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)?