Authors: John Barth
by John Barth
THE FLOATING OPERA
THE END OF THE ROAD
THE SOT-WEED FACTOR
SABBATICAL: A ROMANCE
THE FRIDAY BOOK
THE TIDEWATER TALES
First Anchor Books Edition, 1988
Copyright © 1963, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1988 by John Barth
Seven Additional Author’s Notes Copyright © by John Barth
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday in 1968. The Anchor Books edition is published by arrangement with Doubleday.
Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
“Night-Sea Journey” first appeared in
magazine, June 1966.
“Ambrose His Mark” first appeared in
magazine, February 1963.
“Autobiography” first appeared in
The New American Review,
“Water Message” first appeared in the
published by Southern Methodist University, Summer 1963.
“Lost in the Funhouse” is reprinted by permission of the Atlantic Monthly Company, Copyright © 1967 by the Atlantic Monthly Company. It appeared in the November 1967 issue of
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
“Title” is reprinted by permission of Yale University, Copyright © 1967 by Yale University. It first appeared in the Winter 1968 issue of the
“Petition” first appeared in
magazine, July 1968.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lost in the funhouse : fiction for print, tape, live voice/by John Barth.—Anchor books ed.
PS3552.A75L6 1988 87-26214
eBook ISBN: 978-0-8041-5250-1
Short fiction is not my long suit. Writers tend by temperament to be either sprinters or marathoners, and I learned early that the long haul was my stride. The form of the modern short story—as defined and developed by Poe, Maupassant, and Chekhov and handed on to the twentieth century—I found in my apprentice years to be parsimonious, constraining, constipative. Much as I admired its great practitioners, I preferred more narrative elbow room.
The premodern tale is another matter: especially the tale cycle, as told by the likes of Scheherazade and Boccaccio. I virtually began my narrative career with one of those, but set it aside for the even more hospitable space of the novel and the more hospitable project rhythms of the novelist. Your congenital short-story writer faces the blank-faced muse once every few weeks (in the case of early Chekhov, every few days). Your congenital novelist prefers to dream up a world once every few years; to plant and people it and dwell therein for maybe a whole presidential term—or the time it takes a new college freshman to complete the baccalaureate—before reconfronting the interterrestrial Void.
But after a dozen years of writing and publishing the novels reprinted in this Anchor Books series—
The Floating Opera
The End of the Road
The Sot-Weed Factor
—in the mid-1960s I found myself hankering to re-attempt the short form, for assorted reasons:
For one thing, Less really is More, other things equal.
Even quite expansive novels, if carefully written, have their own economy and rigor; but
are long novels indeed, and writing them increased my respect for the mode that comes least naturally to me. The clown comes to want to play Hamlet, and vice versa; the long-distance runner itches to sprint. Just as there are musical ideas that won’t do for a symphony but are just right for a song, there are narrative ideas suitable only for a short story: quick takes, epiphanies that even a novella would attenuate, not to mention a novel. Over the years, I had accumulated a few such narrative ideas in my notebooks.
Moreover, I teach stories as well as telling them, and like most writing coaches I find the short story most useful for seminar purposes. You can hold a short story in your hand, like a lyric poem; see it whole; examine the function of individual sentences, even individual words, as you can’t readily do with
War and Peace.
(This pedagogical convenience, together with the proliferation of creative writing programs in the U.S.A., must be largely responsible for the happy resurgence of the American short story—at a time when, paradoxically, the popular audience has never been smaller.) But those model stories I was teaching came from classroom anthologies in which (novels being hard to excerpt coherently, and excerpts being formally less useful than complete works), my own fiction was seldom included. I consoled myself, maybe flattered myself, with the consideration that such eminent non-short-story-writing contemporaries as Ralph Ellison and William Styron were likewise seldom included—but I wanted to be in those anthologies. Not all of a writer’s motives are pure.
It was about this time that I came across the writings of the great Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, whose temper was so wedded to the short forms that, like Chekhov, he never wrote a novel, and whose unorthodox brilliance transformed the short story for me. Writers learn from their experience of other writers as well as from their experience
of life in the world; it was the happy marriage of form and content in Borges’s
—the way he regularly turned his narrative means into part of his message—that suggested how I might try something similar, in my way and with my materials.
