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

Some Final Tunnel Responses

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.

The Tunnel Big Read: Next Up for Gass, Middle C, by Kirby Gann

This post is part of the group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. The read is concluded, but you can still experience this singular, bizarre book for yourself. Read along with us by having a look at the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

These thoughts are from Gass aficionado Kirby Gann, whose novel Ghosting was recently named a Best Book of 2012 by Publishers Weekly.

Most responses to The Tunnel (at least those of which I’m aware) trend toward readers’ frustrations with the narrative’s evident formlessness, its absent narrative drive, and the long stretches of Kohler’s parsing negativity, his self-probing into the foundation and boundaries of his fascistic mind. It’s the kind of book that makes one wonder if the author would have still gotten away with publishing it as it is (or publishing it at all) if it had not been written by an Acknowledged Master of the age. Yes, it’s brilliant, and insanely dark, but, as Scott asked at one point during the Big Read: do we need a book like this? It’s a question I asked myself several times while determinedly plowing through to the end back when I read the novel not long after it came out; it’s also (unfortunately) a question I can’t propose an answer to—especially now, nearly twenty years having passed since I read it. I remember finishing the book out of sheer determination because I idolized the author of Omensetter’s Luck (one of our great novels), the writer of those brilliant essays, and once I closed the book at its end I confess my faith in the writer was somewhat shaken. He spent thirty years writing this? I finished it glad to be finished with Kohler. It took a great deal of time to recognize that part of Gass’ achievement struck me when I understood that Kohler was not through with me; The Tunnel’s narrator is the kind that haunts a mind; images from the book, rants from Kohler’s spewing maw, pop back into the head when the real world presents events that make it hard not to agree with our disgusting historian’s view of humanity. Let’s face it; our race sucks.

Gass has one of the great quotes from The Paris Review interview series. When asked why he writes, he said: “I write because I hate. Hard.”

Gass has a new novel coming out in March 2013 called Middle C. In his old age (Gass is 88) his ire toward mankind hasn’t changed, but perhaps his sense of time passing has; according to the book’s publicity materials, Middle C required only “almost twenty years” of the author’s effort as opposed to The Tunnel’s thirty. It’s a shorter work (464 pages) and, although I have not finished the ARC yet, I’m pleased to say that it bears a closer resemblance to Omensetter’s Luck than the fat container of consciousness The Tunnel purports to be.

Plot, narrative drive, dramatic tension—these have never been primary concerns for Gass and the new novel remains in that tradition. However, there is story here, and plenty of it. We start in Graz, Austria, in 1938, when a gentile father adopts the identity of Jews in order to allow his family to flee the madness he can foresee consuming his country, and brings his family to London. There, the family makes do during the war, until the father takes off again; this time alone, leaving a mother and two small children to fend for themselves. They become refugees once more, fleeing to America, and—this being a Gass novel—end up in small-town Ohio. All this in the first chapter, and during each step of the journey the family members take on different names, and Gass has a blast punning from Yussel to Yankel to Skizzens to Fixel, and I won’t even get into their different first names; suffice to say that from the second chapter onward we stick with the son, comfortably named Joseph/Joey by now, and thus easier to follow.

Gass is more concerned with his themes than plot. Though Joseph is written with great sympathy, and his growth from child to man is detailed with all the passions and disappointments we typically expect from a novel in the realistic mode, the author’s familiar obsessions rise to the fore, and he worries each in their various manifestations: music (Joseph becomes an amateur pianist of some renown); disappointment in mankind, if not quite outright misanthropy (Gass manages one of his greatest inventions here, with Joseph’s goal to establish what he calls the Inhumanity Museum); the variety and scope of consciousness and possible identities within the mind. Also—perhaps fundamentally—the structure and sound of language itself. A continuous motif throughout the book is the following sentence: The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure. Gass allows us to watch as Joseph puts this sentence through many possible variations, weighing alternate clauses, predicates, adverbial and adjectival weights; it’s a sentence he was worked on for years, having gone through 700 or so versions as he strives to compose an essay on this subject that will match his Inhumanity Museum. Gass being Gass, we are along for the ride as Joseph works through several permutations, debating with himself the pros and cons of each.

