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The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

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

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    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 […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

The Tunnel Big Read: The End and a Few Last Questions

This post is part of the group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. The read is concluded, but you can still experience this singular, bizarre book for yourself. Read along with us by having a look at the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.


Well, I’ve finished The Tunnel, and only a couple of days behind schedule; not too bad, considering that Gass much have seriously gone past whatever original deadline he’d set in his head for this book’s “completion.” I’ll have some more comprehensive thoughts soon (along with the thoughts of some Big Read participants), but for now some thoughts on our last chunk of reading.

I won’t spoil the ending except to say that the ending Gass chose was one of perhaps 3 or 4 possible endings that seemed to be the only plausible ways this book could have come to a stop, given Gass’s intentions to immerse us in Kohler’s world and make the journal as “real” as possible.

It seems that as Gass approached the final moments of the text he was determined to take us as close to hell as possible. It is in the final 60 or so pages that we get all the awful details of his parents’ ends, as well as Kohler’s rather heartless and outraged depictions of their final weeks at home. I think in any fair reading much of these pages must make up sympathize with Kohler to a degree, for his childhood really was terrible in many ways, and they help explain so many of his traits as an adult. Yet they fail to answer one simple question: How do we judge Kohler for repeating the failures of his parents? And another: To what extent do we fault Kohler for failing to overcome his painful childhood?

Seeing just how bad Koher can be (I think these pages show him at his absolute worst), I think we can now finally ask a few questions that have been brewing over the course of this novel: Is to loathe Kohler to be guilty of the same loathing he directs at so much of the world? The final parts about his mother are truly touching in their sadness, and Kohler’s guilt and scars are clearly visible (the last kiss he gives his mother, “on the forehead like the kiss of Judas” [618]). He is a monster, but I think we can see why and what made him one. So is it right to hate him, or in hating him do we only perpetuate the intolerance that sully our image of Kohler?

Another good question that has been raised at various points is the great accomplishment and frequent beauty of Kohler/Gass’s prose versus the ugly sentiments and events the prose depicts. What do we think of this aestheticization of awfulness in this work, particularly since, so often, The Tunnel seems to be about nothing more than seeing how much of this can be packed into one book before it falls apart under its own weight? Does Kohler’s ability to write beautiful prose redeem him at all? Or, to put it another way, is a capacity to create and appreciate beauty a moral good that might be weighed in the calculus of moral successes and failures in a life?

I wonder what lies at the root of Kohler’s hatred of birthdays: “A birthdate gives you soul mates, makes you orbital with others, wakes your snoozy Fates to take a look at your lifeline. Above all it puts you at a place of birth like a suspect at the scene of a crime; it fastens you down, the way one day your grave will, to a spot on the earth.” [606] Is it related to his feelings about ritual, which he seems to likewise be uncomfortable with? Why do dates bother Kohler so much, moments of recognition that seem to be anchored down by a phase of life or the arbitrariness of personal history?

Later in the same section, detailing Kohler’s home life with his parents as various stages of his youth, we get this sentiment, regarding how they negotiated the subject of Santa Claus: “I pretended to believe and they pretended to believe me. It is the paradigm of successful human relations.” [609] This, to me, points to Kohler’s fundamental failure to empathize, to even attempt to. It seems at the root of so much of his self-destructive attitude toward the world. One can easily see how such a sentiment would lead to many of the emotions found at the beginning of the book in the “Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions.”

What do we think of Kohler’s one-sentence summation of history? “I know better than to pine, for I am a student of history, which is, after all, a chronicle of missed opportunities, invitations unsent though nicely signed, plans gone awry, cakes half baked.” [615]

And a few really big questions: What of the road Kohler travels further and further from philosophy and history—even from his own adult life—into bother but personal history in the last hundred pages of this book? The remembrances are beautifully rendered, but whereas the remembrances of a Proust are always backboned with nuggets of wisdom and aphorisms, Gass eschews all that, instead giving us nothing but personal remembrances. He will go on for pages about the candies he used to buy as a child, but to what end? Are the remembrances alone enough to constitute literature?

What can we say about the book’s central organizing metaphor—the tunnel? Is it an escape tunnel, putting Kohler into the position of the concentration camp prisoners that have hovered at the margins of this book? Is he tunneling into his own consciousness? Or is it a tunnel through language, as well as that path any writer must dig through the blank page? Is this a tunnel to hell? A personal grave-in-life? A halfhearted attempt at suicide? An emblem of Kohler’s desire to carve out a life for himself away from his failed marriage, sick and alone with the dreadful memories of his lifetime? And act of revenge? A furious lashing out? The very Sisyphean nature of impotent hatred?

Or is it rather more about us? The tunnel into our culture? That latent fascism that lies somewhere in the American psyche? Or, more personally, that dark place we all have gone these past weeks when we have opened up this book and experienced what Gass has taken 30 years to construct for us?

And lastly, for now, what do we make of Gass’s book? Is this virtuoso depiction of Kohler enough? What reactions can we have to this novel that justify the time, mental energy, and patience (with Kohler) that we have spent in reading it? Must we have a reaction “worthy” of these things, or is the experience of this book enough for us?

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. 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...
  2. The Tunnel Big Read: The Beginning of the End? 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...
  3. The Tunnel Big Read: Final Week This begins our fifth and final week of group reading The Tunnel. Congrats to those who have made it this far, and best wishes...
  4. The Tunnel Big Read: How Long Can We Stand Kohler? We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 5, our...
  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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2 comments to The Tunnel Big Read: The End and a Few Last Questions

  • Michael

    I’m so glad you are done with this.

  • Having finally slogged through to the end, what strikes me most is not Kohler’s monstrousness – it’s the fact that the source of his hate and bigotry is the common disappointments that we all face.

    Yes, Kohler’s childhood sounds terrible (but very likely we’re not getting an unbiased view here). But his later life sounds pretty normal, even moderately successful. Inevitably, as your life becomes an actuality and the room for a hoped-for future diminishes, you face disappointment. It becomes easier for the world’s nastiness to stoke your disappointment, initiating a feedback loop that consumes you.

    Gass manages to capture mundane frustrations and disappointments with amazing clarity: being newlyweds in cramped, cheap university housing with no privacy, the rage and frustration (followed by self-loathing) that a screaming infant can produce in even the most placid parent, the painful end of a relationship: life may not suck, but it sure isn’t what you imagined it to be.

    Gass’ intention was to get us to identify with Kohler. In my case he succeeded. On finishing the book, the most compelling theme for me is the transformation of disappointment into resentment and hate.

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