The Tunnel Big Read: The Beginning of the End?

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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.


In my read of The Tunnel, this week’s section offers perhaps the most damning look at Kohler yet: the section titled “Around the House,” which is simply an account of a typical Kohler morning in his home. The “banality of evil” has become a cliche, and yet, there is something so very horrifying about the prosaic details of Kohler’s sad life. What comes across to me here is how fundamentally alone he is in the world, how he has so little to fill his day (hence this logorrheic journal and his “tunnel” project), how much he hates his life (and is loath to accept that), and, of course, his admiration for Hitler and sympathy with the Nazi view of the world. It runs on for nearly 40 pages. It is exhausting, and all the more so because it is flawless. “So much of life hangs about like this,” writes Kohler of the “deadly calm” in which he passes his days. “Quiet as enamel though capable of clatter—like this, like wire hangers in a closet. Waiting for the waiting to be over.” [475]

“Around the House” is a strange piece of writing: it is so successful, Gass so compellingly gets across this image of Kohler by using a novelist’s toolbox, and yet it lacks almost all that one would normally consider novelistic, and all this artistry is in giving us a loathsome portrait of a stale life. I don’t quit know what to make of it. Do I like this? Does it horrify me? Do I like it more for succeeding in horrifying me?

And then, even stranger yet, is “Susu, I Approach You in My Dreams,” where we must say Kohler experiences some kind of a mental breakdown.

In these sections, I think, The Tunnel approaches the condition that Gass has set about arcing toward throughout the bulk of this novel, the abandonment of what we might construe as the “novelistic” portion of The Tunnel in favor of a forthright depiction of just how awful a hate-filled, isolated life can become. I will say that at this point Gass has earned it, but is he right to ask us to experience it? What is the point of it? What do we, as readers, gain?

In addition to these, we have the rather strange sections “Foreskinned,” about Kohler’s traumatic penile experiences as a child, and three rant-like sections where Kohler vents his spleen regarding his colleagues. These are all artfully done, although I can’t say I got a whole lot out of them other than a further demonstration of Kohler’s awful mind and some garden-variety philosophizing regarding the nature of history. What did you all find in these sections? Anything more worthy than extremely skillfully executed renditions of Kohler’s awful mind? And if that is all you found, is that enough? Is this literature?

I am curious to see where this all goes in our last week of reading, but, given the trajectory, I can only assume that it will (no pun intended) run itself into the ground. It seems that Gass is setting us up for Kohler’s final descent into hell, implied all the way back on page 3, where we find the book’s epigraph: “Anaxagoras said to a man who was grieving because he lay dying in a foreign land, ‘The descent to hell is the same from every place.'”

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Tunnel Big Read: The Make or Break Week? We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 3, covering...
  2. 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...
  3. The Tunnel Big Read: Historical Philosophy and Broken Windows 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...
  4. 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...
  5. The Tunnel Big Read: Questions for Week 2’s Reading We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 2, covering...

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