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Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

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Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Tale of Genji

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    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
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The Tunnel Big Read: Some Questions for Week 1

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 1, covering pages 3 through 127. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.


Some questions to chew on for this week’s chunk of reading. Post your thoughts, or your own questions, in the comments.

—What do you think about Gass using/constructing the diary as a form? In the initial 10 pages he quotes from a number of famous writers’ diaries. And in our opening chunk he is clearly courting the diary as a way of attempting to make sense of one’s life. Is it a viable genre for that? For a novel?

—How much is William H. Gass meant to resemble William Kohler, narrator and protagonist of The Tunnel? On the one hand, Gass writes

The cover should not have the author’s name. “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.” Gass sounds like an art-class enthusiast describing his hopes for typography—”I would love it if every line looked like a length of barbed wire”—as well as the treatment of Kohler’s doodles, which might, if successful, bring to mind Hitler’s architectural sketches of camps. “I want something at once naive,” Gass instructed, “a little charming, and a lot unsettling.”

But on the other and, as Louis Menand points out

In trying to make sense of a project to which so much time has been dedicated, readers will naturally look for a way to distinguish Gass himself from the petty, self-absorbed, and deeply unpleasant narrator he has created. They will not want to imagine that the narrator’s sour nihilism is also Gass’s, or that these indecent and seemingly interminable confessions are only displaced autobiography; and they will therefore make every interpretative effort to peel Gass away, so to speak, from the text he has produced. They will find this extremely difficult to do:

The narrator’s name is also William, and he has been given a last name, Kohler, that, like Gass, is an easy occasion for schoolyard humor. (Kohler is the brand name of a toilet maker.) Kohler tells us he was born in Iowa; Gass was born in North Dakota. Kohler’s father becomes crippled by arthritis, and his mother is an alcoholic who finally has to be institutionalized; these seem to be copies of Gass’s own parents, as he has described them in his nonfictional writing. Kohler eventually attends Harvard (Gass went to Cornell); after duty in the Second World War (in which Gass also served), he marries a woman named Martha, with whom he has two children (as does Gass), and he returns to the Midwest to a career (like Gass’s) as a professor. Kohler makes frequent reference to his rotundity, which photographs and personal observation confirm to be a feature of the Gass physique, and to his unusually small penis, for which the evidence needed to establish a correspondence is happily lacking.

—And about that small penis? This seems like a strange detail to get caught up on, and the book has already made much of it. In my opinion it’s so cliched (neo-Nazi with a small penis, yawn), and yet, one imagines Gass is a better, more careful writer than that. And, strangely, for a man who doubts his endowment Kohler seems to have had his share of affairs . . .

—What do you make of all the typographical oddities and images inserted into the text so far? What about the page number for page 31, which is replaced with a graphical depiction of a “00031″ (as is the page number for pages 33 and 40)?

—I’m curious how sympathetic a character everyone finds Kohler. The reviews of this book I’ve read so far suggest he’s a monster, but so far his awfulness is not coming across for me. At this point he feels more pitiable/existential than evil/monstrous.

—Given the relationship of history to this novel, I’m intrigued by the line “Your history is your only individuality, Os insists, but in History with the great H, we average that out.” [105] How does one’s history determine what one is, and what is the relationship of a personal history to capital-H History? Can they be told in the same ways? Do they amount to the same thing? How is a person’s individuality “averaged out” by History, and does this relate in some meaningful way to the Holocaust, which is clearly important to this book?

—What about that section beginning on page 67 and running more or less through page 72? It is mostly a long list of great authors and literature, with a very dark description of the act of reading on page 71. I would imagine that most of us here view the literary/aesthetic life as one of great redemption and general goodness. So what does it say that Kohler seems inspired by the same books that many of us are? Consider the line, “for value occurs only in order, only in art and mathematics, science and the Third Reich, the work of bureaucrats like me and Alfred Jarry, Rosenberg, and Ike” [57]

—Note the line on page 82, “Myth murdering myth: that’s war these days.” Or 80: “What love was as a word was so much more to him than love was as a feeling.” What does this book have to say about language’s relationship to reality?

—Consider this in relation to the questions of guilt and innocence: “Well, the rifle puts you at a stainless distance. At the same time, it permits a dangerous indifference, a lassitude toward duty, if it is not replaced by hatred at a higher level, thus we make an image of our enemy; or rather, Kohler, it’s our enemy we make; otherwise our soldier loses heart.” [81]

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14 comments to The Tunnel Big Read: Some Questions for Week 1

  • Gs

    Pg. 43 of the edition I’m using has this, in part; “The secret of the swastika, they said, though they didn’t know the meaning of the number sixty-nine.” To the left is a representation of a ’69′, which is reminiscent of the familiar ying/yang graphic. In the center of the representations of 6 and 9 are 3 dots. I don’t get.