This is not as boring as it might sound. What it leads to is not some Kohler rant, but the invention of a self, a framework for a self that is capable of living a virtuous life in today’s world. 150 pages into this book I can admit no need to dig for the determination that allowed me to finish The Tunnel; thus far it seems apparent that Gass has lost none of his felicity of phrase or outrageous talent for inventing the perfect and unlikely metaphor, and in Joseph Skizzens (among other names he may have) we encounter a character it is not only possible to be fascinated by, but to whom we may feel a degree of empathy, too.

The Tunnel Big Read: “I Could Not Read The Tunnel Before Sleeping . . .” by Hilary Plum

This post is part of the group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. The read is concluded, but you can still experience this singular, bizarre book for yourself. Read along with us by having a look at the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

These thoughts are from Tunnel Big Read participant Hilary Plum.

I could not read The Tunnel before sleeping; then Kohler would hound me through my dreams. So for this five weeks each morning has begun with the tome splayed open on the kitchen table, other books required to hold down its corners, while I ate breakfast and pretended this was a civilized way to begin a day. I am behind in reading and felt such relief the other day remembering that soon I would be finished, that soon each day would not begin in this vilely beautiful enchantment. Though already I hope to read The Tunnel someday again.

Big books: I rarely read them. My life is too fragmented—chronic illness—it’s hard enough to hold onto any thread of my own thought, my work, hard to add to that a commitment of such scope and at which I worry I’ll be bound to fail. Lately what I look for in books is how the work expresses its understanding of how it will be read (for read, read: lived); how its rhythms and endeavor will be broken up over, suffused throughout, digested by, the daily cadence and strange depths of a stranger’s life. It would be fair to say I dreaded reading The Tunnel and each day took my fifteen to twenty pages like medicine (or is it poison?). And yet I loved it too, and no one could deny its singular beauty, prose of such force and dizzying craft its spell is hard to break. It’s tempting to force this beauty into the metaphor: sugar that makes the bitter pill of the novel’s Weltanschauung go down. But it is not so simple. The beauty is essential to the nightmare, and The Tunnel fights our attempts to tame it thus in description.

The Tunnel tells us: “A book… is like a deck of windows: each page perceives a world and tells a fortune; each page at least faintly reflects the face of its reader, and hands down a judgment; each page is made of mind, and it is that same mind that perceives the world outside, and it is that same mind that reflects a world within, and it is that same mind that stands translucently between perception and reflection, uniting and dividing, double dealing.”

Many literary works deal in, or would like to, the profound disappointment Kohler embodies (or canonizes; or rages against and into). The emptiness of American suburban middle-age; the grotesque failure of man’s intellectual endeavors. Gass goes further, if not furthest, howling all the way down into fiction’s living grave. He makes us see in Kohler a self we can recognize. He takes the hard-won tools of fiction and shows us what they can be “good” for: “writers on the Third Reich—before my example—have never troubled to put themselves in the villains’ place, to imagine the unimaginable—it is easy to be a victim… you simply weep and bleed—but ah, the beater, to be the beater is not a role whose easy mastery is readily admittable; sympathies in such a cause are not idly, not routinely, not frequently enlisted; and were they to be, what then?” I don’t think it’s right to read this book as saying only one thing, explicating any one theory; its excess is vital. Yet, for instance, that passage on die Hände des Führers: to be so persuasively reminded that fascism lived not in the heart of one monster but in the hearts and more importantly the hands of millions: “it was the sum of us in the vast ranks who were accomplishing Hitler’s beautiful barbarities.” One commenter has noted the repetition of the phrase “the fascism of the heart”: indeed.

“Even in death, the Führer’s followers proclaimed, if it came to that. And they knew death would be where he’d take them: that land no one needs to promise.” One thinks of that summary history one learns (is it true? I can’t say): that the Holocaust itself sabotaged the Nazis’ military triumph, made impossible the Thousand-Year Reich; even as in battle the Germans suffered shortage and setback, the trains to the death camps ran with remarkable efficiency. The defeat of the Nazis begins the American century: their downfall our triumph. Thus it seems right (in the logic of history and nightmare both) that in The Tunnel fascism endures, takes foul root, in the American plains and the postwar American mind. “A book is like a deck of windows”—Kohler spends his life reading about the Nazis and discovers himself among them, on the other side of the glass. Now we spend our days reading Kohler and must face that the mind faintly reflected in his, the hell we perceive, is our own.

