Category Archives: Fall 2012 Big Read: William H. Gass’s The Tunnel

The Tunnel Big Read: The Make or Break Week?

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 3, covering pages 247 through 379. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

Scanning the comments to our Tunnel Big Read so far, it seems like some us have been getting close to disenchantment with Gass at various points during Week 2’s chunk of text. I do readily admit that at certain stretches I find The Tunnel frustrating, although that only means that (in my experience) it joins a number of other postmodern works that are widely regarded, including Gravity’s Rainbow, The Recognitions, Underworld, Terra Nostra, 2666, even Nabokov’s Ada, War & War, and Europe Central. I do think the dull stretches are more than compensated for by the stretches that work for me (which I’d say is maybe 80%-20% in favor of the stretches that work), and I’m willing to grant Gass his eccentricities in pursuit of his vision, as I have done for so many other authors before him.

More than that, however, it’s during Week 3’s reading that I’m really beginning to feel like this work is coming together for me. It’s still obviously a very baggy, digressive, and even self-indulgent book, but now I feel pretty clear that I have coordinates to navigate this book by. There are the Kohler’s Youth sections, dealing with his parents and the Depression-era Midwest (which I find beautiful portraits of both); the Workplace sections where Kohler details his relationships with his colleagues and his general disenchantment with academia (which I find interesting in a claustrophobic, unreliable sort of way); the Ranty sections where Kohler spews his bile about his life and the world in general; the Lou, Martha, and Susu sections, where Kohler details the failures of his love lives; the emerging PdP sections where Kohler is beginning to show his fascist leanings; and of course the Philosophical Mad Meg sections, where Kohler gives us the philosophical meat of the book (and I found the portrait of Magus on his deathbed in this week’s chunk of text incredibly well done).

The thing about The Tunnel, in my read, is that Gass frequently combines these various strands, even going so far as to weave among them at the level of sentence, image, and metaphor. This was, of course, very, very difficult at the beginning of the book when I had very little sense of Kohler as a whole, but the more I come to comprehend the organization of his life, the more I’m able to appreciate the choreography of the book for its beauty, despite the general difficulty and occasional obscurity.

For my own part that has been my experience of The Tunnel, and as I read I find myself picking up steam. It’s completely understanding if other people find the book too cumbersome, and I will readily admit that Gass’s prose and jokes can seem occasionally indulgent and even childish (I’ve long since accustomed myself to overcoming that hurdle to enjoy the larger pleasures of Gass’s writing). I’ll be interested to hear how everyone else feels about this book as we go on, why you want to drop out, if that’s what you’ve chosen to do, or why you’re continuing, if that’s what you’re doing.

The Tunnel Big Read: Week 3

Welcome to Week 3 of our group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel. The read lasts from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 3, covering pages 247 through 379. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

Thank you, and please post any thoughts as pertain to the read in the comments to this post. More thoughts for Week 3 to come later in the week.

The Tunnel Big Read: Questions for Week 2’s Reading

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 2, covering pages 127 through 247. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

—So far Mad Meg has been ghosting through this book. He pops up intermittently, and then his harangues only last a short while. What exactly is the point of this guy? What’s his philosophy? Why is he important to Kohler?

—What do you think of Oscar Planmantee’s assertion that in order to “secure for history an honest footing” we need to reach “the ultimate element,” that little nugget of fact that will permit no further division? [129] And how does this relate to Koher’s musings on the following page that “I wonder whether it’s only pain that has parts, for my patches of happiness seem continuous, complete, so warmly substantial everywhere”? [129-30] Also note his further assertion, “And what is the ultimate element in history but human life—human coupling, human pain?” [130]

—It seems that throughout this section, particularly in the “QUARREL” segments, Kohler is trying to make the study of war applicable to the study of human emotions. For instance, “My father suffered thirty years of pain. A continent could call it a war. It was an unjust fate.” [135] Do you buy this conflation? How does this make you feel about Kohler as a chronicler of his own life?

—What do you make of the limerick at the bottom of page 141 that begins, “I once wet my bed just for fun”? Is this perhaps an indication of some formative event that has encouraged Kohler to obsess over his genitals?

