Many of John Barth's works are marked by an attempt to sort out the maze of self-conception and to determine the effects that too much self-knowledge has on the individual. Barth's protagonists flounder to establish their place in the world, questioning whether they are living out the lives of their true selves or those of selves that they project upon themselves. Delving to the core of such themes, Harold Farwell observes that "as a rejoinder to the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living, Barth once quipped, `King Oedipus and I aren't so sure'" (Farwell 58). The implication is, of course, that while a degree of self-knowledge may be important for a life to be full, an excessive amount could be detrimental to the mental and spiritual being of the individual. Nevertheless, Barth continually forces the protagonists in his fiction--along with the readers thereof--to confront themselves with intense scrutiny.
It is in the experimental Lost in the Funhouse that one can best begin to draw conclusions about the world in which Barth's protagonists dwell, the discrepancies that they find within their selves, and possible ways of dealing with hyper-self-consciousness. The novel(1) is, on its most basic level, the autobiography of Ambrose Mensche, a highly perceptive and self-conscious young man. Told from the depths of the funhouse, Ambrose's narrative looks both to his past and to his future, hoping to create a sense of order in his life.
Following the broken but deliberate narrative from Ambrose's conception(2) through his pre-teen years,(3) Ambrose's entrance into the funhouse in the title story signals the beginning of his adolescence. Ambrose realizes his inexperience with sexuality and is aware of--but does not necessarily understand--the changes that his body undergoes as he develops sexually. Like most teenagers, despite acute self-consciousness, he has sexual drives that force him to focus his attentions on something other than himself; they coerce him outward toward the opposite sex, to such characters as Magda, an adolescent girl whose "figure [is] exceedingly well developed for her age" (78). Ambrose is obliged to become much more conscious of the world and the people surrounding him.
Unfortunately, the insecurity and uncertainty of what, exactly, is happening within his body cause him to shrink from any direct contact with the outside world and especially with the opposite sex. He fears that such contact would reveal his faults and weaknesses. On a family holiday, for example, Ambrose decides not to swim with the other youth, thinking, "... the cold water shrank you up so" (79). Rather than join the crazy diving-board antics of the others in the pool, Ambrose chooses to sit and observe. Doing so, he guards against possible embarrassment and emasculation; however, he forgoes the opportunity to have fun, to live. Even in a premeditated moment--staged to look like an accident--Ambrose recoils. He places his hand on the seat directly behind Magda as she leans forward, but he draws it out of the way an instant before she slides back onto the seat (74-75). In order to experience the outside world, one must take certain risks; Ambrose, however, must overcome his self-consciousness before he can venture from his self-isolation.
But Ambrose does not suffer only from sexual desire and the insecurities of puberty. As the author of his autobiography, he must also deal with his role as an artist. He is new and inexperienced with this endeavor; yet, he is eager to be understood and well received. Like the adolescent Ambrose, the artistic Ambrose faces many difficulties that result from an oversensitive awareness of oneself and the surrounding world. The artist, like the pubescent youth, is haunted by the assumption that others are aware of one's every thought, idea, emotion, and intention. Telling the story of Lost in the Funhouse, for example, Ambrose is acutely conscious of the devices that he uses throughout the story's text, especially in the title story. …