The Tunnel Big Read: The End and a Few Last Questions

This post is part of the group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. The read is concluded, but you can still experience this singular, bizarre book for yourself. Read along with us by having a look at the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

Well, I’ve finished The Tunnel, and only a couple of days behind schedule; not too bad, considering that Gass much have seriously gone past whatever original deadline he’d set in his head for this book’s “completion.” I’ll have some more comprehensive thoughts soon (along with the thoughts of some Big Read participants), but for now some thoughts on our last chunk of reading.

I won’t spoil the ending except to say that the ending Gass chose was one of perhaps 3 or 4 possible endings that seemed to be the only plausible ways this book could have come to a stop, given Gass’s intentions to immerse us in Kohler’s world and make the journal as “real” as possible.

It seems that as Gass approached the final moments of the text he was determined to take us as close to hell as possible. It is in the final 60 or so pages that we get all the awful details of his parents’ ends, as well as Kohler’s rather heartless and outraged depictions of their final weeks at home. I think in any fair reading much of these pages must make up sympathize with Kohler to a degree, for his childhood really was terrible in many ways, and they help explain so many of his traits as an adult. Yet they fail to answer one simple question: How do we judge Kohler for repeating the failures of his parents? And another: To what extent do we fault Kohler for failing to overcome his painful childhood?

Seeing just how bad Koher can be (I think these pages show him at his absolute worst), I think we can now finally ask a few questions that have been brewing over the course of this novel: Is to loathe Kohler to be guilty of the same loathing he directs at so much of the world? The final parts about his mother are truly touching in their sadness, and Kohler’s guilt and scars are clearly visible (the last kiss he gives his mother, “on the forehead like the kiss of Judas” [618]). He is a monster, but I think we can see why and what made him one. So is it right to hate him, or in hating him do we only perpetuate the intolerance that sully our image of Kohler?

Another good question that has been raised at various points is the great accomplishment and frequent beauty of Kohler/Gass’s prose versus the ugly sentiments and events the prose depicts. What do we think of this aestheticization of awfulness in this work, particularly since, so often, The Tunnel seems to be about nothing more than seeing how much of this can be packed into one book before it falls apart under its own weight? Does Kohler’s ability to write beautiful prose redeem him at all? Or, to put it another way, is a capacity to create and appreciate beauty a moral good that might be weighed in the calculus of moral successes and failures in a life?

I wonder what lies at the root of Kohler’s hatred of birthdays: “A birthdate gives you soul mates, makes you orbital with others, wakes your snoozy Fates to take a look at your lifeline. Above all it puts you at a place of birth like a suspect at the scene of a crime; it fastens you down, the way one day your grave will, to a spot on the earth.” [606] Is it related to his feelings about ritual, which he seems to likewise be uncomfortable with? Why do dates bother Kohler so much, moments of recognition that seem to be anchored down by a phase of life or the arbitrariness of personal history?

Later in the same section, detailing Kohler’s home life with his parents as various stages of his youth, we get this sentiment, regarding how they negotiated the subject of Santa Claus: “I pretended to believe and they pretended to believe me. It is the paradigm of successful human relations.” [609] This, to me, points to Kohler’s fundamental failure to empathize, to even attempt to. It seems at the root of so much of his self-destructive attitude toward the world. One can easily see how such a sentiment would lead to many of the emotions found at the beginning of the book in the “Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions.”

What do we think of Kohler’s one-sentence summation of history? “I know better than to pine, for I am a student of history, which is, after all, a chronicle of missed opportunities, invitations unsent though nicely signed, plans gone awry, cakes half baked.” [615]

And a few really big questions: What of the road Kohler travels further and further from philosophy and history—even from his own adult life—into bother but personal history in the last hundred pages of this book? The remembrances are beautifully rendered, but whereas the remembrances of a Proust are always backboned with nuggets of wisdom and aphorisms, Gass eschews all that, instead giving us nothing but personal remembrances. He will go on for pages about the candies he used to buy as a child, but to what end? Are the remembrances alone enough to constitute literature?

What can we say about the book’s central organizing metaphor—the tunnel? Is it an escape tunnel, putting Kohler into the position of the concentration camp prisoners that have hovered at the margins of this book? Is he tunneling into his own consciousness? Or is it a tunnel through language, as well as that path any writer must dig through the blank page? Is this a tunnel to hell? A personal grave-in-life? A halfhearted attempt at suicide? An emblem of Kohler’s desire to carve out a life for himself away from his failed marriage, sick and alone with the dreadful memories of his lifetime? And act of revenge? A furious lashing out? The very Sisyphean nature of impotent hatred?

