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The Tunnel Big Read: Questions for Week 2’s Reading

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 2, covering pages 127 through 247. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

—So far Mad Meg has been ghosting through this book. He pops up intermittently, and then his harangues only last a short while. What exactly is the point of this guy? What’s his philosophy? Why is he important to Kohler?

—What do you think of Oscar Planmantee’s assertion that in order to “secure for history an honest footing” we need to reach “the ultimate element,” that little nugget of fact that will permit no further division? [129] And how does this relate to Koher’s musings on the following page that “I wonder whether it’s only pain that has parts, for my patches of happiness seem continuous, complete, so warmly substantial everywhere”? [129-30] Also note his further assertion, “And what is the ultimate element in history but human life—human coupling, human pain?” [130]

—It seems that throughout this section, particularly in the “QUARREL” segments, Kohler is trying to make the study of war applicable to the study of human emotions. For instance, “My father suffered thirty years of pain. A continent could call it a war. It was an unjust fate.” [135] Do you buy this conflation? How does this make you feel about Kohler as a chronicler of his own life?

—What do you make of the limerick at the bottom of page 141 that begins, “I once wet my bed just for fun”? Is this perhaps an indication of some formative event that has encouraged Kohler to obsess over his genitals?

—Note the first sentence of Guilt and Innocence: “‘Time cannot do to ordinary things what we timelessly do to one another,’ I announce, although in a careful whisper, repeating the first sentence of my masterpiece . .. ” [147]

—”Martha hates when I shape my sentences. She says it doesn’t sound sincere.” [153] Another clue to Kohler’s writing style. Do all these aesthetic flourishes help him find the truth, or dance around it?

—Did you regard the excerpt from the review of a book written by Kohler on pages 218-19 as authentic? If you do take it as authentic, it’s a rather important clue to how the outside world sees Kohler’s work, although I don’t see how a book to which Kohler has not yet written the introduction could have been reviewed. Or perhaps it is a review of a prior work.

—What did you make of the paragraph on pages 172-3 where Kohler reprises his breakup with Lou with the cadences and rhyme scheme reminiscent of a limerick?

—Do you believe Culp’s assertion that a limerick “IS AN IMPLEMENT OF REVOLUTION!” [165] Is he saying this seriously? Does it matter, when regarding Culp, if he is speaking with ostensible sincerity or not?

—What do you think of “Slobweb #9”: “These days to be innocent is the worst crime.” [202]

—What about all the quotes having to do with Time in this segment of text, perhaps best summed up with this quote: before giving a lecture, Mad Meg “waited in vain for the clock to come out of its hole and cast a significant shadow: to be held out to us to illustrate the cheesy commonplace character of Time, or to symbolize its cheap and easy manufacture, as if to say ‘Time is a clown’s prop’; but he didn’t make the least use of it; he didn’t refer to it in any way; nor did its alarm go off in the middle of his discourse as we half expected.” [214]

—Please add your own questions in the comments section.

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The second weeks reading, for me, has dimmed the luster which characterized the first 100 pages. Kohler’s interior rants and incriminations beheld a confidence which was sort of magnetic. It seems in advancing the story with other characters and events, namely colleagues and the events of digging the tunnel, the magnetism has become more mundane. Maybe that’s an indication of how much I enjoyed the first part rather than a condemnation of the second part.

Of all the secondary characters, what little is presented of Martha, his wife, I enjoy the most. She seems to give jibes to ‘Kohlee’ as well as take them without much problem. Their relationship belies Kohler being a monstrosity. Neither Kohler nor Martha is entirely displeased with these jibes and it may be that, if they’ve grown wearisome of life, at least they seem relaxed in each other. To some extent, each’s presence is less as a husband or wife to the other and more as a reminder of life itself; A tiresome, weary life at that.

