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.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


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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You Say

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

Shop though these links = Support this site


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.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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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