—Note the first sentence of Guilt and Innocence: “‘Time cannot do to ordinary things what we timelessly do to one another,’ I announce, although in a careful whisper, repeating the first sentence of my masterpiece . .. ” [147]

—”Martha hates when I shape my sentences. She says it doesn’t sound sincere.” [153] Another clue to Kohler’s writing style. Do all these aesthetic flourishes help him find the truth, or dance around it?

—Did you regard the excerpt from the review of a book written by Kohler on pages 218-19 as authentic? If you do take it as authentic, it’s a rather important clue to how the outside world sees Kohler’s work, although I don’t see how a book to which Kohler has not yet written the introduction could have been reviewed. Or perhaps it is a review of a prior work.

—What did you make of the paragraph on pages 172-3 where Kohler reprises his breakup with Lou with the cadences and rhyme scheme reminiscent of a limerick?

—Do you believe Culp’s assertion that a limerick “IS AN IMPLEMENT OF REVOLUTION!” [165] Is he saying this seriously? Does it matter, when regarding Culp, if he is speaking with ostensible sincerity or not?

—What do you think of “Slobweb #9”: “These days to be innocent is the worst crime.” [202]

—What about all the quotes having to do with Time in this segment of text, perhaps best summed up with this quote: before giving a lecture, Mad Meg “waited in vain for the clock to come out of its hole and cast a significant shadow: to be held out to us to illustrate the cheesy commonplace character of Time, or to symbolize its cheap and easy manufacture, as if to say ‘Time is a clown’s prop’; but he didn’t make the least use of it; he didn’t refer to it in any way; nor did its alarm go off in the middle of his discourse as we half expected.” [214]

—Please add your own questions in the comments section.

The Tunnel Big Read: Where Kohler Becomes a Little Less Baggy

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 2, covering pages 127 through 247. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

As we read this section of The Tunnel, I think this novel’s shape, inasmuch as there is a shape to this book, is beginning to come into view. Although The Tunnel continues to display nothing like a linear or even episodic logic—I think the proper term is “associative” or “poetic”—we are at least beginning to develop signposts to help us through the thicket of words. It’s in this week’s stretch that we find out some juicy bits about Kohler’s romance with Lou; it’s here that he begins work on the tunnel; we also find out here why his marriage is failing and what his wife, Marty, is like; we also begin to put some flesh on his work colleagues, Planmantee, Herschel, and, of course, Culp.

All this information may not make the book any more linear for us, but it does begin to let us to what Kohler has been doing for all these years as a professional historian: begin to ascribe some sort of order and logic to the disorderly journalings of a broken man. As such, I found in this section The Tunnel taking on many of the trappings of conventional realism. What I mean by that is that I am beginning to think that The Tunnel is not a book primarily about philosophy, aesthetics, or even world history; it is a book about a man, William Frederick Kohler, with these other elements coming into play only as much as the story of his life dictates.

Now is a good time to begin assessing Gass’s style in this book, which I would refer to as “maximalist.” In his criticism Gass has made his love of listing clear, and we see that tendency in great effect here. Page after page, Gass has Kohler give image after image, constantly restating his thoughts in numerous ways, when just one statement would suffice. What do we think of this mode of writing? Is it beautiful? Does it serve a purpose in this book? What does Gass hope to achieve with this constant near-repetition?

I think we see something along the lines of an answer on page 186, where Kohler is recalling the rant-like lectures that he has been inflicting on his students (whom he appears to despise). Near the bottom of the page he writes, “when sentences are sufficiently condensed, the sweetness gets squeezed out.” He follows that on page 187 with the remark, “little by little small things don’t get large,” before concluding, in typical self-loathing fashion, “playing with words is a sign of an infantile imagination; it is worse than playing with your tiddlywinks; it displays a gruesome . ..  what was it? it demonstrates a disagreeable . . . deplorable . . . no—it argues a . . . a loathsome mind.” There are a number of ways to read these lines, but I think what can be said of them with some certainty is that Gass is arguing here for a sense of massiveness and thus reality that comes with such a robust wordscape. He seems to be indicating that the only way to bring life to Kohler as he wants it done is to let him loose on the page, regardless of the fact that at times these lengthy displays will become a little tiresome. (Although, it is a mark of Gass’s prowess that in general I’ve found his lengthy paragraphs to be more inventive than onerous.)

