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.


  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

The Tunnel Big Read: Responses to The Tunnel

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 pages 379 through 522. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.


To start, a quote from Gass:

My present novel, The Tunnel, is dominated by the trope of its title. The text is at once the hollow absence of life, words, and earth, which the narrator is hauling secretly away; then it is the uneasy structure of bedboards, bent flesh, rhetorical flourishes and other fustian forms, which shapes the passage, and which incontinently caves in occasionally, filling the reader’s nose with noise, and ears with sand and misunderstanding; while finally it is the shapeless mess of dirt, word-dung, and desire, which has to be taken out and disposed of. Every tunnel invokes Being, Non-Being, and Becoming in equal portions and with equal fervor. This is . . . a cautionarv instance, for now and then the trope itself will be in such need of a proper bringing up, be itself such a symbol of flight and connection, concealment and search, that it brings its wretched employer nothing but confusion, nothing but Postmodernism, nothing but grief. Back

Now that we’ve gotten most of the way through this book, I thought I’d point to some responses to The Tunnel as a guide toward interpretation. One of the best documents available on the book is probably “The Tunnel in Twelve Philippics,” written by Gass himself to help explain the book to his publisher. Unfortunately, it is only available with the audio edition of the book, but Stephen Schenkenberg’s Quarterly Conversation essay does offer some indication of what one finds inside of it:

The handsomely packaged audio book is the much greater boon. In addition to mp3s on three CDs and Michael Eastman’s photographs of the recording session, the audio book package includes “The Tunnel in Twelve Philippics,” the most illuminating document I’ve seen about this novel’s structure and aims. Interviewed at a bookstore in New York earlier this year, Gass spoke about the origins of the “Twelve Philippics,” which, like the earlier design document, was previously unpublished. (The word Philippic, meaning bitter tirade, comes from the orations of Demosthenes against Philip, king of Macedon, in the fourth century BCE.) Gass reported that an early editor of The Tunnel manuscript was having difficulty understanding the big novel, and the gentleman kept wanting to make it smaller. Gass wrote the “Twelve Philippics” in response, in an effort to articulate the importance of the overall structure. “I was trying,” he told the New York crowd, “to show him that the building would fall down.”

Gass has stated elsewhere that the “Twelve” of the title comes from composer Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, which the author adopted for The Tunnel’s construction. In a 1998 Lannan Foundation interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass, responding to a question about “the music” of his work, spoke about how such structures aid his fiction writing, which is concerned more often with themes than a single narrative. Using Schoenberg, he devised a work consisting of 12 chapters of about the same length (marked by the 12 points mentioned above); in each chapter one of the book’s main themes would dominate, with the other themes rising and falling behind it, less loud, but always present.

The classical music critic Alex Ross has written that “Schoenberg’s strict method, ordering the 12 pitches of the scale in nonrepeating atonal rows, was exhilarating therapy for composers beset by a multiplicity of stylistic choices,” a statement that aligns with Gass’s use of it as an aid to writing. (What Ross wrote next—”The plague was on audiences, who detested the jumbled, athematic textures common to the idiom”—well describes the reactions of some of The Tunnel’s critics.)

Perhaps the next best thing is Gass’s “Designing The Tunnel,” available to be read on the Dalkey Archive website. These notes on how the physical book itself is to have been constructed offer much insight into how Gass envisioned his book:

The same placement of the title should be on the dust jacket, which should be a dull black. My name may have to go on the jacket and if so it should appear on the bottom of the spine up and down like the title and on the opposite or inner side of the spine panel. Otherwise there should be nothing on the book’s cover or dust jacket. It should be completely empty and dark like outer space or the inside of a cave. The reader should be holding a heavy really richly textured lump of darkness. The book’s size should be larger than normal. Again, the size of Finnegans Wake seems about right. It is important that my name appear nowhere on dust jacket or cover, and that nothing else be put on the jacket—no bio, picture, blurb, etc. The publisher will no doubt want their name on the book so it might be embossed at the bottom of the spine (but left black) and printed in silver at the bottom of the spine of the jacket.

The book should look blackboard black. The title should look formal although as white as if of chalk.

There are, I hope, reasons for my suggestions. Why not put the author’s, name on the book? Because it is Kohler’s book. Because, in a sense, it is not a book. Because, in the reality of the novel, the novel itself is dispersed between the pages of another book.