Or is it rather more about us? The tunnel into our culture? That latent fascism that lies somewhere in the American psyche? Or, more personally, that dark place we all have gone these past weeks when we have opened up this book and experienced what Gass has taken 30 years to construct for us?

And lastly, for now, what do we make of Gass’s book? Is this virtuoso depiction of Kohler enough? What reactions can we have to this novel that justify the time, mental energy, and patience (with Kohler) that we have spent in reading it? Must we have a reaction “worthy” of these things, or is the experience of this book enough for us?

The Tunnel Big Read: How Long Can We Stand Kohler?

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 5, our final week, covering pages 523 through the novel’s end. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

Well, here we are in our final week of The Tunnel. I don’t know about you all, but for me it is a relief to know that I will soon not have to live with Kohler any longer.

More on that in a second, first a few details about what to expect after this week ends. As I usually do, I’ve reached out to several Big Read participants for some final thoughts on The Tunnel. If I haven’t contacted you but you would like to contribute some final Tunnel thoughts, please be in touch via email and we’ll work something out. I’m also going to try and put together some final thoughts, and I’ll be publishing these on this site over the next couple of weeks.

Back to Kohler. I’ll be interested to hear all of your experiences; for my own part, the more I read into The Tunnel, the more repulsive Kohler grows, and the more tiresome his extended rants become for me. I am glad to be within the final 100 pages of this book, as I am getting quite impatient with Kohler’s gasbag-like nature, his endless self-pity, his bigotry, even his childish puns and alliterations. I am as yet undecided if this is a strength of Gass’s prose, conjuring someone so unlikable, or if this is a miscalculation on Gass’s part, taking his protagonist too far into the distasteful for his novel’s good. Likewise, I have completely given up on getting anything novelistic out of The Tunnel, and I am uncertain: Is this a brave, bold gesture on Gass’s part, or evidence of the book’s ultimate failure?

This week’s chunk of text begins with the rather ominously titled section “Being a Bigot,” which quite lives up to its title: this section is about Kohler’s father, who, Kohler explains, taught him to be a bigot by the example he sets when a Chinese immigrant moves into his family’s Midwest hometown. Here Gass is skillful as ever in pitching this account somewhere between personal memory and allegory, referring to the immigrant only by the insulting nickname Kohler’s father give him (“Toottoot”), and telling the very schematic story of what the man does to outrage Kohler and his neighbors. Clearly this is a very “American” tale, in the sense of evoking the battle between the American ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, versus the resentment and impatience that such ideals can precipitate when they go wrong. It’s interesting—if ultimately disappointing—that instead of being repulsed by his father’s example and learning to be a better person, Kohler instead “learns” to repeat his father’s failures, becoming a self-admitted bigot. Why, I wonder, does Kohler grow up to repeat his father’s faults if he is smart enough to see the obvious pitfalls and logical fallacies associated with them?

After this we get “The Cost of Everything” another one of the increasingly baggy sections that seems to be proliferating as this novel wears on. Among the revelations here, we receive some details of the affair Kohler seems to be having with one of his students, Rue, (as he calls her).

Then we are on to the section, “Do Rivers,” another one of Kohler’s poignant recollections of his time with the departed Lou. Kohler’s pain at recalling what he imagines to be the one true love of his live is as well-evoked as ever, although I cannot read it without knowing what a monster Kohler is, and that makes this section feel more hollow to me than it might have otherwise. Additionally, Kohler’s insistence on aestheticizing everything (in this case, the “rivers” he would draw on his beloved’s back with his fingers) feels more and more like a form of imperialism of his ego. Such self-infatuation makes it difficult to feel the loss of Lou’s love for Kohler; increasingly, I feel grateful for Lou’s sake.

And then we reach “Sweets,” more of Kohler’s exceedingly well-written recollections of a Midwest Depression-era upbringing (these centering around the candies he would eat as a child and the paddlings he would get at school).

The Tunnel remains as well-written as ever, although Kohler’s long-windedness is beginning to get to me (and, in general, I do not have a high tolerance for maximalism as a reader). I am beginning to wonder, What is this book about beyond an evocation of Kohler’s awfulness? Does, I ask you all, the book have more of a point than that? And if the answer is “no,” should it? Is that enough for a 652-page novel (which would probably be closer to 1,000 pages if published as a more traditionally sized paperback)?

