A Dirty Carnival

Repetition, recursion and eroticism in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”

Memory is a fickle thing. To remember something is to engage in an act of cartography of oneself — a path of temporal and psychic coordinates, tracing through a byzantine topography as hazy and fugue-like in some places as it is brilliant and startling in clarity in others. Things come together; things fall apart — history: a messy, inconstant and incommensurable series of abstractions, resonances and representations held together by the sole desire to remember — that is, both to not forget, and to evoke the phantom of a distant self.

John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” is a story about one man’s attempt at remembering one particular day early in his youth, which served as a foundational moment — existentially, spiritually and sexually — in his life. On the most surface level, it deals ostensibly with the experience of a boy named Ambrose on a family trip to Ocean City, Maryland; and his internal conflicts regarding a girl named Magda who has accompanied them, for whom he harbours both sexual and romantic feelings. The story, through a number of extensive metafictional devices and choices, also alludes to several other layers of narrative taking place collinearly; the first suggesting that the story is in fact being written by an unnamed narrator who is very likely Ambrose himself, writing in the assumed present about the experience of remembering this incident from his past; and the second being the act of Barth himself writing this story as the superdiegetic author within our present layer of interpretation, with some implied undertones of autobiography. For the purposes of this essay, I will be focusing on the relationship between the explicit narrative — Ambrose as a boy in Ocean City (Ambrose as subject) — and the first implicit narrative — the unnamed narrator, assumed in this essay to be an older version of Ambrose himself, writing a story about the aforementioned event in his past (Ambrose as narrator) — and how the two, through the literary device of repetition, interact as a process of self-constructing autohistoriography.

One of the most common motifs in “Lost in the Funhouse” is its highly unusual usage of repetition, of both ideas and literal phrases. Each one of these occurrences seems to be tied to an object or moment which triggers some kind of feeling of intense isolation within both Ambrose the subject, and narrator. These early repetitions in particularly seem to almost always refer to something sexual in nature — the physical description of Magda, who is described several times nearly verbatim with the phrase, “Her figure was very well developed for her age,” (71, 78, 79, and, in its most unusual occurrence, 92); the logo on a cigar box Ambrose focuses on while sharing an uncomfortably intimate moment with Magda behind a woodshed after playing a game with her (74, 80); the matchbooks found beneath the boardwalk at Ocean City where Ambrose witnesses a couple having sex (76, 77, 83). Each one of these is presented at first in a rather mundane and unremarkable context, before acquiring later on a more pathological inertia as Ambrose the narrator begins to fixate on them as points of focal resonance as he remembers the events of the day.

The couple having sex takes on synecdochal value as Ambrose the narrator begins to imagine them as the latest occurrence of a peculiar tradition dating all the way back to

the year when Lord Baltimore was granted charter to the province of Maryland by Charles I [nearly 300 years prior to the beginning of the story, in 1632]” in which “five hundred twelve women — English, Welsh, Bavarian, Swiss — of every class and character, received into themselves the penises the intromittent organs of five hundred twelve men, ditto, in every circumstance and posture […] [i]n alleyways, ditches, canopy beds, pinewoods, bridal suites, ship’s cabins, coach-and-fours, coaches-and-four, sultry toolsheds. (76–77)

Within their cadence and undulation lies “[t]he shluppish whisper, continuous as seawash round the globe, tidelike falls and rises with the circuit of dawn and dusk” (77) — the pervasiveness of sex, and people having sex, all around Ambrose the child, “under the boardwalk and in all the hotel rooms and cars and alleyways” (86): a world he can just barely sense the presence of but from which he feels existentially and perpetually alienated.

