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.”  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” 
—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.” 
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