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” ). 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.”  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.”  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.” 
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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