The Tunnel Big Read: Final Week

This begins our fifth and final week of group reading The Tunnel. Congrats to those who have made it this far, and best wishes to those who have fallen behind but are determined to see the book through to the end.

If you do persist in The Tunnel, I’d like to ask: why? Are you enjoying the book? Does the Kohler train wreck fascinate you? Is it sheer inertia? Determination?

By contrast, if you’ve quit, what made you give Gass the heave ho?

The Tunnel Big Read: The Beginning of the End?

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 4, covering pages 379 through 522. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

In my read of The Tunnel, this week’s section offers perhaps the most damning look at Kohler yet: the section titled “Around the House,” which is simply an account of a typical Kohler morning in his home. The “banality of evil” has become a cliche, and yet, there is something so very horrifying about the prosaic details of Kohler’s sad life. What comes across to me here is how fundamentally alone he is in the world, how he has so little to fill his day (hence this logorrheic journal and his “tunnel” project), how much he hates his life (and is loath to accept that), and, of course, his admiration for Hitler and sympathy with the Nazi view of the world. It runs on for nearly 40 pages. It is exhausting, and all the more so because it is flawless. “So much of life hangs about like this,” writes Kohler of the “deadly calm” in which he passes his days. “Quiet as enamel though capable of clatter—like this, like wire hangers in a closet. Waiting for the waiting to be over.” [475]

“Around the House” is a strange piece of writing: it is so successful, Gass so compellingly gets across this image of Kohler by using a novelist’s toolbox, and yet it lacks almost all that one would normally consider novelistic, and all this artistry is in giving us a loathsome portrait of a stale life. I don’t quit know what to make of it. Do I like this? Does it horrify me? Do I like it more for succeeding in horrifying me?

And then, even stranger yet, is “Susu, I Approach You in My Dreams,” where we must say Kohler experiences some kind of a mental breakdown.

In these sections, I think, The Tunnel approaches the condition that Gass has set about arcing toward throughout the bulk of this novel, the abandonment of what we might construe as the “novelistic” portion of The Tunnel in favor of a forthright depiction of just how awful a hate-filled, isolated life can become. I will say that at this point Gass has earned it, but is he right to ask us to experience it? What is the point of it? What do we, as readers, gain?

In addition to these, we have the rather strange sections “Foreskinned,” about Kohler’s traumatic penile experiences as a child, and three rant-like sections where Kohler vents his spleen regarding his colleagues. These are all artfully done, although I can’t say I got a whole lot out of them other than a further demonstration of Kohler’s awful mind and some garden-variety philosophizing regarding the nature of history. What did you all find in these sections? Anything more worthy than extremely skillfully executed renditions of Kohler’s awful mind? And if that is all you found, is that enough? Is this literature?

I am curious to see where this all goes in our last week of reading, but, given the trajectory, I can only assume that it will (no pun intended) run itself into the ground. It seems that Gass is setting us up for Kohler’s final descent into hell, implied all the way back on page 3, where we find the book’s epigraph: “Anaxagoras said to a man who was grieving because he lay dying in a foreign land, ‘The descent to hell is the same from every place.'”

The Tunnel Big Read: Responses to The Tunnel

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 4, covering pages 379 through 522. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

To start, a quote from Gass:

My present novel, The Tunnel, is dominated by the trope of its title. The text is at once the hollow absence of life, words, and earth, which the narrator is hauling secretly away; then it is the uneasy structure of bedboards, bent flesh, rhetorical flourishes and other fustian forms, which shapes the passage, and which incontinently caves in occasionally, filling the reader’s nose with noise, and ears with sand and misunderstanding; while finally it is the shapeless mess of dirt, word-dung, and desire, which has to be taken out and disposed of. Every tunnel invokes Being, Non-Being, and Becoming in equal portions and with equal fervor. This is . . . a cautionarv instance, for now and then the trope itself will be in such need of a proper bringing up, be itself such a symbol of flight and connection, concealment and search, that it brings its wretched employer nothing but confusion, nothing but Postmodernism, nothing but grief. Back

