Lost in the Funhouse with Barth: on meta, Brecht, and what’s behind The Fourth Wall



When I was in the English department at Penn State as a student in the early 90s all my writing teachers were into John Barth, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why someone would want to write about writing while writing something else; it seemed academic, clinical, too much science.

But years later in Seattle I saw a first-edition hardcopy of Lost in the Funhouse and thought maybe it was time. It wasn’t.

It sat on my bookcase until earlier this week and when I picked it up something fell out, the sales receipt from a bookstore featuring first editions, probably out of business now — the date in elegant, handwritten script read 4 Dec 2001. The 1 was written Euro style with a serif at the top extending left, like an ear hanging nearly all the way to the ground that looked like a sagging 7, but wasn’t.

I tried to remember buying it from the date, imagining where I was and why I would have picked it up then, an impulse buy on my lunch hour when I was working at Starbucks and would take the shuttle to Pioneer Square and wander over lunch sometimes, to day-dream.

Dawn asked what I thought meta meant recently, and I said it’s the writer stepping out of the story to comment on the story’s creation, as a way of showing how the story of creating the story is as much its own story, and how the two are connected.

With social media and technology what they are, metafiction has become more a part of our lives than ever: we’re constantly stepping outside the frame to capture ourselves in it, and the story of how we document our lives is as much a story now as the story itself. But as we step outside the frame, we’re straddling two worlds and cease to exist fully in either: like tourists on an Alaskan whale-watching cruise with our cameras out trying to catch the breaching whales as proof we were there, we miss the reality just beyond our lens and it makes me wonder, were we even there at all?

The sales receipt was a piece of art, as far as receipts go: it had old-style script with the store’s address and an illustration of the historic building where it was located, although I couldn’t tell for sure, I couldn’t recall if it was my memory that made it so, or just my imagination. Ten dollars was a lot to spend back then on a book I felt I should read, but wound up taking 15 years to open.

Because it was post-9/11, I was able to place things pretty well: being in corporate communications at the time, that was our focus for many weeks, for all the associated fall-out from the New York stores, for the company trying to show its support in myriad ways to workers and customers, the obvious fear of what it would do to the economy, followed by fears of anthrax, everyone realizing they’d never feel the same when a jet passed; the act was larger than itself, a symbol.

I was supposed to fly back east for a fraternity reunion but deep-down didn’t want to, and felt I had an excuse now, I wasn’t up for flying. Instead, I used one of my personal days for a three-day weekend to climb in the Olympics with a new friend I’d met at work named Brad who also climbed, but didn’t talk about it as much as I did, yet had done a lot more.

It was the trip I messed up my shoulder getting caught in slide alder and Devil’s Club in an avalanche run-out bushwhacking with my ax when I probably didn’t need it; my arm got caught in some branches and I was pissed off and tired, and my body twisted forward with the weight of the pack but my shoulder and ax stayed fixed in the branches, and it’s never been the same since. The body takes a lot longer to forget these things than the mind.

Because it was early November we didn’t have much light, but there was already a lot of snow, and not another soul in sight. And we’d gotten a late start, so Brad didn’t waste any time once we got to the trailhead: we were going for two summit attempts Alpine style of adjacent peaks with ominous names like Gunsight Pass, Mount Mystery, Mount Deception, but got neither, largely because of me — Brad disappearing up the switchbacks as we got higher, the dark coming on and the snowpack getting thicker, and I kept thinking about a warning at the trailhead of a cougar sighting, how the drawing of it looked like a Wanted sign for a Western outlaw, and how quiet it was crunching through the snow — and by the time I caught up with Brad it was an hour or so later and he was sitting on his backpack smoking, looking like he’d been waiting there for me for some time.

Dawn and I talked about Brecht, the fact the actors would remind the audience it’s a play they’re seeing, not real, and why he did that: he didn’t want the audience to give over to their emotions and forget their reason; that’s what they’d done with Hitler; Brecht wanted to separate the experience of theater so it could be enjoyed from a distance: the actors would hold up signs explaining the plot before the scenes started; often there was no ‘fourth wall’ separating stage from audience.

The book is hard to read and I’m not sure I like it. It’s one of those books where sometimes I’ll set it down to talk to my kids and when I come back to it I’ve lost my place but it doesn’t seem to matter, I was lost from the start.

And maybe that’s the point, that’s OK with Barth: the very first chapter has a tear-out to make your own Möbius strip, he’s making his point right there, it’s non-linear, non-orientable, it bends but still stays connected.

I don’t remember buying the book, though must have. Like so many scenes from my past that present themselves as real but lack the full context, the story, they’re like fragments of a dream where it’s hard to tell what’s real or imagined, and why we even bother distinguishing between the two.


Bertolt Brecht Platz, Berliner Ensemble (February, 2016)


Categories: musings, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. I’m with you on the whole meta front, Bill. I’d read things like Barth and Robert Coover and go, “Yeah? So?” Not that the writing itself wasn’t often pretty snazzy. But I also remember seeing my first Brecht play in London, starring the great Janet Suzman, and I was blown away.

    I guess the bottom line is, there are a million ways to tell stories. Why not throw a noodle at the wall and see if it sticks?


    • It is snazzy writing, and there’s something to say for that, but then there’s also creating characters and stories we can really relate to (as you know), and that’s what I need, and sometimes not getting here, in this seaward journey of the soul, rich with meaning I’m not often getting. Daft me, oh well. I’m into noodles and throwing them, thanks — need to stretch out my shoulder here, warm up. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  2. i’m into giving all of them a try, and what i’ve decided to do is to let a book go if it doesn’t grab me – life is too short, but sometimes books are just enjoyable for the sake of being interesting –


  3. Some of my more expensive first editions have a long-ago price lightly penciled on the first flap after the jacket. It’s interesting to contrast the price I just paid against what it once cost. History fail.

    You should bail out on unpleasurable books. They’re a waste of time. My wife gives them 30-50 pages and if they don’t ‘take,’ out they go. I wish I’d done that long ago. So much wasted time.


    • I do bail, thanks — think I have already. Sometimes there’s something to be said for having to work harder, but then it just feels like work, not the good kind. Not enough time, you’re right.


  4. “It’s one of those books where sometimes I’ll set it down to talk to my kids and when I come back to it I’ve lost my place but it doesn’t seem to matter, I was lost from the start.” Why does it seem like this is every book I read now? Is the internet scrubbing my brain with a brillo pad? Am I just getting old? Am I too busy? Or am I trying to read more and more difficult works? Whatever the reason, you put it perfectly.


    • It is the internet in part, I think. The manic monkey mind we all have, that it brings out. It’s why we need to meditate more, I think — whatever gets you that sense of just focusing, or letting yourself go from distraction. Glad you liked that phrase Jon. Too many beeps and chirps I think, not from birds but push-notifications.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know the feeling. Got to leave the phone and the pad. Leave it. Just leave it already. Go outside. Stay. Sit. Stay! Good dog.


      • We were offline for 48 hours or so this weekend. Every time I do that I feel refreshed somehow. I used to take my iPod into the forest with me, backpacking. Totally not Zen. Now I’ve stopped, this will sound hippy-dippy but yes: I listen to the birds, the sound of the streams and wind, and I think ‘poetry.’

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t guarantee it, and will have to try it when I get home, but I think I can ID where every book and record I own came from and roughly when. That’s not a boast, because the rest of my memory is shit. I’m reading Elvis Costello’s A.D.D.-biography and once again I’m struck by how on earth he could remember all that he does. He occasionally admits to memory shortfalls, but still.


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