The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Legacy by Sybille Bedford March 15, 2015
    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
    Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Gr […]
  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
    New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, wa […]
  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
    This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countr […]
  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura March 14, 2015
    The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter's translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an e […]
  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
    Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic compe […]
  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
    Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you'd expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we're still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collab […]
  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
    here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from […]
  • The Valerie Miles Interview March 14, 2015
    The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual […]
  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
    Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea "wine-dark" and the heavens "bronze." Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Th […]

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.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. 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...
  2. 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...
  3. 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...
  4. 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...
  5. 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...

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