from narration.

Because of the intricacy of these stories, much of the critical discussion surrounding Lost in the Funhouse has focused on the increased burden of interpretation that metafiction forces on the reader. The argument has often been made that the intricacy of the text, coupled with the apparent failure of the narrator to control and shape the story, forces the reader to construct a meaning for the text and thereby to participate in the construction of the work itself. In the face of postmodern indeterminacy, interpretive authority no longer resides with authors, and singularity of meaning no longer exists. As Deborah A. Woolley puts it, criticism about metafiction

substitutes a heroics of text and language for the older heroics of creative genius and imagination. The text ... accepts the existentialist challenge to confront the lack of a center at the heart of language and to dwell in that void. (460)

Many critics have pointed out that Lost in the Funhouse invites such an interpretation by repeatedly suggesting that traditional narrative forms and the authors who construct them have lost their power to find or depict a coherent meaning.

However, what is often overlooked is metafiction's inherent and inevitable preoccupation with the creative power of the author. At the same time that they lament the diminished capacity of the narrator to construct a proper story, the self-conscious moments in Lost in the Funhouse point necessarily to the existence of a creator, of an author.

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