    All I’ve found, which admittedly is a stretch, is related to this link, http://www.zionism-israel.com/dic/Shoah.htm Apparently, 69 Palestinian Jews were instrumental in convincing others of what was happening to European Jewry under the Nazis. 3 days of mourning were declared. I know these threads are a stretch but it’s the only info I could find that seemed, potentially, relevant.

    Can anyone relate some meaning to this?

  • Eric

    It does seem like Gass’s 1970s debate with John Gardner is still simmering in “The Tunnel.” Most here will know this, but the debate was very much about language and reality, with Gardner arguing for fiction that is plausibly psychological, based in reality, and “moral” in the sense that it inspires us toward the good; Gass countered with the idea that fiction is responsible only to its own dictates, the inner music of its words and the organization of those words in a shapely form.

    I’m oversimplifying greatly. Gass relates, in his introduction to Gardner’s “Nickel Mountain,” how the LA Times called him after Gardner’s sudden death asking Gass to write the obituary. Coming from Gardner’s well-known enemy, the obit would be widely read. Gass hung up the phone, which might be called a moral response.

    So in certain ways I see “The Tunnel” as a test of Gass’s own artistic principles. The blurring of Kohler and Gass is clearly intentional and at the heart of the project. By creating a black self-portrait in Kohler, Gass is interrogating the aesthetic he’s spent several essay collections articulating. Can the “I” who holds the pen really be separated from the “I” on the page?

    Scott brings up the interesting question of how bad Kohler is — if he’s bad enough. I agree that he seems mainly pitiable at this point, a thought criminal more than anything: see that deplorable but also blackly funny passage about all the future Thomas Kincaids who were snuffed in the camps. I’ve been thinking about Nabokov’s remark in the preface to Lolita about the ape who draws the bars of his own cage. Kohler takes up so much of the book, it’s hard to find an exterior vantage from which to judge him.

    Another interesting passage re: language and reality was the riff on the street names of Kohler’s childhood town (p 63), the “paths of increasing deceit.” Here we have a diagram of signifiers straying from their referents, becoming more abstract and unrelated to the physical features of the town. This ties into the fact that many of the physical facts Kohler remembers are no longer physical facts — they have purely textual reality and are preserved only in Kohler’s diaristic writing. (I love the joke about sticking the diary pages between the pages of the history book so that his wife won’t read them.)

    N.B. — Gass’s most recent essay collection “Life Sentences” contains an evisceration of Knut Hamsun, both the writer and the opportunistic Nazi. I think Gass is working in the opposite of bad faith here.

    • It’s kind of interesting because coming from the perspective of someone who really doesn’t know “Gass” well outside a couple essays, the blurring of author/narrator doesn’t much come into play, for me; if anything, it feels like the opposite, like, this is so obviously an author creating a narrator through an act of writing, an extended riffing in word-play. I mean, this feels, of course, like a construct. (For me.) (So far.)

      • Eric

        Yeah, that’s funny, because I live in the same city as Gass, used to see him raking leaves as I walked through his neighborhood, see him filling his metallic rolling cart at the annual used book fair, etc. — so I can’t quite avoid the speculation.

  • Hilary

    So much good stuff to think about!

    —The typographical oddities: On page 31, where that graphic in place of a page number first appears, there’s also the line “everything is both simultaneous and continuous and intermittent and mixed; no tattooed numbers, no leather love-thongs, mark the page” (all this in a long parenthetical). I saw the number as a visual reference to the concentration camp tattoos, the ones we’re told don’t mark the page; but then, here, they do. Or rather something that refers to them, that represents them, not the real thing–as Eric says, an essential and slippery distinction and one that raises questions at the heart of fiction-making, about representation and verisimilitude. (These are not the tattooed numbers but if they call the tattooed numbers do mind, do those tattoos then mark the page? etc.)

    —The question of Kohler’s monstrosity. I haven’t read any reviews of the novel but I was somehow relieved to hear that others, too, were holding onto a question mark around his total monstrosity. There is a real pollution to his thought, anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology slip in to his voice, but I wasn’t yet sure if these came from him (if that makes sense), or were him representing, in a way, the monstrosity that existed, that he has spent years immersed in; letting that monstrosity speak through him so we can hear it for what it is. (This seems a larger question about the (fictive) self that is to be constructed from all this language.) And if he’s a criminal so far he’s a “thought criminal,” as Eric says–but then what does that mean, and what does he think it means?

