Defending the Dead Art, or the Psychology of Literature-as-an-Artifact
At seventeen, I was no more sure as to the definition of postmodernism as I was regarding my abilities with women: both of them were so utterly intriguing to me that I couldn’t possibly turn my cheek, yet I still did not trust my trembling grasp of either concept enough to pursue these ideas thoroughly.
All I knew, at that point in my young life, was that I had just finished Professor John Barth’s twenty-five-paged masterpiece, ”Lost in the Funhouse,” a selection from many stunning pieces, as compiled in his 1968 short fiction omnibus of the same name, and I was taken aback.
I was taken back; not only by Barth’s elegant delivery of prose, but by the entire essence of the piece. In a mere twenty-five pages, Barth had managed to transcend a multitude of physical realms that I had never known existed within classic or contemporary literature.
What John Barth had done through “Lost in the Funhouse” was turn toward the era’s prominent literary establishment and declare, “I have thus moved beyond the simple written word of fiction. I have kicked in the Fourth Wall, and I have captured your hearts like butterflies in the process! What have you got for me?”
They hadn’t anything to cast his way other than shot nerves and aching minds.
In my observation of the piece, there are three considerably thick layers that form the anatomy of “Lost in the Funhouse.”
The first, a simple narrative reciting an account involving a young boy named Ambrose (perhaps an allusion to the late “Bitter Bierce,” short fiction author from the century prior?) his elder brother, Peter, and a beautiful young friend of the two, Magda G___, with whom both boys found themselves infatuated. They are traveling to a beachside carnival in Ocean City, where the trio treat themselves to all of youth’s dusky pleasures via this beachfront funhouse, which is particularly frightening to young Ambrose; an omen of what was to come.
The second layer, though its relics appear throughout the entire text; dipping and bobbing in and out of paragraphs as Ambrose becomes lost in the dark hallways of youthful anxiousness and heartache, in the form of Barth, who is, presumably, the narrator, demolishing the fabled fourth wall of storytelling, opening the entire piece and addressing the reader, as if in casual conversation. The narrator muses on the use of italics as oral emphasis, warning the reader that they must be used sparingly. In the latter pages of the story, the narrator once again turns his attention away from the story being told and toward that of the reader, this time commenting upon the anatomy of conventional narrative in fiction; providing, among other things, a hefty diagram of “Freitag’s Triangle,” thus explaining the concept of conventional dramatic occurrence within the written story.
The third layer of the piece asks the million dollar, slightly existential question: “for whom is the funhouse fun?” For lovers, perhaps, Barth muses. The funhouse is fun for lovers in the dark, but it is no place for a lonely young boy with a heavy heart as his beloved Magda G____ vanishes up its hallways with Peter, as his older brother is closer to her age, and the two appear to have a bit more in common than she may have with young Ambrose. She leaves him lost, as a young woman often will; she leaves him lost in the dark, among the phantasmagoric visions of lovers and loneliness, of age and repentance. He is alone, and the story comes to a close.
Being a much younger man at the time, I felt an almost kindred spirit with the tale’s protagonist.
It was a genuine modern American teenage tragedy, condensed to twenty-five pages.
Not only was I moved, but I had also just held a conversation with the story’s narrator, regarding the proper rise and fall of climax and action, albeit, our conversation stood on the edge of time, the two of us communicating forty-odd years apart from one another.
This notion fascinated me, and I wanted more.
That summer, I went on to read another work of John Barth’s: his gargantuan 1966 novel, Giles Goat-Boy. When autumn crept around, I had acquired his 1960 historical epic, The Sot-Weed Factor; its novel-as-an-artifact approach is what seemed to fascinate me so.
The following summer, I had begun exploring the work of others who also practiced in this vein of literary “postmodernism,” or “meta-fiction,” as many of these pieces would become known as. I read Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel, V., and was returned to the same feelings of enchantment that I had first felt while reading Barth. By the time that Gravity’s Rainbow had arrived in the mail, I knew what I wanted to do.
As a teenager, I had written from the strict perspective of realism, merely telling stories upon the climactic triangle, to which I felt bound, as if there were a chain around my ankle that kept me attached to its various points. I broke free.
My first piece of what may be considered “meta-fiction” was published by aaduna Inc. in 2013.
It was a relatively thin display that I had written over the course of three or four days, entitled “Julie Templeton and the Automatic Orchestra.”
I have always believed that Barth’s influence can be seen throughout its passages, as well as flecks of Pynchon and Gaddis. These men, some living, some no longer, became my mentors; the little voices in the back of my mind that whispered “do what YOU want to do, write what interests YOU and just forget about the others.” This is what I did, and continue to do. I began creating “artifacts,” instead of writing stories.
