To round out our Tunnel Big Read summations, participants GRSJR and Neil offer some final thoughts on their experiences with the book. First up, GRSJR:
I took my slide rule, compass, protractor, and other tools of critical reading and wasn’t able to apply them very well to William Gass’s The Tunnel. Maybe new tools are needed in such a modern narrative.
Originally, and even still, I’d presumed Gass would reveal some novelistic intent; An intent explained as theme, style, narrative, or other. But that intent I didn’t find. Instead, I found a description of an individual’s, Professor William Kohler’s, consternations and embitterness. These flummoxations are representative; Extending beyond an individual to larger groups of society and culture.
The fictional application of these existential consternations, is through, rather poetic, interior monologue. One of my favorite of Kohler’s poeticisms is the alliterative simile, “myth murdering myth” [pg. 82] Within it is the recognition of differing political and governing attitudes. Theses differing concerns are, in Kohler’s opinion, each myths. Whether referring to a democracy, socialism, fascism, etc, they are each myths because each is at best only partly true and at worst full of deceptions and untruths. “I am weary of dinner tables and dinner table prattle, and the whole of life in chairs, in families, in national places. An oration. oration” [pg. 262] When war breaks out among societies full of differences in culture etc, the deaths involved amount to nothing more than “myth murdering myth”. Does this perception of Kohler’s become the foundation of some action by Kohler? No. Well, he can be forgiven for not being a savior if that’s what I mean; He’s only one individual, he’s probably not going to change the world. Yet he is a learned individual and when he doesn’t take some action as a result of belief, he has lied to himself and others. He is a hypocrite. It’s a punishing kind of self-criticism , one which seems to be the root of Kohler’s misery. This misery is evident in his personal relationships, i.e. his marriage, his work, his colleagues, his children, etc. as well as in his abstract relationships with learnedness and ideas; “Myth murdering myth”, being an example; An example with a disdainful, miseryous note. Or “I hoped to teach as he had the truth no matter what, namely that the truth was a snare.” [Pg. 278] The truth is the snare, not the man Magus Tabor, nor the teachings of the man but the ‘truth’ which is the snare and thus the so-called ‘truth’ which suffers Kohler’s contempt. Disdain pricks the ear when Kohler speaks. Well, we too might be disdainful and hypocritical if we ‘d had a dysfunctional childhood as Kohler seems to feel he’s had. That dysfunctionality is also a convenient excuse for his lack of conviction. Were Kohler not a hypocrite from lack of conviction he would probably be an extremist. “Dr. Kohler, Nazi, By Appointment” [pg.488] Better to be a hypocrite than an extremist.
Yet Kohler is just as aware of his misery and it’s animosities as any of us readers. He’s not only conflicted, he’s also conflicted about being conflicted; “And there I go again.” [pg.116] or, “. . . but oh boy there I go . . .” [pg.123] as, in both cases, he catches himself being sarcastic or contemptuous. It’s a self-conflict he never resolves. The tunnel he is digging becomes a metaphor for escaping these anathemas, conflicts, and dichotomies to normalcy or happiness. For me, this is what the book is about.
There are other aspects to the novel besides Kohler’s uncompromising bitterness:
* Herschel Grynszpan and Kohler’s colleague Walter Herschel. The dissimilarity between Grynszpans committed assassination of Ernst vom Rath and Walter Herschels accommodating, easy-going nature is striking.
* So too is Kohler’s seeming lack of self-conscienceness regarding his adulteries.
* The name of Kohler’s uncle, “Balt,” I take to be an allusion to the Baltic states. The relation between the Baltic of Uncle Balt and the German Of Kohler seems obvious, yet there is no closure to understanding the importance of this topic. It’s sort of passed over. It’s an intimation writ on fragile rice paper, of which the fragility prevents further examination.
The problem I have, and maybe it’s a fault of too shallow a reading on my part, is that all these other aspects are not much more than “otherness.” These mentions don’t portend any further consideration. The two Herschels, the affairs, the Baltic-German allusions, and others, have a dangling quality, As if nothing more can be made of them. Maybe to make further conclusions is for Gass to risk suffering a judgement of half-assed half-truths; the very kind of contemptuous judgement Kohler slings at others as well as at life itself.
As to Kohler’s monstrosity, it seems hyperbolic. He certainly has a fascist streak, he can certainly disparage his wife or kids or his upbringing, but those same topics he can refer to poignantly and if not with a quite facetious disdain, then at least something less than total disdain. He’s a tough cookie but not without apparent humanity.
Basically, I enjoyed the post-modern contemporanoeousness of the character of Kohler. I enjoyed Gass’s prose. But Kohler’s hints at historical significances, i.e. antisemitism, mob mentalities, existentalness of ideas and truths ,etc. seemed to start and stop and were never fulfilled topics.
Finally, it seemed to me that The Tunnel was more epic than novelistic. It seemed a cross between Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilamanjaro and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. How it is that an epic is beget by a cross between a short story and a novel I don’t understand. How it is that this seemingly alien begetting is, in my opinion, worthy of merit is actually even stranger still.
And here is what Neil has to say:
This summer, feeling ambitious, I took The Tunnel off the shelf, which it had been weighing down for three years. Unfortunately, as soon as I finished it, Scott announced it as the next Group Read, which would have an ideal way to take on this huge book. I still followed along and got a lot out of the posts and comments.
Before reading this, whenever thinking of The Tunnel, I always fixated on how it took Gass close to three decades to complete it. How does one work on a piece of work for so long? Is it in stops and starts? Is it a sentence a day? Does he put it on a shelf of his own for three years before picking it up again? Why did it take so long?
After reading, I have a good idea about why it took so long. I have never read anything that paid so much attention to rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, pace, and word choice. And I’m not comparing it only to Big Important Novels, but also to short books, short stories, novellas, essays—hell, even poems. Right now, I could randomly flip to any page, close my eyes, pick out a sentence, and quote something striking to you. Let’s try:
“I used to cuddle you and now I cuddle my covers, but I am not pretending this blanket is your body or that these pages turn of its own accord.”
This book is stitched together with gems like this on every page and paragraph. It is wondrous on a micro level, something certainly to revel in. There are passages that are as good or better than anything I’ve read—the birthday “party” comes to mind, as do childhood memories of car rides in the country. Yet, I feel that, as a whole, the book didn’t grab me as much as I wanted. Maybe this isn’t a book to pull you in, but instead to push you out.
For me, I was too busy getting drunk off his sentences to feel much about the content of Kohler’s soul. Maybe if it were written in sturdy, clear, prose I would have paid less attention to the musical writing and more to Kohler’s descent tunnel-ward. But that would rob the book of its joyful language, which beautifully describes an ugly, spiraling thought process. Gass’s brilliance at the sentence level shines through the filth of Kohler’s mind as he unearths his history with a shovel and pen.
So overall, a great group read that I would put a little below Your Face Tomorrow and Life A User’s Manual, but above Naked Singularity and The Last Samurai. Thanks to Scott for letting me share this and for introducing me to so many great authors over the last few years.