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)?

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I finished the novel last week in a rush to get it over with. It greatly disturbed me, but not in the way that other disturbing novels do – for instance, McCarthy’s bleakest I’ve voluntarily returned to because of a profound sense of, for lack of a better term, soul. Kohler’s story is horrible in more subtle ways, not least of which is that it is locked to the character’s thoughts, disallowing any relief from the text itself. I found myself sympathizing with some of the peripheral characters (everyone apart from Kohler is at best peripheral), but then I realized there is no sound basis for this, either. What can we say we confidently know about Martha, Culp, Herschel, and the rest of them, except that they are used to illustrate something about Kohler himself, some structure of his loss or disgust.

The novel inverted my expectations in a way that seems appropriate upon further reflection, collapsing its world the further it progresses, as it burrows deeper, seeming to go in a direction only to contract. Of the many things The Tunnel offers to speak of along the way, ultimately nothing matters but the voice, its suffering and its isolation between the pages of a book that may never be read, under a heap of soil, marginally invested in other voices that are never allowed to speak. Kohler doesn’t make many admissions, expresses surprisingly few regrets, and in effect doesn’t seem to want reconciliation with his experiences. His voice exists in prose form with a similar absence of purpose to the physical tunnel. He isn’t recording things for posterity or for self-reference, or even apparently for self-good. He is wheezing, he is whining to a paper version of himself, maybe because this is his operative form of expression and there is no one else left willing to listen. The question I’m interested in is what, as a work of fiction, this is supposed to produce – what sort of literary purpose does it all serve? So, In rephrasing your question, I don’t have an answer.

I have returned to The Tunnel a few times now, and each time I do the key remains the first fifty or so pages, distilled to the line on p. 21: “it is often easier to confess to a capital crime, so long as its sentences sing and its features rhyme . . .” Gass clearly knows he can write well, and has Kohler celebrate every manner in which one can bloat a text. Gass’ gamble, as Scott notes, is that the pile of beautifully constructed sentences amount to something “more” than that achieved by the meticulous constructions of the documented human evil (i.e., piles of bodies). The result is an unseemly, ugly book, the response to which is not unlike Kohler’s Nazis — it will immediately repel some, eventually ostracize many more, frustratingly compel others, etc. For me, it is a work of pure ambivalence: an aesthetic wonder :: an real world horror; unmitigated sincerity :: murderous lies.

This is a big reason why it remains one of the hardest books I’ve ever attempted to assess in writing. We speak a lot about a book “performing” its content and/or purpose; this may be true of many works, but few as completely, and as frustratingly, as The Tunnel. Individual acts of evil and evil as an abstraction, these have been depicted and/or performed on the page, to be sure; however, few that I know have pursued the dankest density of this evil’s accumulation through history, distilled in the life, love(s)/lust(s) and language of a single person (see “the fascism of the heart” repetition). Assessing the “payoff” of Gass’ gamble is a tricky thing in this regard.

I find Gass hard to ignore and equally hard to take. His sentences (in the fiction, and in the nonfiction) are often beautiful in ways that it hadn’t even occurred to me that prose could be (internal rhyme, etc.). But haters are boring company after a while.

I think the book’s real purpose is to see how beautifully it is possible to write about the ugliest things imaginable. That’s an interesting project, but it’s also one that seems to beg for novella-length treatment, not a Joycean doorstop. He told one interviewer: “I was happy to drop the thing into the mail and forget about it.” No surprise that even appreciative readers seem to end up feeling the same way.

So I finished The Tunnel yesterday morning. I haven’t read much of the comment on it apart from what has been on this site, but I did look at a couple of French reviews – mainly because I was curious about how it could ever be translated. The only review gives it 5 stars ( it took the reader 6 months to finish it). I took 3 or 4 weeks – I think I probably read it too quickly. But on the other hand I can’t imagine reading it any other way than by being immersed in it.

On page 467 while writing on birdwatching (one of the many moving observations of the natural world), Kohler says “we are hearing the same sounds just as we may be reading the same text yet we are not having the same experience any more than we are likely to be sharing the same interpretation of some lines of Holderlin”. So I feel my experience of the novel has been rather different from many of the others who have made comments. I did not think I was going to enjoy it at all: I prefer more pared down writing, and I thought the bigotry and misogny would be too hard to take. I was surprised at how much I took from it, both in admiration for the style and for the insights it gave me.

Kohler (French colère:anger) is obsessed with the innate fascism of humans. He has studied Nazi Germany to determine why what Hitler wished, others willed ie brought into being. He is not going to absolve the little people. When asked why he writes on “such a shitty subject” he replies: “I write to indict mankind…of course the Fuhrer has already done my indiciting for me. Not by being such a monster himself – the brat, no monster he – but by eliciting the monstrous from others.” But the introduction to his work Guilt and Innocence demands that he tunnel into his own psyche and into his own past to lay bare his own racism, misogyny, bigotry which was passed down to him by his father. All of this is described in repulsive detail and makes disturbing reading. Through Kohler Gass gives a bleak picture of human nature. No one escapes guilt – “Bigotry is not confined to the male white race although as usual their practice of it is exemplary… If we spoke emotion’s language honestly – honest as erections are – if we felt above a whisper even, then the child whose doll is broken would demand destruction for the world and what exquisite pleasure it would be to purge it totally of parents, for example.” We are all disappointed people to a greater or lesser extent and it is from our ranks that Kohler hopes to recruit members of his party, just as the Nazis recruited in 1930s Germany. You only have to read comments on internet sites to see it’s a fertile field out there.

Yet if this was all, we could turn away from the novel – there is a lot that makes you want to turn away: the childish limericks and puns, the vileness of Kohler’s opinions and sentiments. (I really hated the way he never refers to his younger son by name, it’s always “Carl and his brother, or Carl and the other one”, and the killing of Martha’s cat). But Gass writes in stunning, lyrical prose. The descriptions of the family and growing up in the Mid-West in the 20s are brilliant; I was particular struck by the memories of candy and the link with gambling and other addictions. Kohler wanted to be a poet: his heroes are Rilke and Hölderlin. He is not simply an evil person. He declares he does not love his parents, yet he chronicles their decline into illness and alcoholism with an attention, a watchfulness which is close to love. he is only fifteen when he has to deal with their physical and moral failures. There is no one to help. He writes: “I had to be the goat, the duplicitous double agent…the feeling became useful later when I tried to understand the ambivalent emotions of those who fingered friends to punitive authorities and gave up loved ones to their fate.” He also writes the moving and tender piece about Lou: “Do Rivers” and he can express this thought: “The greatest gift you can give another human being is to let them warm you till in pasisng beyond pleasure your defenses fall, your ego surrenders, its structures melt, its towers topple, lies, fancies vanities blow away in no wind and you return not to the clay you came from, the unfired vessel but to the original moment of inspiration when you were the unabbreviated breath of God.” I find Gass’s beautiful writing the most disturbing part of the novel.

In a French interview Gass states the most important thing for a writer is anger. “By means of a tunnel we descend into the depths of ourselves. Everyone must dig their own. It’s the path to Hell and Hell must be explored. If you are interested in evil you will learn more from looking into your own heart than your neighbour’s.” I agree with this judgement from Libération. “Gass delivers a formidable meditation on human enslavement.”

Loved this big read series, and all the comments as well.

Felt compelled to comment on Gilly’s distaste for the treatment of Kohler’s younger son. I believe he doesn’t name him because he managed to trick his wife into naming him Adolph. Yet another piece of evidence in his hateful/self-loathing nature.

Yes, what a strange passage this is (p371) Kohler vows he will never let that mean and spiteful name pass his lips. But why would Martha put it on the birth certificate? Her hatred of her husband is so powerful she’s prepared to curse her son? (I had put the book away on a shelf and had to steel myself somewhat to get it out and look through it again to find the page. Truly loathsome. But beautiful.)

I’m fifty pages from the end, and I can barely stand Kohler anymore. It’s not because of his bigotry, etc, in fact, being at a rough point in my career right now, I’m identifying with some elements of the PdP to a large degree.

But I can’t stand Kohler anymore because I’m getting impatient.

Kohler is the guy the party who monopolizes your entire time talking about himself – he seemed fascinating at first, but now he just won’t let it go. I’m feeling the impatience I experience when a meeting is running overtime, and the last person to speak, who may in fact be quite eloquent, really doesn’t have anything new to say anymore, but keeps dragging things out. Perhaps this is part of Gass’s intended effect.

I look at the unread books my shelves, waiting to be read next, and I get resentful of Kohler and even Gass. But I can’t quit this close to the end.


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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