Dr. Alex E. Blazer Course Site Syllabus
Barth Hejinian Language Poetry
Jackson Gass Literary Biography
Paper 1 Paper 2 Annotated Bibliography
Paper 3 / Final Portfolio  


Tunneling into Funhouses:

Some Postmodern American Literature

English 322-01: American Literature from 1960 to the Present

Spring 2004, TR 4:00-5:15PM, Bingham Humanities Bldg 106

John Barth, "Lost in the Funhouse"

You think you’re yourself, but there are other persons in you.

—"Lost in the Funhouse"


Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness.



John Barth is now considered one of the elder statesmen of the postmodern comic novel. In his eleven novels (Giles, Goat-Boy; or, The Revised New Syllabus, LETTERS: An Old-Time Epistolary Novel by Seven Fictitious Drolls & Dreamers, Each of Whom Imagines Himself Actual, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, Once upon a Time: A Floating Opera, Coming Soon!!!: A Narrative, among others) and two collections of short stories (Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice and On with the Story), he routinely experiments with fictional forms and plays with the Western literary tradition. Know in academic circles for his seminal essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," Barth argues that the possibilities high modernism offered fiction have now been depleted, and so the novel must move into a new (postmodern) direction. Much of his work is self-consciously meta-fictional. His characters, like Giles, the Goat-Boy and Ambrose of Lost in the Funhouse, set about recreating the world in words. Barth himself plays with the interaction between reader and work by foregrounding the aritificiality of the writing process of the work in the work. Readers are simultaneously absorbed in the fictional world and placed definitively outside into the space of the writing process. There are three levels in a meta-fictional work, the level of the frame narrative, the level of the author writing, and the level of the reader reading. Barth exploits these planes for absurd and comic effect.


"Lost in the Funhouse" is the central story of a collection of short stories of the same name. More than a loose collection, all of the stories in Lost in the Funhouse are conceptual related by the twin themes of revealing how stories and myths create our identities and self-consciously demonstrating the identity/writing process. Whereas the modernist collection Joyce's Dubliners recreates the diverse population of the city of Dublin, Barth's recreates the city of his own always already storied mind. Here are the other stories of Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (New York: Doubleday, 1968):

  1. "Frame-Tale": ironically foregrounds ubiquitous "Once upon a time"
  2. "Night-Sea Journey": comprises the story of Ambrose's conception told from the point of view of a highly literate and self-conscious spermatazoa who is debating the meaning of his journey and the meaning of love)
  3. "Ambrose His Mark": Ambrose contemplates his mark, i.e., his proper name and how it created and continues to create his identity
  4. "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction": Ambrose records himself writing in order to document himself into existence for fear that when the words end, he too will end
  5. "Water-Message": a story of Ambrose's childhood
  6. "Petition": a love triangle between a Siamese twins—one's belly is attached to the small of the other's back—and a girl, written in the form of a petition letter by one of the brothers to the King of Siam
  7. "Lost in the Funhouse"
  8. "Echo": the story of Narcissus, the original man of self-conceit and self-creation, Echo, who can only repeat what she's heard, and Tiresias, the seer of the future
  9. "Two Meditations": mythic/Oedipal self-blindness/castration
  10. "Title": perhaps one of the stories that Ambrose writes while he's in the funhouse, this selection is foregoes any traditional characters and simply talks about one's life in terms of the elements of fiction
  11. "Glossolalia": Crispus looks upon the god of the sun and raves
  12. "Life-Story": perhaps a continuation of "Title," this story also constructs the life of the narrator as a work of fiction
  13. "Menelaiad": the Odyssey and Iliad in contemporary times
  14. "Anonymiad": more mythic updating, with the narrator disappearing into his tale called the "Anonymiad"

Abbreviated Bibliography of Criticism

  1. D'Haen, Theo. Text to Reader: A Communicative Approach to Fowles, Barth, Cortazar, and Boon. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1983.
  2. Fogel, Stanley. Understanding John Barth. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.
  3. Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983.
  4. Schulz, Max F. The Muses of John Barth: Tradition and Metafiction from Lost in the Funhouse to The Tidewater Tales. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Issues for Class Discussion

