By Blair Mahoney
A former professor of creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, John Barth is one of the more important writers to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. He was born in Cambridge, Maryland in 1931 and various aspects of his life will be familiar to readers of his novels, as he continually writes of growing up in Maryland and English professors/writers who love sailing. His oft-cited influences, apart from Borges, are Joyce, Cervantes, Homer's Odyssey, and The Arabian Nights. He has published thirteen books, including Giles Goat-Boy, The Sot-Weed Factor, and Chimera, which won the National Book Award in 1973.
Lost in the Funhouse
The book for which he is best known, however, is Lost in the Funhouse, a collection of short stories which most explicitly bears the influence of Borges. (In his recent autobiography Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera, Barth writes of the influence of Borges on the gestation of Lost in the Funhouse).
The title story in particular (not the story called "Title") appears to be an attempt to produce the type of fiction described in Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths." In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses simultaneously all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.
"Lost in the Funhouse" is about a young boy named Ambrose who travels to Ocean City with his family and, while there, gets lost in a funhouse. If only things were quite that straightforward, however. The time frames are jumbled, and while at one point Ambrose has been through the funhouse and is on his way home, a few paragraphs later he hasn't even entered it. Barth explores a number of possibilities without choosing one over the others. And all the way through the story the narrator complains about the difficulty he is experiencing in writing the story. Such a book would not be out of place in the Library of Babel.
The Literature of Exhaustion
Barth explicitly acknowledges his debt to Borges in a number of places, notably in his influential essay, much reprinted, "The Literature of Exhaustion." In that essay he writes about the "used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities" and looks to Samuel Beckett and Borges as the masters of expressing the ultimacies of the twentieth century. He outlines the differences between three different categories of people: a technically old-fashioned artist, a technically up-to-date civilian, and a technically up-to-date artist. In the first category I'd locate all those novelists who for better or worse write not as if the twentieth century didn't exist, but as if the great writers of the last sixty years or so hadn't existed (nota bene that our century's more than two-thirds done; it's dismaying to see so many of our writers following Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Flaubert or Balzac, when the real technical question seems to me to be how to succeed not even Joyce and Kafka, but those who've succeeded Joyce and Kafka and are now in the evenings of their own careers). In the second category are such folk as an artist-neighbor of mine in Buffalo who fashions dead Winnies-the-Pooh in sometimes monumental scale out of oilcloth stuffed with sand and impaled on stakes or hung by the neck. In the third belong the few people whose artistic thinking is as hip as any French new-novelist's, but who manage nonetheless to speak eloquently and memorably to our still-human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done. Of these, two of the finest specimens that I know of are Beckett and Borges, just about the only contemporaries of my reading acquaintance mentionable with the "old masters" of twentieth-century fiction. In the unexciting history of literary awards, the 1961 International Publishers' Prize, shared by Beckett and Borges, is a happy exception indeed.
In his recent autobiography (in which he extensively employs fiction as well as fact) Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera, Barth writes of the influence of Borges on the gestation of Lost in the Funhouse: Meanwhile, I was hard at assimilating Borges in my sunporch workroom under the failing elms on the avenue that was a variant of my name, and beginning to envision an unorthodox volume of short fiction: not a conventional collection of discrete stories, but some sort of . . . nonlinear series, maybe, certain items of which might be designed not expressly for print but for live authorial voice (a medium that my public readings had interested me in), or specifically for monophonic or stereophonic tape, or some combination of those media: a more or less high-tech reorchestration of the oral storytelling tradition.
Although sometimes opaque, Barth's fiction is an unforgettable experience. Reading Lost in the Funhouse changed the way I perceived writing and what was possible to achieve within the bounds of fiction. That is the true legacy of Borges.
Barth Scriptorium Page -- The Libyrinth runs a page about Barth at the Scriptorium.
Barth Bookstore -- Here you may order books by and about Barth from Amazon.com.
John Barth Information Center, -- This excellent site, maintained by Dave Edelman, includes brief biographical details, a short summary called "Barth for Beginners", a comprehensive bibliography with notes on each book, a Barth FAQ, the transcript of an interview between Edelman and Barth and several of Edelman's own reviews of Barth's works.