I think we also get a window into Gass’s intentions with the entrance of Kohler’s dreadful friend Culp, whom I’ve found much more disagreeable so far than Kohler himself. (If anything, Kohler seems to be a mere derivative of Culp, eagerly following along in his repellant jokes in an attempt to please.) One of Culp’s great lifelong projects is a history of the world told in limerick form (discussed on page 165). Here we see an extremely skewed approach to history, though we might ask if the limerick is inherently any less valid a form as a journal or an academic work such as Kohler has written. We see a number of examples of Culp’s limericks, as he discusses the challenge of writing them with the word abbot in the first line, which Kohler has asked him to do. What ideas about history does the limerick privilege? What events? Even what proper names? By extension, what ideas about people and events do other forms, like the novel or the journal or the poem, implicitly serve?

Getting into the whole conceit of the limerick, Kohler begins to extemporaneously comment on the form, beginning on page 166, where he remarks, “Culp’s conversation was designed to make everything appear to be stupid, callow, scarcely whelped . . . if only language were made of slang, and each word had a brief green life, a short season in our speech before blowing away, there would be no real enrichment of meaning, no investment over time, of careful human thought in any inscription . . . punning would replace the rule of reason.” I think here we see the emergence of one of Gass’s major tropes as a writer, the idea that literature is really only just language. If you deform the language too far, the literature becomes meaningless, or, at least, its idea of what is “real” begins to be ordered along significantly different lines than what someone who uses a different form of language would consider real. Here you can see James Wood’s somewhat impoverished articulation of Gass’s philosophy, and his own thoughts on the matter:

On the other side, among those with too little belief in character, we hear that characters do not exist at all. The novelist and critic William Gass comments on the following passage from Henry James’s The Awkward Age: “Mr Cashmore, who would have been very red-headed if he had not been very bald, showed a single eyeglass and a long upper lip; he was large and jaunty with little petulant ejaculations that were not in the line of type.” Of this, Gass says: “We can imagine any number of other sentences about Mr Cashmore added to this one. Now the question is: what is Mr Cashmore? Here is the answer I shall give: Mr Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organisation, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy. He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him.”

But of course characters are assemblages of words, because literature is such an assemblage of words: this tells us absolutely nothing, and is like elaborately informing us that a novel cannot really create an imagined “world”, because it is just a bound codex of paper pages. Gass claims that “nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him”, but that is exactly what James has just done: he has said of him things that are usually said of a real person. He has told us that Mr Cashmore looked bald and red, and that his “petulant ejaculations” seemed out of keeping with his large jauntiness.

Still, even if there must clearly be a reasonable middle position, somewhere between the book-club self-identifier and the full-blown postmodern sceptic such as Gass, the difficult question remains: just what is a character? If I say that a character seems connected to consciousness, to the use of a mind, the many superb examples of characters who seem to think very little bristle up (Gatsby, Captain Ahab, Becky Sharp, Jean Brodie). If I refine the thought by repeating that a character at least has some essential connection to an interior life, to inwardness, is seen “from within”, I am presented with the nicely opposing examples of those two adulterers, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest, the first of whom does a lot of reflection, and is seen internally as well as externally, the second of whom, in Theodor Fontane’s eponymous novel, is seen almost entirely from the outside, with little space set aside for represented reflection. No one could say that Anna is more vivid than Effi simply because we see Anna doing more thinking.

Other things: interestingly, in this section Kohler describes the scene when Lou broke up with him, although (someone correct me if I’m mistaken), we don’t get a satisfying explanation of why she leaves him. This is interesting, since it’s clearly an epoch-defining moment in Kohler’s life. Does he not know himself? Is he afraid to set it down on paper? We also have an extended description of Kohler’s many quarrels with his wife, Marty (told, once imagines, in a highly biased fashion by Kohler himself). Kohler seems to try to be elevating these fights to some heroic status, interspersing the words “THE QUARREL” in all caps throughout this section and relating his own domestic disputes to events of world-historical significance.