  1. Why does the story self-consciously reflect on conventional story-telling techniques, including plot and structure?
  2. What is the effect of this self-reflexiveness on the plot and structure of the story itself? on the reader's response to the story as well as the meaning of the story?
  3. How does the story play with the reader's expectations of conventional narration?
  4. How does the plot and structure mirror one's (and/or Ambrose's) experience in a funhouse?
  5. Does Ambrose or the author-narrator ever resolve his conflict? Does Ambrose ever make it out of the funhouse, metaphorically speaking?
  6. What is the purpose of the self-reflexive narration? Is there a conflict between the reader's expectations about Ambrose story and what the story actually provides? How might the story's reflexivity mirror Ambrose's experience in the funhouse?

Language Poetry

Although John Ashbery is a postmodern poet, he nonetheless has one foot in traditional romantic lyric of self-expression. The other three poets that we're reading (Rosmarie Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian, and Barrett Watten) have a far more radical, poststructuralist view of language and self. Although Ashbery influences these poets, they comprise a revolutionary tendency in postmodern poetry called Language poetry, which foregrounds anti-absorptive language over against conventional, "meaningful" poetry. The following characteristic list borrows from Bob Perelman's "Language Writing and Literary History," The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996) 11-37.

  1. Language poetry employs a theoretically informed, poststructuralist view of the self. The self is pluralistic, multiplicitous, shifting, and conflictive, and subject to language and discourse.
  2. Language poetry utilizes a new (hyper)realism that strives to portray the contemporary subject’s divided yet blase consciousness through the sheer banality of everyday language usage in all its mixed and shifting saturation.
  3. Language poetry implements writing as a critical process instead of a stagnant product. Thus Language poetry is interested in overcoming the consumable goods that are traditional and conventional verse (and prose) through a poetics of a) semantic and syntactical disjunction, b) nonlinear antinarrative, c) nonreferential textuality and materiality of language itself, and d) polyvocal and polylogical expression of "speaker."
  4. Language poetry is interested in readerly participation in the writing process such that the reader constructs meaning just as the writer does, thereby moving beyond the role of passive consumer and into the role of active producer of meaning.
  5. Language poetry uses the four above characteristics (poststructuralist subbjectivity, hyperrealism, writing as process of critique, and reader response thereof), as a means to approach politically informed and motivated ends at the level of representation at worst and the level of mainstream political discourse at best.

Lyn Hejinian, My Life

Lyn Hejinian's My Life is a book of poetry that tests the limits of autobiography, diary, memory, and identity. Each prose poem constitutes the poet's memory of a year of her life. Although the reader receives informative details of that existence, those facts are overrun by language because the poet remembers what has been through what is now, that is, the creative language of her life. The poet's multiplicitous and fluctuating identity is constructed by a language that questions reference and sublimes convention: "My life is as permeable constructedness" (93).


The book gains thematic continuity by repeating and recycling the titles of more than half of its poems throughout the text of subsequent poems. However, these recurring phrases are continually amended and revised, thus bringing a degree of discontituity into the heart of continuity. The titles of the first two poems and their subsequent reuse are listed below the following discussion questions.