Meta-fiction, in which the written piece poses as an artifact, denying its own existence as a work of literature, has been beautifully presented by many great authors of the time; Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Ada serving as fine examples of the craft.
A most impressive example of the “literature-as-physical-artifact” form appears as the late B.S. Johnson’s 1969 masterpiece, The Unfortunates.
The plot, loosely concerning that of an English sportswriter who has been sent to an unnamed city from his past to cover a football game, where haunted by memories of those he once knew, in particular, a late friend of his who has died from cancer, is constructed in the form of twenty-seven “leaflets,” or sections, unbound, and placed within a thin box. Johnson’s “book-in-a-box” can be opened, the loose leaflets shuffled in any order, save for the first and last pieces, which frame the narrative between. One can switch these internal pages around, shuffle them as you wish, and read them in any order.
They are memories, accessible to any reader willing to listen.
The late Italian philosopher, Italo Calvino, published his “postmodernist” masterpiece, If on a winter’s night a traveler, in 1979. It remains one of the final great literary artifacts, in which you, the reader, are the main character.
Of course, this movement, with all of its grand scheming and dense subject-matter, was not always welcomed warmly; in fact, in my personal opinion, it has been subject to more scrutiny than classical or contemporary literati could bare to imagine.
“Post Modern Dreck,” one reader titled their review of John Barth’s National Book Award-winning Chimera; the aforementioned reviewer goes on to write: “this novel represents, I hope, a type of novelistic style that is dead and buried.”
Hitting an especially soft spot, one reviewer, in a two-out-of-five star review of Lost in the Funhouse wrote: “If you are very lonely, or have a tremendous amount of spare time, perhaps this book is for you.” I am not, and I do not; yet, this collection moved me more than all else when I first read it all those years ago, and it continues to do so to this day.
I have heard Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow referred to as an “overwritten, incoherent literary train-wreck.”
William Gaddis’s sweeping debut, The Recognitions, in all of its theological gorgeousness, was also compared, by another review, to “listening to your English-major friend who has low self-esteem and uses big words to try to impress you.”
The Recognitions was also panned universally by critics upon its publication in 1955. To my own sorrow, it remains unnamed and unread by the masses, many of whom would find themselves, more or less, intrigued by its broad scope of topic, as well as its “jazzy” prose narrative.
It seems, at least to myself, that the largest complaint readers and critics, alike, hold against these men and their work stems from a certain unwillingness to work with the novel.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the author’s responsibility to answer the reader’s questions, or present them with anything that they aren’t willing to work toward. While the impact such literature had, has, and always shall have on myself remains strong and rooted in near-boyish fascination, it is my fear that the art of postmodernism, as relayed via literature, has faded; and in a world that has become so disillusioned with itself, there seems to be no room for any grand scopes or sweeping plots. They simply will not have it.
In the years since, I have seen many attempts at carrying the torches that would have been handed down from these innovative masterminds, and it is something that I can respect, greatly. Unfortunately, though, postmodern theory has given way to post-postmodernism, in which the works seem to slowly return into the subtle form of the written novel. There is nothing left to study, now. Whereas I read Gravity’s Rainbow with an open dictionary, encyclopedia and electronic translator in near grasp, the works of the 21st Century do not require such fascination and study.
Whereas I could sit and ponder the legitimacy behind Barth’s satirical “universal” university in Giles Goat-Boy, or the reimagined history of time and space within Calvino’s Cosmicomics and t-zero, I cannot seem to do so with contemporary writing. Since the early days of experimental literature, in which Joyce’s Finnegans Wake reigned supreme, the reader, so it seems, has become lazy. The reader does not want to be faced with unanswered questions, or strange events that appear on page 109 and disappear, without reason or rhyme, on page 111. The reader no longer feels inclined to interpret and explore the magical landscape of the mind.
The genuine travesty behind all of it remains in these perceived notions; that postmodernism may never gain a legitimate definition, that the modernist practitioners of the craft (Borges and his magical libraries, Joyce and his intricate obscenities, Faulkner and his grim apocalyptic vision) are no more considered than the men that paved way in their wake.
“For whom is the funhouse fun?”
The funhouse is a world of lovers and mirrors; a grand presentation of celestial darkness and scientific glow. It is a world, much like that of the aforementioned literary philosophy, of endless possibilities and events that may defy all expectation, as well as interpretation. It is one of the few remaining places in our modern lives where anything, literally anything, may be possible.
So, for whom is the funhouse fun? Lovers, perhaps, as Barth once mused all those years before; but it is also fun for me…and I have no intention of exiting its corridors.