This is also where Kohler begins digging his tunnel. Although it is only glancingly discussed, we do get enough meaty descriptions of the tunnel and Kohler’s digging as to feel is a real presence in the novel; somewhat disturbingly, he comments at one point on how his music is turning black, and he mentions how he must be careful not to hit the gas lines running beneath his home.

I rather liked how Kohler relates his tunnel to the idea of the abyss (which he claims “exists only in English” [184]), as well as his lengthy discussion of that subject and its relationship to doom [184 – 190]. “The abyss is the obliteration of the sign; it is reality without disguise, without appearance, without remainder,” [184-5] Kohler writes, following it with “History is the abyss of the doomed.” [185]

From Koher’s rather romanticized description of the abyss and doom, which he “aspires” [185] to, it seems clear that he does not view his own tiny tunnel as an abyss. But it does seem to be bound up with Kohler’s dark ideas of senselessness and the labyrinth of language, which I would say he is attempting to inhabit, literally, by building this tunnel. I would also relate the construction of the tunnel to the idea of writing, where one is constantly pushing up against the lip of the blank page, forging forward bit by bit into the unknown . . .

The Tunnel Big Read: The Desire to Know the Truth

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 1, covering pages 3 through 127. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

Now that we’ve all had a chance to settle in and begin reading this beast of a novel, let’s talk about the opening pages. What we seem to have in the initial pages are throat-clearings and drips of plot, although I’m going to make a guess right now that, rather than simply being Gass meandering toward the book’s focus, this style will typify all of The Tunnel. Knowing what I do of Gass as a critic and a reader, as well as going by my read of the initial 100 pages, it seems right now that the lack of much clear direction will be as much the point of this book as anything else. This is undoubtedly a large part of why The Tunnel has attracted labels like “difficult,” “so damned literary,” or even, showing the elegance characteristic of that periodical, “a load of crap” as per James Bowman in the National Review.

In other words, The Tunnel will clearly try your patience at times; so far I’ve found much of it downright confusing and obscure on a first reading, although I’ve also found that the book’s frequent pleasures and wit more than compensate for the occasional feeling of being lost in a thicket of words. And so far I’ve found that if you take it slow enough and give yourself time to look back and do a little re-reading, I think the book coheres enough.

I also think, as per the first week’s chunk of text, that confusion and patience-trying are something of The Tunnel’s point, and perhaps the fact that virtually all critics have made particular note of that aspect says something important about that continues to be the expectations that a novel must live up to. Gass clearly makes no bones about dismissing these “requirements,” and if you look at his 50 most influential books (collected in A Temple of Texts), you’ll see that the books he most likes also defeat these expectations.

What sticks out to me most clearly about the first score or so pages of The Tunnel is how invested it is in the act of writing as a physical/mental process, and how it relates this act to a search for the truth. Gass is clearly foregrounding this aspect of his novel, and perhaps we would do well to consider why a book that so palpably writhes in uncertainty, that so clearly avoids clear narration, so bothers us. Why do we consider this unduly “difficult” when this is our own life experience? What in our world conditions us to expect that a book would and should be anything different? And what relationship does this bear to the truth, particularly those truths recorded by history/narration and by our own experience.

The tension between these versions of “truth” is clearly present right at the instigation of the novel’s action: our narrator’s diary, his search for a personal truth, springs from the completion of a monumental work of history. In effect The Tunnel is a work of literature that comes as the complement to a work of history, and thus the very conceit of the book represents this tension—the relationship of capital-H History to capital-L Literature. Whereas history has the requirement of order, literature is free to luxuriate in the chaos of thought, and it seems that in the latter Gass locates something essential about the act of writing down our thoughts in language. On the book’s very first page, our narrator, William Frederick Kohler, says, with some resignation, “I realize I must again attempt to put this prison of my life in language.” [3] This is followed, on page 8, by the question, “Is writing to yourself a healthier insanity than talking to yourself?” Here, before he has even said a word, Gass seems to be questioning the very heart of his enterprise: Can words contain a life? Is the attempt a sort of grandiose form of madness?