The thing I like least is Culp, Planmantee, Herschel, etc. being presented as flesh and blood humans with foibles and eccentricities; The humanizing of these ‘dudes of erudition’. Culp with his eccentric limericks is not just an academician, Planmantee’s mind going ‘dong-dong-dong-a-ding and ten ticks.’,Pg. 159, is no genius, etc. I’m not sure having these characters commute to university via tricycle, so to speak, is the best way to ground them as imperfect and human rather than omniscient academicians.

Basically, I didn’t enjoy the second part as much as the first.

I’m slow to post this (being a bit behind in the reading, I confess…) but wanted to quick pause to think about these questions.

–The review on pages 218–219: I took that as being of Kohler’s first book, which he mentions early on (pages 4 to 5): the French reviewer. This excerpt seems at once significant & coy in emphasizing the difference between “There but for the grace of God go I” (empathy with the other) with “There go I” (identification with the other). When the other is the Nazis, this slippage becomes quite significant, a moral failing of great note. But empathy is also central to fiction, our identification with characters–I feel that here Gass is deftly pointing out that Kohler’s failing (not merely to comprehend the situation out of which the Nazis arose, and thus possess some larger empathy for their existence, while still condemning them) may or will become our own, as readers of this fiction (this time we spend in Kohler’s mind will inevitably draw us close to him, make him sympathetic beyond what morality would dictate, given his failings). I don’t know anything about the Gass/Gardner debates–but this does seem to be a probing at the fundamental principle of “character,” what happens when a fictive person is made real enough that we may think of them as real, offer them our empathy or our judgment. Within the muchness of this text Gass is going to muddy these acts of readerly empathy and judgment, as they have been muddied in Kohler… At least this is what I’ve been thinking about.

–Similarly, this idea of war as parallel to the quarrel. This question of how might a history of peoples and nations relate to the history of the individual: can we explain them similarly, can the narrative of one cast light on the other. I feel this is a central question to the book but don’t feel clarity around it either in the text yet or my own thinking (so perhaps I’m just slow). On page 192: “If we had the true and complete history of one man–which would be the history of his head–we would sign the warrants and end ourselves forever, not because of the wickedness we would find within that man, no, but because of the meagerness of feeling, the miniaturization of meaning, the pettiness of ambition, the vulgarities, the vanities, the diminution of intelligence, the endless trivia we’d encounter, the ever present dust.” This seems like a statement about what this book will offer–one man’s monstrous and petty mind, the “ever present dust” within which he purposefully dwells, tunneling. But is the book going to prove or disprove this statement, disprove it because of the richness of Gass’s portrayal, which will keep us from simple judgment, simple ideas of character and personhood?

–In general, I wondered a lot about the miniature version of history that appears on pages 193 to 195. “Vietnam is simply the latest in our lengthy run of Asian wars. These will conclude with the downfall of the West and the collapse of European culture.” I couldn’t decide if this argument was really a serious one and if we’d return to it. It does seem to be a serious argument on page 194, as “Mass man means mass management” transforms into “Mass man means mass murder.”

–The question of *sincerity* seems so essential, since sincerity has to do with truth to the feelings of an individual, but not with truth itself. That is, one can be sincere but wrong. Is Kohler sincere in his flourishes, or hiding beneath them…

–Lastly, the limerick. Someone else said something about this in the comments–I did have the feeling that this argument was also about literature: that the limerick is only an exaggerated example of the problems of literature now. “In any well-run society, alliteration would be a hanging offense,” Kohler declares, yet who uses more alliteration than Kohler? Or 187: “Playing with words is a sign of an infantile imagination; it is worse than playing with your tiddlywiddler; it displays a gruesome… what was it? it demonstrates a disagreeable… deplorable… no—it argues a… a *loathsome* mind.” Yet he’ll word-play forever; and we’ll enjoy it. Limericks are of “the world of walnut bowls and ceramic ducks—it’s a tool-shit civilization”–in their uselessness and artificiality they are essentially representative of our time… I’m not really answering any question here. Maybe they are an “implement of revolution” because they don’t pretend to be more beautiful or wise than they are; they are sincerely what they are, and base. Whereas the rest of our civilization is gone to uselessness and pretense–is this what he’s arguing?


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


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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