  1. A pause, a rose, something on paper
    1. A pause, a rose, something on paper, in a nature scrapbook. (13)
    2. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (16)
    3. I found myself dependent on a pause, a rose, something on paper. (21)
    4. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (31)
    5. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (36)
    6. A pause, a rose, something on paper implicit in the fragmentary text. (41)
    7. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (43)
    8. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (45)
    9. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (52)
    10. A pause, a rose, something on paper—an example of parascription. (64)
    11. A pause, a rose, something on paper of true organic spirals we have no lack. (65)
    12. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (70)
    13. There was a pause, a rose, something on paper.(75)
    14. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (80)
    15. A pause, a rose, something on paper. (86)
    16. Things are different but not separate, thoughts are discontinuous but not unmotivated (like a rose without pause). (96)
  2. As for we who "love to be astonished"
    1. As for we who "love to be astonished," my heartbeats shook the bed. (22)
    2. As for we who "love to be astonished," a weasel eats twenty times as much as a lizard of the same size. (24)
    3. As for we who "love to be astonished," I'm not your maid I'm your mother. (28)
    4. As for we who "love to be astonished," mother love. (30)
    5. As for we who "love to be astonished," every Sears smells the same. (34)
    6. As for we who "love to be astonished," a moth has more flesh than a butterfly could lift. (40)
    7. As for we who "love to be astonished," you would say these are its ghosts. (41)
    8. As for we who "love to be astonished," he's a walker. (44)
    9. As for we who "love to be astonished," so do all relationships move. (45)
    10. As for we who "love to be astonished," the ear is less active than the eye. (47)
    11. As for we who "love to be astonished," the night is lit. (50)
    12. As for we who "love to be astonished," McDonalds is the world's largest purchaser of beef eyeballs. (54)
    13. As for we who "love to be astonished," each new bit of knowledge is indicative of a wider ignorance. (56)
    14. As for we who "love to be astonished," life is linked to man. (61)
    15. As for we who "love to be astonished," thicken the eggs in a bath Marie. (70)
    16. As for we who "love to be astonished," money makes money, luck makes luck. (74)
    17. As for we who "love to be astonished," the old-fashioned branching ice cream cones could hold twin pairs of scoops, of four. (77)
    18. As for we who "love to be astonished," it's more like muggy was than wooden houses. (78)
    19. As for we who "love to be astonished," my love for these kids. (83)
    20. As for we who "love to be astonished," I was territorial at their nativity. (97)
    21. As for we who "love to be astonished," consciousness is durable in poetry. (98)
    22. As for we who "love to be astonished," we lead that life because it is mulish and packed. (104)
    23. The adult son and daughter of we "who love to be astonished"...and really what other chance, conclusion, power could I...resume. (111)

Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl

Patchwork Girl is a Storyspace novel available on CD-ROM in the textbook section of the bookstore. You can install and read it on your home computer. If you don't have access to a home computer, you may install it on a computer in IT North or South Computer Center. Please do so as soon as possible so we can work out any difficulties in the labs or with your computer before you have to read the novel in March. Those installing the software in a computer lab should save their reading to floppy disk as computers are wiped weekly.

William H. Gass, The Tunnel

Table of Episodes

Mad Meg in the Maelstrom
The Funny Papers
In the Funnies
Mad Meg in the Maelstrom
August Bees
Uncle Balt and the Nature of Being
Mad Meg
The Ghost Folks
They Should Live So Long: The Old Folks
The Sunday Drive
Mad Meg
A Fugue
In the Army
Accusations of Platyhelminthism
The Barricade
Mad Meg
Mad Meg
Mad Meg
Mad Meg
Mad Meg
Mad Meg
Mad Meg
At Death's Door
Family Album
Child Abuse
Planmantee Particularly
Planmantee Particularly
Governali Goes to Heaven
Herschel Honey
Scandal in the Schoolroom


Down and Dirty
Learning to Drive
Being a Bigot
The Cost of Everything
Do Rivers
Mother Makes a Cake
Blood on the Living Room Rug




The following works of scholarly criticism, albeit brief, will help illuminate some of William H. Gass's The Tunnel. I encourage you to peruse them if you get stuck.

Ekstrom Library Print Reserves [1-day Reserve]

Minerva Catalogue Electronic Reserves

Criticism on the Internet

Literary Biography

Once in the quarter, you will write a 3-4 page (750-1000 word) literary biography of an author we're reading in class. Much like a Norton anthology or Contemporary Authors author biography, this paper should briefly summarize the author's literary world view (not her life story), paying special attention to the work we're reading in class. Note the themes and issues as well as explain the common ways that critics interpret the text we're reading. Supplemental materials that will be much appreciated include a bibliography of important works of criticism on the text at hand, useful scholarly websites, and your issue questions for class discussion.