Similarly, the logo on the cigar box which he stares at “with awed impersonality” as Magda essentially accosts him behind the woodshed is itself a sensualised, if not erotic image, depicting “a laureled, loose-toga’d lady” with the lower half of her conspicuously peeled away (74). This image is later repeated almost word for word in the context of what is ostensibly a fantasy of Ambrose the child, who attempts to suppress his current sexual frustration by sublimating it into the distant trappings of a future in which he is “wise-lined and gray at the temples”, smiling “gravely at a fashionable dinner party and remind[ing] her of his youthful passion. The time they went with his family to Ocean City; the erotic fantasies he used to have about her. How long ago it seemed, and childish! Yet tender, too, n’est ce pas?” (80) In both cases, Ambrose the subject conjures the image as first an actual memory, and then an imagined memory; which is then retold by Ambrose the narrator as a memory of a memory. It is interesting to note that in the former case, it is presented by Ambrose the narrator as a sort of hint at his own identity, calling to question the choice of the distanced third-person perspective (the memory is immediately preceded by the sentence, “The more closely an author identifies with the narrator, the less advisable it is, as a rule, to use the first-person narrative viewpoint,” (74), which, taken in tandem with a later statement made at the effective ‘climax’ of the story, stating that Ambrose the subject had a tendency to “f[a]ll into his habit of rehearsing to himself the unadventurous story of his life, narrated from the third-person point of view” (92), closely implies the two are intimately connected, if not one and the same). The precise nature of the situation as well is unclear, although there are implications that Magda has sexually taken advantage of, if not outright raped Ambrose by fellating him (“But thought he had breathed heavily, groaned as if ecstatic, what he’d really felt throughout was an odd detachment, as though some one else were Master. Strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene: This is what they call passion. I am experiencing it.” (81)). This act is further supported by her showing unusual ability to “hold a banana in one hand and peel it with her teeth” (73) during the car ride, which inspires some level of discomfort in Ambrose; and a later passage shortly following his account of the incident:

His son would be the second, and when the lad reached thirteen or so he would put a strong arm around his shoulder and tell him calmly: “It is perfectly normal. We have all been through it. It will not last forever.” Nobody knew how to be what they were right. […] Magda would certainly give, Magda would certainly yield a great deal of milk, although guilty of occasional solecisms. It don’t taste so bad. Suppose the lights came on now!
The day wore on. You think you’re yourself, but there are other persons in you. Ambrose gets hard when Ambrose doesn’t want to, and obversely. Ambrose watches them disagree; Ambrose watches them watch. (81)

Ambrose attempts to justify his discomfort with the situation by attempting to shift the temporal frame, imagining himself as a father reassuring his own son that what happened was “completely normal”, and that he would get over it; when this doesn’t work (“The day wore on.”) he begins to further dissociate, first with his physicality (in reference to his erection), then in terms of an observer, and finally in terms of a meta-observer. Ambrose the narrator later alludes to the subject’s habit of dissociating from himself and referring to himself within the third-person as a means of coping with situations he cannot control.

The image of the cigar box is presented much more fondly and tenderly in Ambrose the subject’s mind the second time when he recalls it as a false memory, although the narrator’s tone seems to take on a markedly acerbic and mocking edge (“Even then he had felt wise beyond his years; he’d stroked her hair and said in his deepest voice and correctest English, as to a dear child: ‘I shall never forget this moment.’” (81)) which suggests that the narrator has seen through this profession of sentiment from his younger self, and understands what it really is — an attempt to alleviate his guilt. The image once again makes another appearance — though this time, subtly, and without elaboration — beneath the boardwalk where Ambrose witnesses the couple having sex, although this time it is as an evocation or resonance of an earlier memory, rather than an explicit image — the “cold sand under boardwalks, littered with El Producto cigar butts” (77). The El Producto cigar label has become inextricably linked with moments of painful guilt Ambrose experiences after witnessing or experiencing sexual acts, and his memory is littered with traces of it, both explicit and unconscious. Each layer of the memory of his violation, crystallised within the image of the cigar box and processed through multiple layers of interpretation and diffusion, develops a new identity and meaning within Ambrose’s personal historiography through the critical distance afforded to him by language.

The last, and most conspicuous repetition lies within the description of Magda — “a pretty girl and exquisite young lady” (69), whose “figure was very well developed for her age” (71). Magda’s description, unlike many other characteristics or elements within the story, remains constant and unwavering in its repetition all throughout, up until the very end. Over repetitions, becomes almost a sort of obsessive incantation of her essence as Ambrose begins to lose his sense of control over his situation as he attempts to cope with both her powerful sexual allure, and his own inability to escape the titular ‘funhouse’ (a complex and involved metaphor, at least for Ambrose, for the world of sex).