There are also important clues as to the book’s structure:

1. Life in a Chair. The tunnel’s disguise. In this case, an old coal furnace. (This section has no named divisions.)

2. Koh Whistles Up a Wind. The tunnel’s trap in the interior of the furnace is created. The basement floor is breached.

–Invocation of the Muse. (The epic is mocked.)

3. We Have Not Lived the Right Life. The book begins. The drop or initial descent of the tunnel is excavated. Small ladder shown in drawing.

–Uncle Balt and the Nature of Being.

–The Old Folks. (In this section the first major anachronism and contradiction is prepared for.)

4. Today I Began to Dig. The first elbow and the beginning of the horizontal thrust of the tunnel.

–August Bees.

–Culp. (Each of Kohler’s colleagues is also one of his personalities. Here we deal with the most obnoxious and omnipresent one.)

5. Mad Meg. Tunneling to the house’s edge. Rhetorical section. Theories of history. Spiritual father. Automotive motif.

–In My Youth.

–A Sunday Drive.

–A Fugue.

–The Barricade.

–At Death’s Door.

6. Why Windows Are Important to Me. First Outdoor Section. Considerable shoring. Heavy clay.

–Blackboard.

–Kristallnacht.

7. The First Winter of My Married Life. Relatively straightforward section of tunnel, but not of text. “Foreskinned” section narrows.

–Family Album.

–Child Abuse.

–Foreskinned.

8. The Curse of Colleagues. The tunnel drops in four step-like stages.

–Planmantee Particularly.

–Governali Enters Heaven.

–Hershel Honey.

–Scandal in the Schoolroom.

9. Around the House. Relatively straightforward bit except for narrowed stony section. Single hunk of text.

10. Susu, I Approach You in My Dreams. The cave-in.

–Down and Dirty.

–Learning to Drive.

–Being a Bigot.

11. Going to the River. Tunnel veers and then straightens.

–The Cost of Everything.

–Do Rivers.

–Sweets.

12. Outcast on the Mountains of the Heart. Progressive narrowing until the nose of the tunnel is reached, now the length and width of arms.

–Aunts.

–Mother Makes a Cake.

–Blood on the Living Room Rug.

–Outcast . . . etc.

Then there is H.L. Hix’s essay on The Tunnel, “The Tunnel: A Topical Overview,” which collects a number of resources on the book, as well as providing a very useful overview of the main characters and plot points. The essay comes from “The Tunnel: A Casebook” available to be read here.

John Unsworth’s interesting essay on The Tunnel as a work in progress is also worth reading. It was written while Gass was in the middle of his 30-year writing of The Tunnel, but, given Gass’s on remarks on the book, I think the idea of it as a “work in progress” still holds, even though the book is now “complete.”

William Gass’s The Tunnel, now a work in progress for more than twenty years, provides an interesting and exemplary case of postmodernity in literature, and of the features of post-modern fiction in particular. Post- modern fiction is in many ways perched on the cusp between a descendant and an ascendant period: in its precepts it looks back towards Modernism, but its practices often mark it as the literature of Modernism’s aftermath. This is particularly true of the post-modern work-in-progress. Writers of Gass’s generation and ilk are balanced somewhat uncomfortably between the Modernism of the aesthetics they formulate to describe the intended effect of their work, and the post-modernism of the situation in which that work is actually produced and consumed. So, while Gass’s rhetoric bespeaks a commitment to the Modern(ist) metanarrative of authorial omnipotence and aesthetic autonomy, his practice betrays the fact that post-modern fiction, especially when it takes the form of the work-in-progress, is a uniquely embroiled medium.

A number of post-modern authors, including Hawkes and Coover, have published in the form of the work-in-progress, but Gass, by sustaining the effort over such a long period of time, provides the most productive example for study. Gass has always worked slowly, at least where fiction is concerned; Omensetter’s Luck was fifteen years in the making, and parts of that novel first surfaced eleven years before the book did. That equals Joyce’s record, but it pales beside the saga of The Tunnel: this work has been “in progress” since 1966, and since 1969 some nineteen sections, totalling more than 300 pages, have appeared in print.[5] Gass is now sixty-seven, and has been publishing for more than thirty years; more than two thirds of that career has already been devoted to The Tunnel.

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