Now that we’ve gotten most of the way through this book, I thought I’d point to some responses to The Tunnel as a guide toward interpretation. One of the best documents available on the book is probably “The Tunnel in Twelve Philippics,” written by Gass himself to help explain the book to his publisher. Unfortunately, it is only available with the audio edition of the book, but Stephen Schenkenberg’s Quarterly Conversation essay does offer some indication of what one finds inside of it:

The handsomely packaged audio book is the much greater boon. In addition to mp3s on three CDs and Michael Eastman’s photographs of the recording session, the audio book package includes “The Tunnel in Twelve Philippics,” the most illuminating document I’ve seen about this novel’s structure and aims. Interviewed at a bookstore in New York earlier this year, Gass spoke about the origins of the “Twelve Philippics,” which, like the earlier design document, was previously unpublished. (The word Philippic, meaning bitter tirade, comes from the orations of Demosthenes against Philip, king of Macedon, in the fourth century BCE.) Gass reported that an early editor of The Tunnel manuscript was having difficulty understanding the big novel, and the gentleman kept wanting to make it smaller. Gass wrote the “Twelve Philippics” in response, in an effort to articulate the importance of the overall structure. “I was trying,” he told the New York crowd, “to show him that the building would fall down.”

Gass has stated elsewhere that the “Twelve” of the title comes from composer Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, which the author adopted for The Tunnel’s construction. In a 1998 Lannan Foundation interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass, responding to a question about “the music” of his work, spoke about how such structures aid his fiction writing, which is concerned more often with themes than a single narrative. Using Schoenberg, he devised a work consisting of 12 chapters of about the same length (marked by the 12 points mentioned above); in each chapter one of the book’s main themes would dominate, with the other themes rising and falling behind it, less loud, but always present.

The classical music critic Alex Ross has written that “Schoenberg’s strict method, ordering the 12 pitches of the scale in nonrepeating atonal rows, was exhilarating therapy for composers beset by a multiplicity of stylistic choices,” a statement that aligns with Gass’s use of it as an aid to writing. (What Ross wrote next—”The plague was on audiences, who detested the jumbled, athematic textures common to the idiom”—well describes the reactions of some of The Tunnel’s critics.)

Perhaps the next best thing is Gass’s “Designing The Tunnel,” available to be read on the Dalkey Archive website. These notes on how the physical book itself is to have been constructed offer much insight into how Gass envisioned his book:

The same placement of the title should be on the dust jacket, which should be a dull black. My name may have to go on the jacket and if so it should appear on the bottom of the spine up and down like the title and on the opposite or inner side of the spine panel. Otherwise there should be nothing on the book’s cover or dust jacket. It should be completely empty and dark like outer space or the inside of a cave. The reader should be holding a heavy really richly textured lump of darkness. The book’s size should be larger than normal. Again, the size of Finnegans Wake seems about right. It is important that my name appear nowhere on dust jacket or cover, and that nothing else be put on the jacket—no bio, picture, blurb, etc. The publisher will no doubt want their name on the book so it might be embossed at the bottom of the spine (but left black) and printed in silver at the bottom of the spine of the jacket.

The book should look blackboard black. The title should look formal although as white as if of chalk.

There are, I hope, reasons for my suggestions. 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. Because, in the reality of the novel, the novel itself is dispersed between the pages of another book.

There are also important clues as to the book’s structure:

1. Life in a Chair. The tunnel’s disguise. In this case, an old coal furnace. (This section has no named divisions.)

2. Koh Whistles Up a Wind. The tunnel’s trap in the interior of the furnace is created. The basement floor is breached.

–Invocation of the Muse. (The epic is mocked.)

3. We Have Not Lived the Right Life. The book begins. The drop or initial descent of the tunnel is excavated. Small ladder shown in drawing.

–Uncle Balt and the Nature of Being.

–The Old Folks. (In this section the first major anachronism and contradiction is prepared for.)

4. Today I Began to Dig. The first elbow and the beginning of the horizontal thrust of the tunnel.

–August Bees.

–Culp. (Each of Kohler’s colleagues is also one of his personalities. Here we deal with the most obnoxious and omnipresent one.)

5. Mad Meg. Tunneling to the house’s edge. Rhetorical section. Theories of history. Spiritual father. Automotive motif.

–In My Youth.

–A Sunday Drive.

–A Fugue.

–The Barricade.

–At Death’s Door.

