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year, Gass spoke about the origins of the “Twelve Philippics,” which, like the earlier design document, was previously unpublished.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.
–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.
–At Death’s Door.
6. Why Windows Are Important to Me. First Outdoor Section. Considerable shoring. Heavy clay.
7. The First Winter of My Married Life. Relatively straightforward section of tunnel, but not of text. “Foreskinned” section narrows.
8. The Curse of Colleagues. The tunnel drops in four step-like stages.
–Governali Enters Heaven.
–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.
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.
–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. 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.