“Lost in the Funhouse” begins with young Ambrose, who was possibly conceived in “Night-Sea Journey,” now an adolescent, traveling to Ocean City, Maryland, to celebrate Independence Day. Accompanying him through his eventual initiation are his parents; his uncle Karl; his older brother, Peter; and Magda, a 13-year-old neighbor who is well developed for her age. Ambrose is “at the awkward age” (89) when his voice and everything else are unpredictable. Magda becomes the object of his sexual awakening, and he feels the need to do something about it, if only barely to touch her. The story moves from Ambrose’s innocence to his stunned realization of the pain of self-knowledge. John Barth uses printed devices— italics, dashes, and so on—to draw attention to the storytelling technique throughout the presentation of conventional material: a sensitive boy’s first encounters with the world, the mysterious “funhouse” of sexuality, illusion, and consciously realized pain.
As the story develops, Barth incorporates comments about the art of fiction into the narrative: “Should she have sat back at that instant, his hand would have been caught under her. . . . The function of the beginning of a story is to introduce the principal characters, establish their initial relationship, set the scene for the main action . . . and initiate the first complication or whatever of the rising action” (92). These moments, when the voice seems to shift outside Ambrose’s consciousness, actually unite the teller with the tale, Barth with his protagonist, and life with art. As the developing artist, Ambrose cannot forget the least detail of his life, and he tries to piece everything together. Most of all, he needs to know himself, to experience his inner being, before he will have material to translate into art.
When Ambrose is lost in the carnival funhouse, he develops this knowledge. Straying into an old, forgotten part of the funhouse, he becomes separated from the mainstream—the funhouse represents the world for lovers—and has fantasies of death and suicide, recalling the “negative resolve” of the sperm cell from “Night-Sea Journey.” Ambrose also finds himself reliving past incidents with Magda and imagining alternative futures.
These experiences lead to Ambrose’s fantasy that he is reciting stories in the dark until he dies, while a young girl behind the plyboard panel he leans against takes down his every word but does not speak, for she knows his genius can bloom only in isolation. This fantasy is the artistic parallel to the sperm’s union with “Her” in “Night-Sea Journey.” Barth thus suggests that the artist’s creative force is a product of a rechanneled sexual drive. Although Ambrose prefers to be among the lovers in the funhouse, he is constructing his own funhouse in the world of art.