Pain in the A$$ Story Vs. Capturing Madness & Meaning John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” and Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” have two completely different narrative approaches to metafiction even though they are categorized in the same fictional genre. Barth and O’Brien, contemporary American novelists, cranked out these metafictional stories in the 20th century. Metafictions often self-consciously address the devices of fiction while the narrator tells the reader a story. Herbert Kohl does an excellent job of explaining metafiction. He writes, ''when used with the name of a discipline, designates a new but related discipline designed to deal critically with the original one” (Miller). These two stories are prime examples of what and how metafiction is used to create a story beneath a story.
In 1968 Barth’s story was introduced to the public. The narrator of this story speaks in third person while referring to Ambrose and his family and their day at the beach. This is intentional because an in-depth overview of the entire day, events, and characters lives are necessary for a full understanding and consumption of thought. It is apparent while reading that the narrator’s style in voice is somewhat confusing and awkward, much like the character Ambrose’s current stage in his life. It is said that Barth is a master of analytical writing, but also knew the dangers of it. For the inexperienced reader his expertise can cause confusion and thoughts of giving up. For example, when you look meticulously at things, or study your feelings too much, they stop making sense; just like Barth’s literature. This talk of confusion is not to say that Barth is a bad writer; it is just implying it takes experience to appreciate his work, which is hard for a non-avid reader to break down into comprehensive thoughts. It takes great talent to merge the elements and devices of fiction with an actually interesting story. He evens goes as far to make a “Choose your own Adventure” ending on about how fictional stories usually end up, which was reinvented in 1983 by Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”.
O’Brien’s metafiction was churned out 28 years later in 1990. “How to Tell a True War Story” tells the tale of a Vietnam War veteran, and stories of past experiences that continue to effect daily life. Unlike Barth’s narrator, O’Brien’s narrator seems to be straight to the point and following a clear path. This story is written in a personal first person perspective of O’Brien but has a third person narrative. O’Brien chose third person narrative so he could put a distance between himself and past events and also leave to story to be relatable to all of his fellow veterans.
In relation to the narrator’s character comes certain closeness between the reader and the storyteller. Barth puts off a certain stink that makes you run away but come back for more because you wonder where it came from and why it continues to drag on. Sukenick once said about Barth’s writing, “Barth’s tack was to say that there is always the intervention of interpretation of some kind, so that you could never get at the “real data.” So instead of talking about the data, he took position that since you are always looking at those data of experiences through the interpreting mind, they are, in effect, already interpreted. No matter how you come at “reality” it is already interpreted before the fact. Then what you do is move into the interpretations and deal with the interpretations, not with reality, because that’s what the really acute artist realizes he’s dealing with” (LeClair 282).
It is difficult to connect with Barth through all of his nooks and crannies of data and interpretation. This difficulty forms a wall between the reader and the narrator that is hard to break. The breaking of the text only comes to those who give Barth a sincere chance, which means being exposed to his work and re-reading “Lost in the Funhouse” several times.
Unlike Barth, O’Brien’s narrator is easy to warm up to. The reader wants to know what will happen next, no matter what the circumstances are, even during a chaotic war period. This could be because of O’Brien’s apparent first person perspective on the subject he is writing about. O’Brien makes war seem beautiful and exotic, like somewhere you might want to bring the kids next spring break. He even makes the most heartbreaking and awful events come to life in a lovely way. For example, in “How to Tell a True War Story” O’Brien’s narrator describes his friend being killed by a booby-trapped 105 round as being “…beautiful, the way the sun light came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” (70). O’Brien’s charm pulls you in and you forget that he keeps emphasizing that this is the truth, although it is known he writes fictional stories. Even though the story is not factually true, the emotions you feel are so real it doesn’t matter if it really happened or not. That type of metafiction gives you a connection with a narrator that is not found in Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”.
Although the connection in Barth’s story with the narrator is unlike the connection in O’Brien’s, he knows the story is being written, which is a connection in itself. The reader gets this hunch because the narrator comments on the grammar and language along with the words he is telling us being fiction. This role is very visible within the story line because the metafiction breaks through and starts dropping lines about stylistic fiction “tricks”.
The role O’Brien plays in his story “How to Tell a True War Story” is profoundly, when compared to Barth, more touching on an emotional level. His metafiction tells a story so close and sincere, it is like you are sharing a phone booth with the man. He wants you to know so badly what Vietnam was like, not just for him but also for everyone who was there with him. ''I want you to feel what I felt,'' he goes on, ''I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth,” says O’Brien (Kakutani). Even the metafictional aspect that makes you feel like a “dumb cooze” by the end of the story doesn’t bring you down for too long. You start to believe the story is real, when clearly it isn’t, because it is fiction and O’Brien wants you to feel alright with being fooled.
Although Barth and O’Brien are stylistically on polar opposites of the metafictional scale they both genuinely fit into the category, due to the narrators strong approaches to of getting their idea absorbed. Across the board it is shown that Barth goes about his work with twist and turns, while O’Brien serves it to you on a dirty silver platter; and they both still fly. The writers tell stories that they believe to be true, which is what all great fiction should do.
Kakutani, Michiko. Books of The Times; Slogging Surreally in the Vietnamese Jungle. New York Times Magazine 6 Mar. 1990.
Leclair, Tom. Interviews with Contemporary American Novelist: Anything Can Happen. University of Illinois, 1983.
Miller, Laura. “The Way We Live Now 11-17-02: ESSAY; This Is a Headline For an Essay About Meta” New York Times Magazine 17 Nov. 2002.