We are starting the Big Read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on Sunday, September 30. Below you will find the schedule and links to some commentary on the book.
In order to account for various editions of this book, I will also include section breaks with the page numbers on this schedule and throughout the Big Read to help everyone remain oriented. The edition I have is the early Dalkey paperback, distinguished by a grainy greenish-yellow cover image of darkness converging on a roughly square-shaped hole of light in the image’s center, obviously to denote the idea of a tunnel (pictured above).
Week 1: September 30 – October 6: pg. 3 (beginning of subsection “Life in a Chair”) – pg. 127 (beginning of subsection “Mad Meg”)
Week 2: October 7 – October 13: pg. 127 (beginning of subsection “Mad Meg”) – pg. 247 (beginning of subsection “Mad Meg,” with the words, “His voice was rather high . . .”)
Week 3: October 13 – October 20: pg. 247 (beginning of subsection “Mad Meg,” with the words, “His voice was rather high . . .”) – pg. 379 (beginning of subsection “Foreskinned” with, “I don’t know whether my father . . .”)
Week 4: October 21 – October 27: pg. 379 (beginning of subsection “Foreskinned” with, “I don’t know whether my father . . .”) – pg. 522 (beginning of subsection “Being a Bigot” with, “My father was unable to teach . . .”)
Week 5: October 28 – November 3: pg. 522 (beginning of subsection “Being a Bigot” with, “My father was unable to teach . . .”) – End of The Tunnel
For anyone who still cares about this book—essentially, Kohler letting loose a plotless stream of notes from underground on his crappy childhood, fat wife, dim colleagues, much missed mentor, and lonely existence—it’s been a great year. Dalkey Archive Press, which has published The Tunnel since 1999, has given us two valuable offerings: last spring, Dalkey’s low-profile journal CONTEXT published a two-page document called “Designing The Tunnel,” excerpts from Gass’s 12-point instructions to the book’s designer about layout, type, and the overall visual goals as they related to the book’s themes; and a month later, the publisher released an unabridged audio book of the novel, recorded by the 82-year-old author last year near his home in St. Louis. One is two pages; the other, 45 hours. Both provide compelling ways to re-experience this disagreeable and stunning novel.
Now at last we have “The Tunnel.” For months I have been digging through it. A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4 1/2 times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book’s annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition.
In the spirit of Donald Barthelme, another metafictionist influenced by the French nouveau roman, The Tunnel makes elaborate use of cartoons, diagrams, different typefaces, and bold headlines to break up its self-referential text with nutty distractions, juggling signs and signifiers like silverware. Yet the novel strives to be more than an anti-novel. It aspires to be a permanent splotch on literature’s soul, a personal neurosis that attains the status of a cultural condition. Its sensibility is steeped in the thick, shadowed enclosures of Kafka, Céline, Rilke, Joyce, and Proust, all of whom are cited in the text. Like Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul and Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, The Tunnel is an effort to disgorge The Last Modernist Masterpiece—to create a super-chunky word-mass in which the sum total of one man’s loquacious consciousness expands like the cosmos (and sums up the century). . . .
The irony is that when Gass first discussed The Tunnel, he struck the defiant pose of the lone, proud artist camped in his foxhole, determined to buck the philistines and go against the American grain. “Who knows, perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it. I live on that hope,” he said. For all his flirting with the prospect of The Tunnel containing the explosive power of a Forbidden Book (call the bomb squad! this baby could go off at any moment, taking the traditional novel with it!), he has hardly found himself shunned by fiction editors. His acknowledgments also mention that portions of the novel have appeared in Conjunctions, Esquire, Fiction, Grand Street, Granta, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, New Letters, The Paris Review, Perspective, Salmagundi, TriQuarterly, and The Yale Review. Which suggests that as bad as Gass is, he isn’t as bad as he wants to be, or thinks he is. His guff can be accommodated. Goading the reader with obscenity and bigotry, Gass breathes so hard, we never believe Kohler as a cracked vessel of foul vapors and invidious intent. He’s a bogus boogie-man, guilty of overacting. He hogs the page.
This spring, Dalkey Archive Press will be releasing The Tunnel Audiobook—a reading performed by the author himself. What follows are excerpts from William Gass’s original instructions regarding the layout and design of The Tunnel, as they were circulated with the typescript before its initial publication in 1995.
These give a fascinating glimpse into the process of bringing such a graphically complex work to print—especially since a number of the author’s intended effects did not make it into the finished book. Page numbers refer to the typescript, but references for the current edition of the novel have been provided in brackets where possible. Our thanks to the author for permission to publish these selections, and to W. F. Kohler for the use of his illustrations.
Once I tried to write a novel in the voice of someone I detested, while still engaging the reader’s fellow feeling. Alas, it was all too easy. And the reader found it all too easy to accept my monster as a hero. There is a trahison des clercs not confined to historians and political analysts. Novelists and poets too can commit the treason of the intellectuals. Kohler’s whole existence, his operatic self-pity, the very articulateness of his self-justifications, affront our sense of right and of intellectual responsibility. Yet this is where the satiric novelist works best, exploring this plausible monster, our shadow man.
In creating such a character, Mr. Gass avails himself of classic arms of modernism: allusion, puzzle, style as flesh, language as fable. In those particulars he will not at all disappoint the readers who were so excited by his stories (“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”) a quarter-century ago, his novel “Omensetter’s Luck,” the enthralling essays of “On Being Blue,” and, closest in many ways to the book at hand, that nonpareil shimmer of text and image in the novella “Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife,” a foretaste of what we find in “The Tunnel.”