Monday, 3 October 2011

Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

Lost? I'm fucking clueless.
Reading John Barth makes me feel a mixture of ignorance and pride - ignorance because many of the references, devices, tropes (and on and on) he uses are beyond my comprehension (or current reading level), and pride because I know which ones are which. In his appended introduction (not the one from 1966 where he blithely waffles on about listening to certain stories as recordings which don't actually exists per se) he talks about the need to get more John Barth on to the reading lists of creative writing courses across the great continent of North America. This was his attempt to add Barth to Borges, to get himself mentioned in the same breath as others who subvert the comfortable illusions of tale and teller. 


Hence the scratching of head and puffing of cheeks and regular stoppages of reading for a cup of tea or to see what the weather is like outside.


Most short stories take it out of me; all that emotional investment only to have it stop short of resolution, or to end abruptly, or be generally and frustratingly unsatisfying. I love the idea (and keep buying them) but in the 15 minutes afforded me at lunch time to dive into a book (something at which I've become adept), it is endlessly discouraging to come back to a tale only for it to end, and be that irked that to start another in the time left to me is distasteful. I'm a sucker for the closed narrative loop - forgive the lack of correct discourse - with a starting point, a sense of impending dread as a crisis looms, the nadir of the crisis, the resolution and the happy ever after (as long as it doesn't drone on for pages and pages - eh Tolkien?). Kurt Vonnegut illustrates such narrative patterns very well in a You Tube clip I saw recently, linked here for your amusement. Short stories so rarely deliver. I read the door stop that is John Cheever's collected stories from beginning to end and died a little with every story. 


Anyway, on with the story, and Barth goes a bit further than is probably necessary with this collection of brain-bending post-modern complexity. Tales where the teller is possibly one of seven or eight characters (including one where a fictional authorial voice supposes the story he's writing contains a man who suspects his existence is due to the story the author is writing which contains... and so forth) and where at one point King Menelaus uses so many quotation marks to outline reported speech that one can't help feeling that time would be better spent writing down the value of Pi ad infinitum, serve only to prove what a genuinely clever fellow this Barth is and funny too, for genuine hilarity resides therein. For entertainments sake he does include what might be termed simpler narratives, based around a boy Ambrose and his unusual family, including one where he may or may not get stuck in a fun house - the text is ambiguous - but for the majority of the book, entertainment plays second or possibly even third fiddle (or doesn't play fiddle at all - instead uses Chinese pears to knock bottles onto glass chimes which shatter in a particular blah blah blah etc) to show just how fucking clever someone can be when he really puts his mind to it. Want more proof? It's possible that Barth uses the only instance of reported Martian speech in two consecutive stories, but doesn't even tell you about it! Heh? Heh? Oh, wait he does, in that incongruous end piece. I think this may just be a bit of a "fuck you" to those students who would inevitably look to outmanoeuvre their tutor in lectures or tutorials in a constant battle of wits, a pre-emptive strike against those cocky twats unavoidable in fee-paying universities.


Still, for all of that, I do feel a little weightier in the brain department for having persevered. I now know Helen of Troy was possibly made of clouds at some point, and that lots of Ancient Greeks were potentially pederasts or sodomites. Was that worth the effort? On reflection, etc ditto.

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