    I’ve been thinking so much about the thesis of his historical study, which appears quite early on, as though to orient or warn us, on page 13: “Thus, neither guilt nor innocence are ontological elements in history; they are merely ideological factors to which a skillful propaganda can seem to lend a causal force, and in that fashion furnish others. … and if there is a truly diabolical ingredient to events, in the victims and vicissitudes of Time, as has been lately alleged, it lies in the nature of History itself, for *it is the chronicle of the cause which causes, not the cause*…” What is he saying, really, what sort of claim is this? That the guilt lies with History, with those who would write it, and not its actors? What will this mean for his own writing and this question of being a “thought criminal”? Does this thesis excuse–as it seems to–the perpetrators of Nazi evil, saying that the guilt lies not with them, but with the chronicle later to be written (his own?), which in ascribing guilt or innocence will then be the further cause of… what?

    All of which makes me wonder about his first (?) book, described on pages 4 and 5—”that remarkably sane, peace-seeking book, so close on the event, too”; for his work he is treated “as a German all along,” despised by the French reviewer for this “peace-seeking, peace-making, peace-loving BUCH.” It seems this book was something like an appeasement, then? An exculpation of the Nazis? Also that curious phrase where he says he was in Germany in the thirties and “I must confess I was caught up in the partisan frenzy of those stirred and stirring times”… Caught up how, on which side? Very coy, how he doesn’t quite say.

    I’ve gone on a long time but one more thing I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about is the beauty of the novel’s representations of death and atrocity, such as in the description of the death squads and their victims on pages 33 and 34. Is this beauty and attention empathy, does it have a moral force? To describe these crimes and their victims so vividly? (Though he seems to then push away this moral force with the cynical paragraph on page 35, “one must count the loss of a lot of mean and silly carking too…”) And then that representation of the violence on pages 48 and 49, the “shot shot shot”s that appear interspersed with the text. I found this passage terribly moving and deeply & rightly disturbing; in these instances one feels an overwhelming moral force to the representation of these crimes. I think–is that right, is that what’s happening (and: does he, does one, risk a pornography of violence)?

    • Eric

      Excellent stuff here, Hilary. I found the tattoo/page numbers quite chilling — they seemed to capture the sheer arbitrariness of history in a way I’d never seen done before.

      Another compelling typographic moment for me was on p 45, the passage on graves: “Stones to mark the selves that are no more. Note. Note.” And then the two ghostly gray notes that linger behind the text.

      I’m interested as well in the beautiful descriptions of atrocity. One sees this in a lot of fiction, the most painful/disturbing moments often inspire novelists to lyrical heights. But here it’s being done more concertedly. (The image of the tornado-strewn glass in K’s mother’s hair would be another example.) To skip ahead a little, there’s also stuff like “toilet paper soaking in the bowl like a great coil of cloudy sky which I flush for fair weather” (133). So there’s a concerted effort to affix beautiful words to subjects not typically mined for their beauty. The repulsive, the unspeakable. How is it that some of us are still moved by these descriptions? Because of their accuracy? But what if they aren’t accurate?

      • Hilary

        Yes—to this and Darby’s note—really there is just so much to think about! About the descriptions: I’ve been thinking about how overtly throughout he considers the act of metaphor making; he makes fun of his wife’s metaphors, for instance, on page 87; and then mimics her on page 95, with an excess of metaphors of his own. Yet we follow each metaphor; each does its job; this self-consciousness doesn’t keep them from their work. Throughout his metaphors and imagery are just astonishing, as creations. But yes, what is it that is so incredibly appealing about them, how do they move us? I wonder, as possible explanation, about the distinction between accuracy and precision. We know they’re not accurate, not really–there’s deceit at the heart of every metaphor, etc. etc.; the toilet paper is not the cloudy sky, etc.–but they create an image so precisely that we can see it, see it precisely but as it never was. For no one witnessing these atrocities would describe them so beautifully, just as no one sees the sky on looking into the toilet bowl. All that comes after: we can make the experience be anything, after. So when he offers us atrocity and repulsion so beautifully is he pointing us toward his great concern, about the treachery of narrative, how it’s (as he argues, an extremist stance) the history that’s the cause and not the events themselves? Showing us what language can make of anything, how treacherous it is? And how much we want to give ourselves over to it, be seduced? (As–it seems?–he has been seduced: thirty years reading about Nazis and he is one…?) All these thoughts are raw, sorry…

    • I’m bouncing around a bit tonight and landed on page 58: “I built, of blocks, a town three hundred thousand strong…” which (inevitably?) descends into “strife.” It’s a lovely confluence of the themes of atrocity and the memories of childhood, and I wonder how that ripples and echoes across the other scenes from childhood. (The father driving them into the storm; the father dying in he car, later.)

  • I think how one approaches thinking about The Tunnel is determined by what one makes of the epigraph.

    “What I have to tell you is as long as life, but I shall run as swiftly, so before you know it, we shall both be over.”

    The tunneling ahead seems to be through the place of being that exists “before you know it”–ontology prior to epistemology. And I’m open to reading “we shall both be over” not as termination, but as transcendence. I take the clue from the visual hints–the 2 flying pennants and the crest, while something of a Rorschach, is still suggestive of an eagle, if one that has lost definition. These emblems of flying push me toward transcendence. And this too.