But what, one wonders, is the alternative? On page 6 Gass introduces the German historian Magus Tabor, aka, Mad Meg, in whose baleful chair Kohler writes and spends the majority of the novel. Mad Meg seems to be some sort of an omen to Kohler, a warning of where he might end up: that is, as a historian in whose eyes “night had fallen” [6]: “those deeply curtained eyes reminded me that we were drifting through the middle of his sleep, and that I was just a wraith who would evaporate the instant he sank into his circulating chair—sank into the past—into death—into history.” [6] Or perhaps Kohler is already there and knows it.

There are some recurring motifs in this first section. Kohler repeatedly describes the quality of the light in his study where he sits in the imposing chair from which he composes this journal: “In this empty hour the light takes on an imprisoned harshness.” [13] There are also many statements regarding the construction of history and its relationship to an individual’s life: “when I had written what I had written; when I had reached the present—the dead end of history—to find it empty as an empty pantry.” [11] The book also seems very concerned with the diary as a literary form: just what is its point?, what can we learn from ours, and those of others?, how should it be composed?, and why?

These all seem to come back to the search for the truth, which I found to be the most prominent aspect of the first score or so of pages. Those opening pages seem to culminate, in a way, on pages 20-1, where the following words are written in out large type, interspersed between the rest of the text: “Sincerity,” “Empiricism,” “Classicism,” “Confession,” “The Complete Dishonest and Unwholesome Truth.” Here Gass speculates about the various ways of arriving at truth and how they fall short of that mark: “but what was his sincerity but an excuse to be selfish out of love for a comfortable maxim?”; “and not because experience couldn’t bring them to wisdom better than the Greeks, either, but because experience is broad and muddy like the Ganges”; “yes—he has felt up far too many facts during all his reading, in all those books, like a breast through the bubbles of a rough cloth, to have faith in their smooth plain names”; “whereas I look for love in knotholes and other rounded ironies”; “sincerity—this Christmas wrap around a rascal—could he dispense with even its concealments and reach reality, expose himself to his own eye?”

This seems to be both the impetus of the book and the source of its baggy (at times frustrating) form: a very human desire to reach the truth despite not knowing what it is. (This search for the truth is entwined with Kohler’s search for a form for his journals.) So how can Kohler know when he’s reached a “true” account of his life? What method is there by which he can impose an explanation and on order on the events which he is about to narrate for us? Can he even rely on human categories like “guilt” and “innocence,” which he seriously questions as anything other than constructs in the quote excerpted from his book on page 13: “Thus, neither guilt nor innocence are ontological elements in history; they are merely ideological factors . . .”

I think this kind of relativism would shock many of us, and I imagine this foreshadows some of the darker revelations about Kohler to come. We might wonder what Kohler’s motivations to know the truth are, particularly as he appears to have spent some time undermining the categories of guilt and innocence with regard to one of the great crimes of the 20th century. We shall read on . . .

One final thing. To help us all orient, here is Gass’s description of the book, as per Michael Silverblatt’s review in the Los Angeles Times

William Frederick Kohler “teaches history at a major mid-western university. He has studied in Germany during the thirties, returned with the 1st Army during the invasion as a debriefer, then as a consultant during the Nuremberg Trials. Writes a book called Nuremburg Notes. Its softness earns him some suspicion. He has been working for many years on his magnum opus: ‘Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany.’ As the novel begins, he has just concluded this book and has begun a self-congratulatory preface when he finds himself blocked and unable to continue. He finds himself writing these pages instead. Since they are exceedingly personal, and he doesn’t want his wife to see them, he hides them between the pages of ‘Guilt and Innocence,’ since he knows she will never read them.”

The Tunnel Big Read: Some Questions for Week 1

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 1, covering pages 3 through 127. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

Some questions to chew on for this week’s chunk of reading. Post your thoughts, or your own questions, in the comments.

—What do you think about Gass using/constructing the diary as a form? In the initial 10 pages he quotes from a number of famous writers’ diaries. And in our opening chunk he is clearly courting the diary as a way of attempting to make sense of one’s life. Is it a viable genre for that? For a novel?