6. Why Windows Are Important to Me. First Outdoor Section. Considerable shoring. Heavy clay.



7. The First Winter of My Married Life. Relatively straightforward section of tunnel, but not of text. “Foreskinned” section narrows.

–Family Album.

–Child Abuse.


8. The Curse of Colleagues. The tunnel drops in four step-like stages.

–Planmantee Particularly.

–Governali Enters Heaven.

–Hershel Honey.

–Scandal in the Schoolroom.

9. Around the House. Relatively straightforward bit except for narrowed stony section. Single hunk of text.

10. Susu, I Approach You in My Dreams. The cave-in.

–Down and Dirty.

–Learning to Drive.

–Being a Bigot.

11. Going to the River. Tunnel veers and then straightens.

–The Cost of Everything.

–Do Rivers.


12. Outcast on the Mountains of the Heart. Progressive narrowing until the nose of the tunnel is reached, now the length and width of arms.


–Mother Makes a Cake.

–Blood on the Living Room Rug.

–Outcast . . . etc.

Then there is H.L. Hix’s essay on The Tunnel, “The Tunnel: A Topical Overview,” which collects a number of resources on the book, as well as providing a very useful overview of the main characters and plot points. The essay comes from “The Tunnel: A Casebook” available to be read here.

John Unsworth’s interesting essay on The Tunnel as a work in progress is also worth reading. It was written while Gass was in the middle of his 30-year writing of The Tunnel, but, given Gass’s on remarks on the book, I think the idea of it as a “work in progress” still holds, even though the book is now “complete.”

William Gass’s The Tunnel, now a work in progress for more than twenty years, provides an interesting and exemplary case of postmodernity in literature, and of the features of post-modern fiction in particular. Post- modern fiction is in many ways perched on the cusp between a descendant and an ascendant period: in its precepts it looks back towards Modernism, but its practices often mark it as the literature of Modernism’s aftermath. This is particularly true of the post-modern work-in-progress. Writers of Gass’s generation and ilk are balanced somewhat uncomfortably between the Modernism of the aesthetics they formulate to describe the intended effect of their work, and the post-modernism of the situation in which that work is actually produced and consumed. So, while Gass’s rhetoric bespeaks a commitment to the Modern(ist) metanarrative of authorial omnipotence and aesthetic autonomy, his practice betrays the fact that post-modern fiction, especially when it takes the form of the work-in-progress, is a uniquely embroiled medium.

A number of post-modern authors, including Hawkes and Coover, have published in the form of the work-in-progress, but Gass, by sustaining the effort over such a long period of time, provides the most productive example for study. Gass has always worked slowly, at least where fiction is concerned; Omensetter’s Luck was fifteen years in the making, and parts of that novel first surfaced eleven years before the book did. That equals Joyce’s record, but it pales beside the saga of The Tunnel: this work has been “in progress” since 1966, and since 1969 some nineteen sections, totalling more than 300 pages, have appeared in print.[5] Gass is now sixty-seven, and has been publishing for more than thirty years; more than two thirds of that career has already been devoted to The Tunnel.

The Tunnel Big Read: Historical Philosophy and Broken Windows

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 4, covering pages 379 through 522. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

We are in Week 4 of the Tunnel Big Read, but I’m going to begin this week with some thoughts on Week 3’s reading, since I did not have a chance to get to them last week. Week 3’s reading starts off with our longest, most concrete look at Magus Tabor, Kohler’s mentor and philosophical touchstone. The reading for Week 3 in fact gives us 35 consecutive pages of Mad Meg, including the scene of his death, one of the most touching and well-written sections of The Tunnel that I have encountered so far.

I think these sections also give us the long-awaited meat of The Tunnel’s philosophy of reality vis a vis historical fact and language. Here, Kohler introduces Tabor’s idea that “anything of which you could form a passionate conception automatically was,” [248] which gives us a very particular idea of what reality consists of. You can contrast this to the ideas of historical fact articulated by Planmantee and Herschel in the opening 40 pages of this week’s reading. These matters all, obviously, have a very clear application to Kohler’s own reality, concerned as it is with reconstructing and evaluating his life. Following Tabor, we would have to say that Kohler’s opinions on, for instance, his wife, exist in some meaningful sense outside of himself, even though they are quite obviously biased and the product of much anger. Do we buy that as readers? Would we take this philosophy into our own lives?