The first time this description is brought up, it is used by Ambrose the narrator in order to, at least at face value, establish the innate incommensurability of description, by describing both Ambrose’s mother, and Magda as “pretty”, although in the case of the latter, he goes much into much further detail (71). It is interesting to note the ways in which the sentences here become disrupted; Ambrose begins by proposing that “Magda was also pretty, yet in an altogether different way [from his mother]” but then immediately jumps to a description of her good manners and performance in school. (71) He then tentatively makes an even bolder statement about her physicality, describing her precocious body, before quickly jumping back to a more neutral description of her sitting beside the younger Ambrose in the car. The moment is one of remarkable intimacy — particularly to Ambrose the child, who allows himself the minor thrill of placing his hand just beneath her so that should she sit back, he would feel her against his hand — and Ambrose the narrator seems to shy away out of a sort of strange guilt.

The next incidence in which this description occurs is when the family has gone to the pool, and Magda and Ambrose are sitting by the poolside. The description here comes as a more jarring non sequitur, placed rather inscrutably in between Ambrose describing his easily-burned skin, and a more neutral statement about why she had declined to swim (78). The scene as a whole is punctuated with various titillating images — Magda’s tanned skin, the slip of “one nipple’s auburn edge” inside her swimsuit top — but more revealing than any of these is a question that seems innocuous and irelevant appearing at the end of the paragraph in which her description appears: “Why did a person come to Ocean City?” (78) This is a repetition of an idea, later answered by Ambrose the narrator himself:

If you looked around, you noticed that almost all the people on the boardwalk were paired off into couples except the small children; in a way, that was the whole point of Ocean City! If you had X-ray eyes and could see everything going on at that instant under the boardwalk and in all the hotel rooms and cars and alleyways, you’d realize that all that normally showed, like restaurants and dance halls and clothing and test-your-strength machines, was merely preparation and intermission. (86)

Magda’s description here still carries a kind of guilt to it, but rather than being just curious, it seems invasive, leery; Ambrose’s gaze sustains itself, and even peers further, directly at her skin, into her top — both physically, within the memory, and textually, within the language.

This sort of active gaze intensifies even further in the next occurrence, where it has become tinged with jealousy as Ambrose looks on at Peter showing off on the diving board. The first thing that is notable about this passage is the explicit absence of the “grown-ups”, who have “gone on”; the word choice here is particularly interesting for the deliberate ambiguity and multiplicity of what it could suggest. Ambrose the narrator describes Ambrose the subject’s desire to “converse with Magda” — yet immediately then once again repeats his refrain describing her body, this time extending it even further by wondering about the rumour that a girl can develop a good figure by “rubbing with a turkish towel,” amongst other theories (79). Ambrose admits that “he could think of nothing to say except how good a diver Peter was, who was showing off for her benefit”, and realises that “Magda pretended to be uninterested in the diving” — an interest troubling enough to him that he immediately feels the need to undermine her, guessing that “she probably weighed as much as he did” (79). The entire passage, which is remarkably focused compared to the previously disparate and meandering subjects before, is suffused with jealousy and envy alike. The closing lines of it drive this point home:

If you knew your way around in the funhouse like your own bedroom, you could wait until a girl came along and then slip away without ever getting caught, even if her boyfriend was right with her. She’d think he did it! It would be better to be the boyfriend, and act outraged, and tear the funhouse apart.
Not act; be. (79)

Heavy with sexualised language (the imagery of the bedroom, of stealing away partners, of subsequent outrage), here, Magda’s body becomes the subject of a particularly jagged and envious lust, and even spite; Ambrose the subject, unable to engage with her in conversation yet also unable to engage with her sexually, feels impotent as he watches her admire his brother’s physique and carefreeness, and wishes to steal her away. Ambrose the narrator, however, is not content with this; he amplifies this sentiment with a more destructive and violent edge, offering the possibility of not just stealing away another’s partner, but giving in to the rage, having the power to act upon one’s thwarted desire and “tear the funhouse apart” — to destroy the very idea of desire itself. Ambrose, in direct dialectic with his own past, slips up at this point, and must correct himself — he cannot simply “act”, but must “be”. A parapraxis of sorts occurs immediately within the next paragraph:

“He’s a master diver,” Ambrose said. In feigned admiration. “You really have to slave away at it to get that good.” What would it matter anyhow if he asked her right out whether she remembered, even teased her with it as Peter would have? (80)

Ambrose, both the subject and narrator alike, align in this moment as the memory coalesces with the present: the present as master of interpretation, the past as slave to reinterpretation. It’s unclear to whom the parapraxis belongs, but whichever it is, it represents a major point of convergence in memory, and one of the most prominent incidences of the collapse of historiographic distance which has been maintained heretofore.