You will be responsible for posting this paper to Blackboard > English 322 > Literary Biographies discussion board by 4:00PM on the due date that you've signed up for; it's not my job to remind you. Format your literary biography to Word so all students can read it; you may use my MLA styled template. You will also be asked to introduce the author and work on the first day of class discussion. I'll respond to your paper via your university email address within one week of your post.


Below is a list of sources that will help you collect the information for your literary bibliography. They are available on the U of L Libraries website at Article Databases by Topic > Literature.

Literary Biograpy Schedule and Sign Up Sheet

Week 1 none    
Week 2 due Tuesday, 1-20 DeLillo, White Noise

Isaac Spradlin

Jason Schwalm

Week 3 due Tuesday, 1-27

Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Stephanie Ramser

Week 4 due Tuesday, 2-3 Kushner, Angels in America: Millenium Approaches

Melissa Miller

Week 5 due Tuesday, 2-10

Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Dan Nelson

Week 6 due Thursday, 2-19 Waldrop, The Reproduction of Profiles

Matthew Brady

Joseph Luster

Week 7 none    
Week 8 due Thursday, 3-4 Hejinian, My Life

Nathan Brochman

Kit Koerner

Suzanne Moffitt

Week 9 due Tuesday, 3-9

Coover, "The Babysitter"

[due to the syllabus change, we'll discuss Coover on 3-25; you can turn your paper in up to and including 3-23

Jason Finley

Week 10 none    
Week 11 due Tuesday, 3-23

Watten, Complete Thought

[due to the syllabus change, we'll start discussing Watten on 3-11; please turn in your response by 3-9 if at all possible; it's okay if you can't]

Reneé Murphy

Diana Schwarz

due Thursday, 3-25 Jackson, Patchwork Girl

KeShonda Keltee

Emily Kolb

Jen Uebel

Week 12 none  


Week 13 due Tuesday, 4-6 Gass, The Tunnel

Jessica Stewart

Charles Westmoreland

Michele Wilbert

Week 14 none    
Week 15 none    
Week 16 none No Class: Reading Day  
Finals none    

Paper 1

Choose one of the works we've read in class so far (Barth, DeLillo, Stoppard, Kushner) and write a paper that examines that work in terms of one of the five postmodern tendencies that I suggested during the introductory lecture (belief, form, representation, high and low, subjectivity). Use that tendency only as a starting point into your analysis of the work, and do not simply regurgitate what I said about postmodernism. Instead, use the tendency as the issue that motivates your interpretation of the work. For instance, you could look at the question of belief or high and low culture with regard to the function of Hitler and pop culture studies in DeLillo's White Noise; or you could discuss the convoluted issue of representation or subjectivity in Stoppard's intertextual Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. With four complex works and five open-ended issues, the possibilities are rich.

Paper 2

In the last paper, you focused your interpretation of one postmodern author on one conceptual aspect of postmodernism. In this paper, you will analyze the postmodern poetic worldview (literally, the poet's vision of the postmodern world, for instance, how the poet conceives of belief, reality, and subjectivity or how the poet views aesthetics, representation, and poetic form) by writing a paper on one of the following two options. Note that, in 7-8 pages and working from only one book of poetry, you will not be able to cover the poet's entire belief system, so you will have to limit your interpretation to one or two related concepts.


Option 1: Choose one of the four poets we've read (Ashbery, Waldrop, Hejinian, Watten). Write a paper that interprets his or her poetic worldview by analyzing one to three poems from the book of poetry. Balance the individual readings of the poems with your understanding of the overarching worldview of the poet.


Option 2: Choose two of the four poets we've read (Ashbery, Waldrop, Hejinian, Watten). Write a paper that compares and contrasts the two poetic worldviews by analyzing one or two poems from each poet. You could, for instance, compare and contrast how Ashbery and Waldrop conceive portraits vs pictures, or representation vs reproduction, or simply the idea of mirrors. Or you could compare and contrast Hejinian's diary thinking with Watten's complete thought. With four complex works of literature, the possibilities are rich.