—How much is William H. Gass meant to resemble William Kohler, narrator and protagonist of The Tunnel? On the one hand, Gass writes

The cover should not have the author’s name. “Why not put the author’s name on the book? Because it is Kohler’s book. Because, in a sense, it is not a book.” Gass sounds like an art-class enthusiast describing his hopes for typography—”I would love it if every line looked like a length of barbed wire”—as well as the treatment of Kohler’s doodles, which might, if successful, bring to mind Hitler’s architectural sketches of camps. “I want something at once naive,” Gass instructed, “a little charming, and a lot unsettling.”

But on the other and, as Louis Menand points out

In trying to make sense of a project to which so much time has been dedicated, readers will naturally look for a way to distinguish Gass himself from the petty, self-absorbed, and deeply unpleasant narrator he has created. They will not want to imagine that the narrator’s sour nihilism is also Gass’s, or that these indecent and seemingly interminable confessions are only displaced autobiography; and they will therefore make every interpretative effort to peel Gass away, so to speak, from the text he has produced. They will find this extremely difficult to do:

The narrator’s name is also William, and he has been given a last name, Kohler, that, like Gass, is an easy occasion for schoolyard humor. (Kohler is the brand name of a toilet maker.) Kohler tells us he was born in Iowa; Gass was born in North Dakota. Kohler’s father becomes crippled by arthritis, and his mother is an alcoholic who finally has to be institutionalized; these seem to be copies of Gass’s own parents, as he has described them in his nonfictional writing. Kohler eventually attends Harvard (Gass went to Cornell); after duty in the Second World War (in which Gass also served), he marries a woman named Martha, with whom he has two children (as does Gass), and he returns to the Midwest to a career (like Gass’s) as a professor. Kohler makes frequent reference to his rotundity, which photographs and personal observation confirm to be a feature of the Gass physique, and to his unusually small penis, for which the evidence needed to establish a correspondence is happily lacking.

—And about that small penis? This seems like a strange detail to get caught up on, and the book has already made much of it. In my opinion it’s so cliched (neo-Nazi with a small penis, yawn), and yet, one imagines Gass is a better, more careful writer than that. And, strangely, for a man who doubts his endowment Kohler seems to have had his share of affairs . . .

—What do you make of all the typographical oddities and images inserted into the text so far? What about the page number for page 31, which is replaced with a graphical depiction of a “00031” (as is the page number for pages 33 and 40)?

—I’m curious how sympathetic a character everyone finds Kohler. The reviews of this book I’ve read so far suggest he’s a monster, but so far his awfulness is not coming across for me. At this point he feels more pitiable/existential than evil/monstrous.

—Given the relationship of history to this novel, I’m intrigued by the line “Your history is your only individuality, Os insists, but in History with the great H, we average that out.” [105] How does one’s history determine what one is, and what is the relationship of a personal history to capital-H History? Can they be told in the same ways? Do they amount to the same thing? How is a person’s individuality “averaged out” by History, and does this relate in some meaningful way to the Holocaust, which is clearly important to this book?

—What about that section beginning on page 67 and running more or less through page 72? It is mostly a long list of great authors and literature, with a very dark description of the act of reading on page 71. I would imagine that most of us here view the literary/aesthetic life as one of great redemption and general goodness. So what does it say that Kohler seems inspired by the same books that many of us are? Consider the line, “for value occurs only in order, only in art and mathematics, science and the Third Reich, the work of bureaucrats like me and Alfred Jarry, Rosenberg, and Ike” [57]

—Note the line on page 82, “Myth murdering myth: that’s war these days.” Or 80: “What love was as a word was so much more to him than love was as a feeling.” What does this book have to say about language’s relationship to reality?

—Consider this in relation to the questions of guilt and innocence: “Well, the rifle puts you at a stainless distance. At the same time, it permits a dangerous indifference, a lassitude toward duty, if it is not replaced by hatred at a higher level, thus we make an image of our enemy; or rather, Kohler, it’s our enemy we make; otherwise our soldier loses heart.” [81]

The Tunnel Big Read: We Begin

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 1, covering pages 3 through 127. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

To start us off on this Big Read, I’m going to quote verbatim from the Wikipedia page for The Tunnel.

