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.
Now that we’ve all had a chance to settle in and begin reading this beast of a novel, let’s talk about the opening pages. What we seem to have in the initial pages are throat-clearings and drips of plot, although I’m going to make a guess right now that, rather than simply being Gass meandering toward the book’s focus, this style will typify all of The Tunnel. Knowing what I do of Gass as a critic and a reader, as well as going by my read of the initial 100 pages, it seems right now that the lack of much clear direction will be as much the point of this book as anything else. This is undoubtedly a large part of why The Tunnel has attracted labels like “difficult,” “so damned literary,” or even, showing the elegance characteristic of that periodical, “a load of crap” as per James Bowman in the National Review.
In other words, The Tunnel will clearly try your patience at times; so far I’ve found much of it downright confusing and obscure on a first reading, although I’ve also found that the book’s frequent pleasures and wit more than compensate for the occasional feeling of being lost in a thicket of words. And so far I’ve found that if you take it slow enough and give yourself time to look back and do a little re-reading, I think the book coheres enough.
I also think, as per the first week’s chunk of text, that confusion and patience-trying are something of The Tunnel’s point, and perhaps the fact that virtually all critics have made particular note of that aspect says something important about that continues to be the expectations that a novel must live up to. Gass clearly makes no bones about dismissing these “requirements,” and if you look at his 50 most influential books (collected in A Temple of Texts), you’ll see that the books he most likes also defeat these expectations.
What sticks out to me most clearly about the first score or so pages of The Tunnel is how invested it is in the act of writing as a physical/mental process, and how it relates this act to a search for the truth. Gass is clearly foregrounding this aspect of his novel, and perhaps we would do well to consider why a book that so palpably writhes in uncertainty, that so clearly avoids clear narration, so bothers us. Why do we consider this unduly “difficult” when this is our own life experience? What in our world conditions us to expect that a book would and should be anything different? And what relationship does this bear to the truth, particularly those truths recorded by history/narration and by our own experience.
The tension between these versions of “truth” is clearly present right at the instigation of the novel’s action: our narrator’s diary, his search for a personal truth, springs from the completion of a monumental work of history. In effect The Tunnel is a work of literature that comes as the complement to a work of history, and thus the very conceit of the book represents this tension—the relationship of capital-H History to capital-L Literature. Whereas history has the requirement of order, literature is free to luxuriate in the chaos of thought, and it seems that in the latter Gass locates something essential about the act of writing down our thoughts in language. On the book’s very first page, our narrator, William Frederick Kohler, says, with some resignation, “I realize I must again attempt to put this prison of my life in language.”  This is followed, on page 8, by the question, “Is writing to yourself a healthier insanity than talking to yourself?” Here, before he has even said a word, Gass seems to be questioning the very heart of his enterprise: Can words contain a life? Is the attempt a sort of grandiose form of madness?
But what, one wonders, is the alternative? On page 6 Gass introduces the German historian Magus Tabor, aka, Mad Meg, in whose baleful chair Kohler writes and spends the majority of the novel. Mad Meg seems to be some sort of an omen to Kohler, a warning of where he might end up: that is, as a historian in whose eyes “night had fallen” : “those deeply curtained eyes reminded me that we were drifting through the middle of his sleep, and that I was just a wraith who would evaporate the instant he sank into his circulating chair—sank into the past—into death—into history.”  Or perhaps Kohler is already there and knows it.
There are some recurring motifs in this first section. Kohler repeatedly describes the quality of the light in his study where he sits in the imposing chair from which he composes this journal: “In this empty hour the light takes on an imprisoned harshness.”  There are also many statements regarding the construction of history and its relationship to an individual’s life: “when I had written what I had written; when I had reached the present—the dead end of history—to find it empty as an empty pantry.”  The book also seems very concerned with the diary as a literary form: just what is its point?, what can we learn from ours, and those of others?, how should it be composed?, and why?
These all seem to come back to the search for the truth, which I found to be the most prominent aspect of the first score or so of pages. Those opening pages seem to culminate, in a way, on pages 20-1, where the following words are written in out large type, interspersed between the rest of the text: “Sincerity,” “Empiricism,” “Classicism,” “Confession,” “The Complete Dishonest and Unwholesome Truth.” Here Gass speculates about the various ways of arriving at truth and how they fall short of that mark: “but what was his sincerity but an excuse to be selfish out of love for a comfortable maxim?”; “and not because experience couldn’t bring them to wisdom better than the Greeks, either, but because experience is broad and muddy like the Ganges”; “yes—he has felt up far too many facts during all his reading, in all those books, like a breast through the bubbles of a rough cloth, to have faith in their smooth plain names”; “whereas I look for love in knotholes and other rounded ironies”; “sincerity—this Christmas wrap around a rascal—could he dispense with even its concealments and reach reality, expose himself to his own eye?”
This seems to be both the impetus of the book and the source of its baggy (at times frustrating) form: a very human desire to reach the truth despite not knowing what it is. (This search for the truth is entwined with Kohler’s search for a form for his journals.) So how can Kohler know when he’s reached a “true” account of his life? What method is there by which he can impose an explanation and on order on the events which he is about to narrate for us? Can he even rely on human categories like “guilt” and “innocence,” which he seriously questions as anything other than constructs in the quote excerpted from his book on page 13: “Thus, neither guilt nor innocence are ontological elements in history; they are merely ideological factors . . .”
I think this kind of relativism would shock many of us, and I imagine this foreshadows some of the darker revelations about Kohler to come. We might wonder what Kohler’s motivations to know the truth are, particularly as he appears to have spent some time undermining the categories of guilt and innocence with regard to one of the great crimes of the 20th century. We shall read on . . .
One final thing. To help us all orient, here is Gass’s description of the book, as per Michael Silverblatt’s review in the Los Angeles Times
William Frederick Kohler “teaches history at a major mid-western university. He has studied in Germany during the thirties, returned with the 1st Army during the invasion as a debriefer, then as a consultant during the Nuremberg Trials. Writes a book called Nuremburg Notes. Its softness earns him some suspicion. He has been working for many years on his magnum opus: ‘Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany.’ As the novel begins, he has just concluded this book and has begun a self-congratulatory preface when he finds himself blocked and unable to continue. He finds himself writing these pages instead. Since they are exceedingly personal, and he doesn’t want his wife to see them, he hides them between the pages of ‘Guilt and Innocence,’ since he knows she will never read them.”