The result was
Lost in the Funhouse
(I was in fact, at age thirteen or so, once briefly mislaid in a boardwalk funhouse, in Asbury Park, New Jersey; end of autobiographical reference). Incorrigibly the novelist, I decided at the outset to write not simply some short stories but a
of short stories: a sequence or series rather than a mere assortment. Though the several stories would more or less stand alone (and therefore be anthologizable), the series would be strung together on a few echoed and developed themes and would circle back upon itself: not to close a simple circuit like that of Joyce’s
, emblematic of Viconian eternal return, but to make a circuit with a twist to it, like a Möbius strip, emblematic of—well, read the book.
The series was written and assembled between 1966 and 1968. The first Doubleday edition (1968) was prefaced by the Author’s Note which follows; to subsequent editions I appended “Seven Additional Author’s Notes,” set here at the end (I was busy by then with a novel that pretends to have seven authors). The reader may skip all these frames and go directly to the first story … called “Frame-Tale.” It happens to be, I believe, the shortest short story in the English language (ten words); on the other hand, it’s endless.
The High Sixties, like the Roaring Twenties, was a time of more than usual ferment in American social, political, and artistic life. Our unpopular war in Vietnam, political assassinations, race riots, the hippie counterculture, pop art, mass poetry readings, street theater, vigorous avantgardism
in all the arts, together with dire predictions not only of the death of the novel but of the moribundity of the print medium in the electronic global village—those flavored the air we breathed then, along with occasional tear gas and other contaminants. One may sniff traces of that air in the
(“Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice”). I myself found it more invigorating than disturbing. May the reader find these stories likewise.
This book differs in two ways from most volumes of short fiction. First, it’s neither a collection nor a selection, but a series; though several of its items have appeared separately in periodicals, the series will be seen to have been meant to be received “all at once” and as here arranged. Most of its members, consequently, are “new”—written for this book, in which they appear for the first time.
Second, while some of these pieces were composed expressly for print, others were not. “Ambrose His Mark” and “Water-Message,” the earliest-written, take the print medium for granted but lose or gain nothing in oral recitation. “Petition,” “Lost in the Funhouse,” “Life-Story,” and “Anonymiad,” on the other hand, would lose part of their point in any except printed form; “Night-Sea Journey” was meant for either print or recorded authorial voice, but not for live or non-authorial voice; “Glossolalia” will make no sense unless heard in live or recorded voices, male and female, or read as if so heard; “Echo” is intended for monophonic authorial recording, either disc or tape; “Autobiography,” for monophonic tape and visible but silent author. “Menelaiad,” though suggestive of a recorded authorial monologue, depends for clarity on the reader’s eye and may be said to have been composed for “printed voice.” “Title” makes somewhat separate but equally valid senses in several media: print, monophonic recorded authorial voice, stereophonic ditto in dialogue with itself, live authorial voice, live
ditto in dialogue with monophonic ditto aforementioned, and live ditto interlocutory with stereophonic et cetera, my own preference; it’s been “done” in all six. “Frame-Tale” is one-, two-, or three-dimensional, whichever one regards a Möbius strip as being. On with the story. On with the story.
Cut on dotted line.
Twist end once and fasten
“One way or another, no matter which theory of our journey is correct, it’s myself I address; to whom I rehearse as to a stranger our history and condition, and will disclose my secret hope though I sink for it.
“Is the journey my invention? Do the night, the sea, exist at all, I ask myself, apart from my experience of them? Do I myself exist, or is this a dream? Sometimes I wonder. And if I am, who am I? The Heritage I supposedly transport? But how can I be both vessel and contents? Such are the questions that beset my intervals of rest.
“My trouble is, I lack conviction. Many accounts of our situation seem plausible to me—where and what we are, why we swim and whither. But implausible ones as well, perhaps especially those, I must admit as possibly correct. Even likely. If at times, in certain humors—stroking in unison, say, with my neighbors and chanting with them ‘Onward! Upward!’—I have supposed that we have after all a common Maker, Whose nature and motives we may not know, but Who engendered us in some mysterious wise and launched us forth toward some end known but to Him—if (for a moodslength only) I have been able to entertain such notions, very popular in certain quarters, it is because our night-sea journey partakes of their absurdity. One might even say: I can believe them
they are absurd.