Annotated Bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a list of secondary sources that includes summaries of those materials. A full two weeks before your final paper is due, you will compose an annotated bibliography of the research materials that you might use in Paper 3.

  1. Thesis in Progress: In a couple of sentences, state your tentative interpretive thesis in progress and the question that is guiding your research. (You will be asked to share this with the class.)
  2. Summary of Findings: In at least 250 words, summarize the various ways critics are interpreting the work of literature. For instance, point out interpretative debates.
  3. 10 Secondary Sources
    • type of sources: Spread your search evenly between scholarly journal articles and scholarly books or book chapters; do not use encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, websites, or primary texts. Here is a handout on literary research methods at U of L.
    • arrangement and citation format of sources: arrange sources alphabetically and format them according to MLA citation standards
    • annotations: summarize and evaluate each of the 10 sources in 75-100 words by
      1. identifying the issue or question that the source is investigating,
      2. defining the source's thesis or main idea relevant to the work of literature you're researching, and
      3. explaining how the source helps your understanding of the work of literature

Paper 3 / Final Portfolio

Paper 3: In your two previous papers, you analyzed works of literature while honing your understanding of the postmodern aesthetic and worldview. In the final paper, you will continue that process while using scholars in the field to augment your interpretation. The final paper will be a 10-12 page research paper on a postmodern work of literature of your choosing, although you should share your topic with me before you begin. Here are the three choices for research topics:

  1. a text we've read in class, but on which you have not yet written a formal paper,
  2. a text we've not read in class, though by an author we've read in class, or
  3. a work by an author we have not read in class. (Click here to see the list of postmodern texts students chose to pursue.)

Rigorously interpret and analyze the work of literature, and use four scholarly journal articles, books, or book chapters to support your interpretation (Click here to learn how to conduct literary research at U of L). Although this is a research paper, the emphasis should be on your ideas, your way of reading the text; the research should help you develop and support your interpretation, but it should not take the place of your interpretation.


Final Portfolio: The final paper must be turned in with a final portfolio. This portfolio will consist of

  1. a cover letter explaining what you've learned about postmodern literature and the progress of your writing in the course (include rationale for your revision of Paper 1 and/or 2 if you choose to revise them)
  2. all previously graded assignments, with professor's remarks:
    • Literary Biography
    • Paper 1
    • Paper 2
    • Annotated Bibliography
  3. optional revisions of Paper 1 and/or Paper 2 (note: these are optional, not mandatory)
  4. Paper 3

If you turn in your final portfolio as a hard copy, place all materials in a folder. If you turn in your final portfolio electronically, enclose the separate documents into a single zip file (Windows XP has built in zip functionality; you can download WinZip at www.winzip.com). So I can quickly and easily find documents within your electronic portfolio, name each individual document according to the following system: Cover Letter, Literary Biography, Paper 1, Paper 2, Annotated Bibliography, Paper 1 Revision, Paper 2 Revision, Paper 3.

Research Paper Topics

Matt Brady John Gardner, Grendel
Nathan Brockman Hubert Selby, Jr., Last Exit to Brooklyn
Jason Finley Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl
Kathleen Jewell William H. Gass, The Tunnel
Kit Koerner William H. Gass, The Tunnel
Emily Kolb Don DeLillo, White Noise
Joseph Luster Robert Coover, "The Babysitter"
Melissa Miller John Barth, "Lost in the Funhouse"
Suzanne Moffitt Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat's Cradle
Reneé Murphy Don DeLillo, Libra
Dan Nelson Tony Kushner, Angels in America and Caryl Churchill, Cloud Nine
Stephanie Ramser Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Jason Schwalm Tim O'Brien, Going after Cacciato
Diana Schwarz William H. Gass, The Tunnel
Isaac Spradlin Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Jessica Stewart John Barth, "Lost in the Funhouse"
Jen Uebel William H. Gass, The Tunnel
Charles Westmoreland Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Michele Wilbert Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead