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.

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