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 Legacy by Sybille Bedford March 15, 2015
    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
    Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Gr […]
  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
    New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, wa […]
  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
    This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countr […]
  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura March 14, 2015
    The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter's translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an e […]
  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
    Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic compe […]
  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
    Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you'd expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we're still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collab […]
  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
    here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from […]
  • The Valerie Miles Interview March 14, 2015
    The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual […]
  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
    Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea "wine-dark" and the heavens "bronze." Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Th […]

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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