If the preferred style in American fiction of the last two decades could be summed up in a single title, it would surely be 'Lost in the Funhouse'. John Barth's short story, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967, was a composite text in which an account of a family's visit to a fairground was spliced in with what appeared to be a set of instructions from a fiction-writer's manual. The funhouse (in British English, a Hall of Mirrors) was both the climax of the visit to the fair and an apt metaphor for the complex distortions of multiple-narrative self-conscious fiction. Prodigious vitality, virtuosity, erudition, self-parody and a grossly anarchic humour were the characteristics of the 'funhouse' style, which soon came to be identified with novelists such as Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon and Vonnegut as well as with Barth. Funhouse fiction appealed simultaneously to two rather different audiences. Its narrative self-consciousness (later to be renamed Post-Modernism) satisfied the demand in universities for an intellectually challenging mode of contemporary fiction which could be expounded to students. On the other hand, its promise of unbridled entertainment opened the way to a cult following and eventually to the best-seller lists. Older novelists joined in the fun: there was Nabokov's Ada, and there was Portnoy's Complaint. Self-conscious comic fiction caught the mood of the late Sixties, as we shall see: but it was nonetheless fairly remarkable that a novelist could be a 'Post-Modernist', a member of the avant-garde, without foregoing fashionable success, academic honours and large royalty cheques. The heavy price which novelists since Henry James had had to pay for being labelled as experimental artists was, it seemed, no longer being exacted.
LRB 17 April 1986 | PDF Download