I’ve mostly kept these Big Reads to contemporary novels, and part of the reason for that is that I think we, as a community of readers, should participate in evaluating the works. One very important aspect of these reads, of course, is to experience the books as a group and help one another interpret and enjoy them. But another equally important aspect is to say whether or not we like these books, and if we think they are worthy of the contemplation and time that their size and (occasional) difficulty requires. That is our privilege when reading books that have not had the chance yet to acquire the layer of dust necessitated by the “classic” designation—more than a privilege, it is a responsibility.

The Wikipedia page for The Tunnel captures this fact magnificently. Wikipedia, of course, strives to be an encyclopedia, yet it also strives to be up-to-date, a goal which can at times be in tension with the attempt to be authoritative. We see that in the case of the entry for The Tunnel, a book about which posterity has not yet made up its mind. (And, readers of Gass will know that he regards the opinion of posterity as the most valid of all.) In that spirit, over the next month or so I hope that we will become a part of that posterity that will inevitably evaluate this book.

Critical reception

Some critics have harshly decried the novel, for instance Robert Alter in his review of the book in The New Republic,

“Some may seize on it as a postmodern masterpiece, but it is a bloated monster of a book. (…) The bloat is a consequence of sheer adipose verbosity and an unremitting condition of moral and intellectual flatulence. (…..) The abjection of (Gass’) hero seems less lived than written. It is an act of ventriloquism: behind the repulsive, potentially fascist narrator stands his critic, the novelist, presumably committed to humane, democratic values. But those values are nowhere intimated in the book, and what emerges is a kind of inadvertent complicity between author and protagonist. The supposedly critical novel becomes an enactment of bad faith.”[1]

However, other critics commended the work. In his review of the novel in the New York Times Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote:

“So why, given the considerable grimness of The Tunnel, does the reader still track its endless coils of prose? For the lyrical set pieces, for one thing; the haunting evocations of a small-town childhood so sensually rich in detail that the prose is sometimes hypnotic. But more compelling still is the tension Mr. Gass has created between literary art for its own sake and transcendent psychological truth.”[2]

A third opinion is raised by Robert Kelly, who writes in the New York Times Book Review that “It will be years before we know what to make of it.” [3]

The Tunnel Big Read Schedule

We are starting the Big Read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on Sunday, September 30. Below you will find the schedule and links to some commentary on the book.

In order to account for various editions of this book, I will also include section breaks with the page numbers on this schedule and throughout the Big Read to help everyone remain oriented. The edition I have is the early Dalkey paperback, distinguished by a grainy greenish-yellow cover image of darkness converging on a roughly square-shaped hole of light in the image’s center, obviously to denote the idea of a tunnel (pictured above).


Week 1: September 30 – October 6: pg. 3 (beginning of subsection “Life in a Chair”) – pg. 127 (beginning of subsection “Mad Meg”)

Week 2: October 7 – October 13: pg. 127 (beginning of subsection “Mad Meg”) – pg. 247 (beginning of subsection “Mad Meg,” with the words, “His voice was rather high . . .”)

Week 3: October 13 – October 20: pg. 247 (beginning of subsection “Mad Meg,” with the words, “His voice was rather high . . .”) – pg. 379 (beginning of subsection “Foreskinned” with, “I don’t know whether my father . . .”)

Week 4: October 21 – October 27: pg. 379 (beginning of subsection “Foreskinned” with, “I don’t know whether my father . . .”) – pg. 522 (beginning of subsection “Being a Bigot” with, “My father was unable to teach . . .”)