We reach something along the lines of the zero point of this philosophizing when Tabor declares that “Aristotle invents—okay, he finds—creates—the logic of the syllogism . . . and my good friend, the European mind is now in being! Well, the discovery of logic is nothing compared to the discovery of rhetoric . . . still . . . neither, you know, is an event in the same sense as a battle is, or an election, or the reign of a pope is it?” [254] So here we have Tabor making the very form of thought that undergirds all of Western history just one way of seeing the world among others. What does this do to any kind of reality that The Tunnel could be said to articulate? Referencing the great art of the Renaissance, Tabor later declares, “we can paint lies so allegorically belief will run to catch up, and create a culture out of sheer kookiness the eyes of others will envy, emulate, admire, adopt.” [258] Is historical and artistic fact simply sustained on belief? And if so, then what does that mean for Kohler’s philosophy of radical pessimism?

Interestingly, Kohler himself undermines any truths that we might take from Tabor, declaring, Tabor that “you could be certain of nothing with Tabor, for he was an absolute actor, and perfectly capable of raising and sustaining a purely rhetorical erection”? [250] But if this is the case, and if the world is nothing but words, as Tabor declares furiously, [268-72] then what does he become when, on his deathbed, “he had lost every medium for the spirit’s expression—all but his wary, unwavering eyes”? [273]

Another big theme in these opening pages is mortality: as Tabor recognizes that his death is approaching he begins to confront the fact of his own irrelevance, seemingly inevitable with mortality: “Not to be here, not to see tomorrow—which, when I see it I shall find as stupid and empty as I found today—is appalling, Kohler, appalling . . . to slip into the insignificance of history like a thought held in a dream . . . ” [250]

After this we get three curious sections: “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” [282-310] “Blackboard,” [310-7] and “Kristallnacht” [317-334]. These highly impressionistic accounts of moments from Kohler’s life are followed by his rather tragic account of “The First Winter of My Married Life,” [334-355] where he gives some hints as to the dissolution of his marriage. This week’s reading concludes with the interesting section “Family Album,” [355-375] where Kohler gives a photo-by-photo account of himself, and the rather harrowing “Child Abuse,” [375-9] where Kohler’s impatience with the cries of his infant son give some of the best testimony yet for his being a monster.

I’m curious to hear people’s impressions of “Windows,” “Blackboard,” and “Kristallnacht,” particularly the last. In there Kohler seems to be conflating actual things that happened to him (a homosexual encounter?) with historical episodes in the history of the Third Reich. Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” also seems to be linked in some way to “Windows,” where it appears Kohler attempted to participate in some kind of anarchist group by throwing a brick through a window (but failed, throwing his brick through a window that was open). Did Kohler participate in fascist activities in some meaningful sense? What exactly was his interest in Herschel Grynszpan, whose murder of a German was the pretext for Kristallnacht?

And lastly, to transition to a different subject, what did you make of Kohler’s youthful essay on reading [302], which begins “A book . . . is like a deck of windows: each page perceives a world and tells a fortune . . .”?

The Tunnel Big Read: Slow 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 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.

Picking up on a theme that’s becoming more and more prevalent in the comments as our Tunnel Big Read moves through Week 3, a lot of us are slowing down. Interestingly, “being behind” doesn’t seem to correlate at all with “dropping out”; in other words, the fact that people are slowing down doesn’t seem to have any impact on their desire to finish reading this book.

This is interesting, and really the first time this has ever happened with a Big Read—actually, if anything, we tend to see the opposite. One of my goals with these things is to read though the book a very measured, stately pace; to essentially allow for a read that’s a long duration and that forces contemplation. As such, I like to chart out chunks of text in the 100 – 120 pages per week range, somewhere between 15 and 20 pages per day, which isn’t a whole lot.

What usually happens is that a number of people read faster than the schedule. This is the first time that we’ve seen a mass response toward reading behind schedule, and that clearly says something about the size of The Tunnel (there are a lot of words per page; I’d estimate around 400) and the complexity of the prose.

I’m curious as to how this has affected everyone’s experience of this book and if you’re determined to keep up, even if this ends up taking you 2 months. For my own part, I’m determined to stay on schedule, challenging as it is becoming. But, of course, all our commentaries will be up on this site indefinitely, so go at your own pace, comment on the threads as you see fit. Most of all, enjoy the book; read it the way you think best.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


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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