    The pennants might illustrate Spinoza’s tracts on the emotions: sorrow plus desire for ______ = x emotion; joy plus desire for _______ = x emotion. The 2 pennants so suggestive of a binary are both planted squarely on the Sorrow side of the binary and lead me to ask where then is the Joy? Through the tunnel? How do we tunnel there?

    Not through history, for “History is the chronicle of the cause which causes, not the cause.” Through Literature? And this ties into Scott’s question about the page numbers. And while I agree with Hilary, that as presented they are suggestive of tattoos of victimhood, there’s another broader possibility. That Gass, in tampering with both the style and placement of the numbers, is throwing ALL of the elements back into play. Forget what you “know” about novels and Nazis and certainty and doubt and all the philosophical business of knowing, because unless you come to a more illuminated understanding of how being preconditions knowing, your intellectual life will be a prison in a chair.

  • Richard

    Nor am I in any way certain what precisely Gass is doing in this book…but like a few others, I don’t yet see Kohler as a monster. In fact, I see him as a bit pathetic. I also feel there is a great tension between what Gass may be following in terms of his artistic “muse,” if you will, and what Kohler as a character may be swimming toward, or in. There is some kind of weird polarity I’m sensing in this book, and in some ways, I feel that it almost shifts back and forth between Kohler’s character and Gass’s aesthetic concerns (rather then the two being interwoven) from section to section, paragraph to paragraph, and sometimes, from sentence to sentence.

    What I am not yet sensing (and what I sensed to an awesome degree in, for instance, Gaddis’ The Recognitions, and JR, and also in DeLillo’s Underworld and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon…and early on in each of those books), is a kind of grand architecture, or some massive, awesome-to-consider idea (or umbrella of ideas, if you will) behind the text. It’s early yet, though…so…but the prospect does not seem great to me. To badly misuse Irving: I sensed a great undertoad in those books that I am not yet feeling here.

    I would sincerely value a discussion later on of the great Gass vs. Gardner debates…When I think of The Sunlight Dialogues, or Mickelsson’s Ghosts (as bad as the reviews were, and as faulty as the book is in so many ways, I still think it’s a great novel) in comparison to what I’ve read of Gass, as much as I chafe with great energy against much of what Gardner argued about the “purposes” of fiction, I find myself admiring those books all the more now. (I have to again say that: yes: it’s early.)

    Part of the problem may be an interview on the Dalkey/Review of Contemporary Fiction site I read with Gass (done before The Tunnel was finished). He says there something along the lines of this: I’m trying to write something that is decadent in the way that John Hawkes was decadent: sexual decadence, extreme beauty in sentences describing things commonly apprehended as beautiful as well as in things commonly apprhended as disgusting. Well, if this is the sole or even main reason behind this book, I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to admire it as a whole. In parts, of course (as poet and admirer of sentences…pace: DeLillo), but not as a whole. (And pace DeLillo again: I seriously and sincerely admire the bulk of his novels AS NOVELS, even when the sentence is the basis for so much of so many of them.)

    Alas…again…it’s early. So I’m not trying to spark an argument here. But…100+ pages in, I’m finding myself very, very, very easily distracted. (And I am not easily distracted when it comes to books and sentences.)

  • I’m struck by the juxtaposition between the pastoral imagery of Kohler’s memories and the more horrific aspects of his personality. Curious to see where Gass is going with this — is he suggesting that the less appealing elements of Kohler’s narrative were there from the beginning, or that he’s been somehow infected by his immersion in fascist minutiae?

  • John

    I find myself siding against the idea that Kohler is an alter-ego to Gass. Gass’s essays are very focused and structured which makes it hard for me to imagine that he would engage in a wild and free form rant (it’s not a perfect word to use but it seems to be somewhat fitting) to write about himself. If it were his book, it would likely be much more tightly wound and well-argued. In the end, I am mostly relying on voice but I just don’t see the Kohler-Gass connection.
    Then there’s the more simplistic example: Kohler despises his wife, but Gass signs the book “my love and this book are for Mary” which strikes me as genuine. I could be wrong I guess, it could be ironic but somehow I doubt it.

    • Eric

      Kohler is clearly a fictional character, a constructed self — however, there’s enough of Gass’s biography in here to make us uneasy, to make us feel that we should exonerate Gass (ascribe guilt and innocence?) It’s that queasiness he’s going for, I think.

      This book does feel wild–in a good way, to me–but there’s also quite a bit of structure to it: the fugue-like form of “The Quarrel” passage, for example.

  • [...] started making my way through William Gass’s The Tunnel, as part of Conversational Reading’s group read of it.  120-odd pages in, I’m — well, I don’t know if “enjoyed” is the [...]

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