Week 5: October 28 – November 3: pg. 522 (beginning of subsection “Being a Bigot” with, “My father was unable to teach . . .”) – End of The Tunnel


Stephen Schenkenberg in The Quarterly Conversation:

For anyone who still cares about this book—essentially, Kohler letting loose a plotless stream of notes from underground on his crappy childhood, fat wife, dim colleagues, much missed mentor, and lonely existence—it’s been a great year. Dalkey Archive Press, which has published The Tunnel since 1999, has given us two valuable offerings: last spring, Dalkey’s low-profile journal CONTEXT published a two-page document called “Designing The Tunnel,” excerpts from Gass’s 12-point instructions to the book’s designer about layout, type, and the overall visual goals as they related to the book’s themes; and a month later, the publisher released an unabridged audio book of the novel, recorded by the 82-year-old author last year near his home in St. Louis. One is two pages; the other, 45 hours. Both provide compelling ways to re-experience this disagreeable and stunning novel.

Michael Silverblatt in the Los Angeles Times:

Now at last we have “The Tunnel.” For months I have been digging through it. A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4 1/2 times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book’s annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition.

James Wolcott in The New Criterion:

In the spirit of Donald Barthelme, another metafictionist influenced by the French nouveau roman, The Tunnel makes elaborate use of cartoons, diagrams, different typefaces, and bold headlines to break up its self-referential text with nutty distractions, juggling signs and signifiers like silverware. Yet the novel strives to be more than an anti-novel. It aspires to be a permanent splotch on literature’s soul, a personal neurosis that attains the status of a cultural condition. Its sensibility is steeped in the thick, shadowed enclosures of Kafka, Céline, Rilke, Joyce, and Proust, all of whom are cited in the text. Like Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul and Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, The Tunnel is an effort to disgorge The Last Modernist Masterpiece—to create a super-chunky word-mass in which the sum total of one man’s loquacious consciousness expands like the cosmos (and sums up the century). . . .

The irony is that when Gass first discussed The Tunnel, he struck the defiant pose of the lone, proud artist camped in his foxhole, determined to buck the philistines and go against the American grain. “Who knows, perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it. I live on that hope,” he said. For all his flirting with the prospect of The Tunnel containing the explosive power of a Forbidden Book (call the bomb squad! this baby could go off at any moment, taking the traditional novel with it!), he has hardly found himself shunned by fiction editors. His acknowledgments also mention that portions of the novel have appeared in Conjunctions, Esquire, Fiction, Grand Street, Granta, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, New Letters, The Paris Review, Perspective, Salmagundi, TriQuarterly, and The Yale Review. Which suggests that as bad as Gass is, he isn’t as bad as he wants to be, or thinks he is. His guff can be accommodated. Goading the reader with obscenity and bigotry, Gass breathes so hard, we never believe Kohler as a cracked vessel of foul vapors and invidious intent. He’s a bogus boogie-man, guilty of overacting. He hogs the page.

William H. Gass in “Designing The Tunnel:

This spring, Dalkey Archive Press will be releasing The Tunnel Audiobook—a reading performed by the author himself. What follows are excerpts from William Gass’s original instructions regarding the layout and design of The Tunnel, as they were circulated with the typescript before its initial publication in 1995.

These give a fascinating glimpse into the process of bringing such a graphically complex work to print—especially since a number of the author’s intended effects did not make it into the finished book. Page numbers refer to the typescript, but references for the current edition of the novel have been provided in brackets where possible. Our thanks to the author for permission to publish these selections, and to W. F. Kohler for the use of his illustrations.

Robert Kelly in The New York Times:

Once I tried to write a novel in the voice of someone I detested, while still engaging the reader’s fellow feeling. Alas, it was all too easy. And the reader found it all too easy to accept my monster as a hero. There is a trahison des clercs not confined to historians and political analysts. Novelists and poets too can commit the treason of the intellectuals. Kohler’s whole existence, his operatic self-pity, the very articulateness of his self-justifications, affront our sense of right and of intellectual responsibility. Yet this is where the satiric novelist works best, exploring this plausible monster, our shadow man.

In creating such a character, Mr. Gass avails himself of classic arms of modernism: allusion, puzzle, style as flesh, language as fable. In those particulars he will not at all disappoint the readers who were so excited by his stories (“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”) a quarter-century ago, his novel “Omensetter’s Luck,” the enthralling essays of “On Being Blue,” and, closest in many ways to the book at hand, that nonpareil shimmer of text and image in the novella “Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife,” a foretaste of what we find in “The Tunnel.”


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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