The next, and last, time Magda’s description appears, it no longer belongs to her. Trapped within the titular funhouse, Ambrose has begun to hallucinate — or perhaps in some sense, literally create — futures for himself. Desperately alienated, both physically and socially, emotionally and existentially, his mind has begun to unravel within the distorted liminality of the funhouse:

This can’t go on much longer; it can go on forever. He died telling stories to himself in the dark; years later, when that vast unsuspected area of the funhouse came to light, the first expedition found his skeleton in one of the labyrinthine corridors and mistook it for part of the entertainment. He died of starvation telling himself stories in the dark; but unbeknownst unbeknownst [sic] to him, an assistant operator of the funhouse, happening to overhear him, crouched just behind the plyboard partition and wrote down his every word. The operator’s daughter, an exquisite young woman with a figure unusually well developed for her age, crouched just behind the partition and transcribed his every word. Though she had never laid eyes on him, she recognized that here was one of Western Culture’s truly great imaginations, the eloquence of whose suffering would be an inspiration to unnumbered. (91–92)

The passage is particularly dense with repetitions — both internally (“He died telling stories to himself in the dark”, the strange and inexplicable repetition of “unbeknownst”) and referential: the image of the operator, which Ambrose becomes obsessed with towards the end of the story; the idea of a “young woman with such splendid understanding that she’d see him entire, like a poem or story, and find his words so valuable after all that when he confessed his apprehensions she would explain why they were in fact the very things that made him precious to her . . . and to Western Civilization!” (88); and of course, the unusual reframing of Magda’s description itself.

This occurrence is unusual in that it marks the confluence of several major symbolic figures within Ambrose the subject’s imagination: the operator, his dream woman, and Magda. Each one serves to represent a different aspect of the funhouse — of sex, and romance — that Ambrose has internalised: the operator as the master of the funhouse, capable of manipulating it as he sees fit, and most of all, able to “ease this fellow’s way, complicate that’s, to balance things out; if anyone seemed lost or frightened, all the operator had to do was.” (93) — note the jarring terminus; the dream girl, as a desexualised, intellectually mature woman who can admire his intelligence rather than draw forth from him an inscrutable and uncontrollable sexual desire; and Magda, the temptress, and embodiment of his sexual frustration, disappointment and alienation who reduces and debases him. Distorted in the odd darkness and spatial rape of the funhouse, Ambrose — this time, both as the subject, and the narrator — begins to utterly unravel, all previous assocations — linguistic, symbolic, psychic — intertwining, losing boundaries, acquiring new ones, becoming impossibly aware as the distinction between the narrator and subject — previously enforced rigorously through language — collapses. Notions of history begin to collapse as Ambrose (this time, it’s unclear if it is Ambrose the narrator or the subject speaking) tells of his own death (92), and then a future “years hence, successful, married, at ease in the world, the trials of his adolescence far behind him” (93); he “dreams of a funhouse vaster by far than any yet constructed”, “incredibly complex yet utterly controlled from a great central switchboard like the console of a pipe organ”, one in which he is the operator, yet “he’s only thirteen years old” (93). Time and memory become first displaced, and then irrelevant as Ambrose becomes, to quote Vonnegut, ‘unstuck in time’, simultaneously existing within the haunted past, as the thirteen-year-old; within the present, as the narrator; and within the hallucinatory future, as the operator. Historiography has collapsed, language has begun to break down, and the narrative has become dislodged from the linguistic framework upon which it is constructed. Ambrose has fallen in between the cracks of history, “in some new or old part of the place that’s not supposed to be used”, which “winds around on itself like a whelk shell”, which “even the designer and operator have forgotten” (80).

By its end, “Lost in the Funhouse”, at first seemingly a relatively linear work of historiography, has successfully managed to become a story of recursive historiography — self-writing, autotelic and infinite, like a Moebius strip. Ambrose the subject becomes Ambrose the narrator becomes Ambrose the subject — et cetera et cetera et cetera et cetera et cetera ad infinitum. Through its usage of repetition, “Lost in the Funhouse” manages to simultaneously work as a startling work of personal historiography, while also functioning as a critique on the framework of stories, and language itself, which prove to be ultimately limited, and impotent as vehicles of memory, and memorialisation.

— Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. (LF) New York: Bantam Books, 1980.