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.
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.