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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.

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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.

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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

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

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
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  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
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  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
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  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
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  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
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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 pages 247 through 379. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.


Scanning the comments to our Tunnel Big Read so far, it seems like some us have been getting close to disenchantment with Gass at various points during Week 2′s chunk of text. I do readily admit that at certain stretches I find The Tunnel frustrating, although that only means that (in my experience) it joins a number of other postmodern works that are widely regarded, including Gravity’s Rainbow, The Recognitions, Underworld, Terra Nostra, 2666, even Nabokov’s Ada, War & War, and Europe Central. I do think the dull stretches are more than compensated for by the stretches that work for me (which I’d say is maybe 80%-20% in favor of the stretches that work), and I’m willing to grant Gass his eccentricities in pursuit of his vision, as I have done for so many other authors before him.

More than that, however, it’s during Week 3′s reading that I’m really beginning to feel like this work is coming together for me. It’s still obviously a very baggy, digressive, and even self-indulgent book, but now I feel pretty clear that I have coordinates to navigate this book by. There are the Kohler’s Youth sections, dealing with his parents and the Depression-era Midwest (which I find beautiful portraits of both); the Workplace sections where Kohler details his relationships with his colleagues and his general disenchantment with academia (which I find interesting in a claustrophobic, unreliable sort of way); the Ranty sections where Kohler spews his bile about his life and the world in general; the Lou, Martha, and Susu sections, where Kohler details the failures of his love lives; the emerging PdP sections where Kohler is beginning to show his fascist leanings; and of course the Philosophical Mad Meg sections, where Kohler gives us the philosophical meat of the book (and I found the portrait of Magus on his deathbed in this week’s chunk of text incredibly well done).

The thing about The Tunnel, in my read, is that Gass frequently combines these various strands, even going so far as to weave among them at the level of sentence, image, and metaphor. This was, of course, very, very difficult at the beginning of the book when I had very little sense of Kohler as a whole, but the more I come to comprehend the organization of his life, the more I’m able to appreciate the choreography of the book for its beauty, despite the general difficulty and occasional obscurity.

For my own part that has been my experience of The Tunnel, and as I read I find myself picking up steam. It’s completely understanding if other people find the book too cumbersome, and I will readily admit that Gass’s prose and jokes can seem occasionally indulgent and even childish (I’ve long since accustomed myself to overcoming that hurdle to enjoy the larger pleasures of Gass’s writing). I’ll be interested to hear how everyone else feels about this book as we go on, why you want to drop out, if that’s what you’ve chosen to do, or why you’re continuing, if that’s what you’re doing.

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  1. The Tunnel Big Read: Week 3 Welcome to Week 3 of our group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel. The read lasts from September 30 through November 3. We...
  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: 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...
  4. The Tunnel Big Read? If you’re on my Twitter you might have seen me post this last week: I am feeling kinda like doing a fall Big Read for...
  5. The Tunnel Big Read: Where Kohler Becomes a Little Less Baggy 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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7 comments to The Tunnel Big Read: The Make or Break Week?

  • The deathbed sequence alone would earn this book another hundred pages of attention from me…

  • I’ve been a lurker – I’m enjoying the book a great deal, and loving the posts and comment threads from week one, but I’ve been consistently behind in the reading, and therefore haven’t contributed to the discussion. I’m close to the end of week two’s section.

    Compared to A Naked Singularity, this book has been very slow going for me, even though the read is rewarding and my will to continue is undiminished. Anyone else having trouble keeping up?

    To bring this back to the big postmodern books you mentioned, I’m a huge fan of those books, particularly Ada and GR. I find Ada and GR to be much easier to read read semi-quickly, compared to The Tunnel, which for me is more akin to The Recognitions, with its lengthy, but disjointed and often tedious party scenes.

    • Hilary

      Hi Mike, I just wanted to say: yes, I’m behind too! I guess I’m not surprised, since I’m often behind in things, but it is interesting to think about what an all-around commitment a book like this is, how much of one’s life it occupies, even demands, in the months one is reading it. And I find I can’t read it just before I go to sleep or I have terrible dreams…

  • Lorna

    I simply can’t keep up with the read but am completely drawn in by the experience and will be continuing at my own pace.

    I find that I want to read this novel especially slowly, as slowly as reading it aloud. I want to ‘hear’ the poetic sections, their rhythm and sounds, and savour them. By contrast, the repulsive sections pass more quickly. I often feel like I am voluntarily staying in the company of a person I would in all other circumstances avoid, but I am curious as to where this narrative is going to take me.

  • Neil Griffin

    I unfortunately finished this book right before Scott picked it as a group read. To me it was a beautiful, yet frustrating, book. There are some passages that among the best I’ve ever read; and other parts that are a bit tougher to get through. After I found the internal rhythm of the book, I found it easier going; and whenever I was frustrated, I focused on the sentence level and was amazed by the rythme and alliteration and the obvious work Gass put in to make it all fit together. Scott has already linked to Silverblatt’s review, but I’d like to call attention to the last part when he reveals some of the easier passages, which are a good way to enter the book if one is getting frustrated.

    http://articles.latimes.com/1995-03-19/books/bk-44339_1_william-gass/4

    “When Joyce’s “Ulysses” came out, helpful critics recommended passages that nervous readers might begin on (this often amounted to a list of the “dirty parts”). In Randall Jarrell’s essays the grateful reader finds lists of the most nearly perfect poems by Robert Frost, or the best stories by Chekhov or Kipling. In similar manner, I want to offer a list of sections of “The Tunnel” that will give an interested but timid reader an experience of the rapture I find in this book: We Have Not Lived the Right Life (pp. 96-146), The Sunday Drive (pp. 219-236), A Fugue (pp. 239-240), Kristallnacht (pp. 317-334), The First Winter of My Married Life (pp. 334-356), Child Abuse (pp. 375-379), Around the House (pp. 437-475), Being a Bigot (pp. 522-533), Do Rivers (pp. 554-563), Sweets (pp. 564-583), Aunts (pp. 583-603), Mother Bakes a Cake (pp. 603-615).”

  • Paul

    I can only echo the comments of several previous posts. I started off well ahead of schedule but am starting to find it hard to keep on track as progress is very slow compared to most other books I’ve read.

    Again, I can only agree that there have been passages that are just brilliant (I would include Kristallnacht & The First Winter of My Married Life) interspersed with some parts I find difficult to follow and which I fear I sometimes skim.

  • Gilly

    I started late on this one – wasn’t going to read it at all and then after reading the early comments decided I had to. The book took a while to arrive so I am way behind. For the first few pages i wondered if I was ever going to get anywhere with it. It took so long to read each page; then I must have suddenly discovered the internal rhythm that Neil mentioned and I was hooked. I love the way paragraphs, whole pages, have an internal poetry that resonates. I can understand why it would be a great audio book. At the moment for me it’s rather a sensuous, visceral experience. Maybe I will be able to analyse it more intellectually later. Kohler is a lot more tender than I expected him to be. The prose has infiltrated my life in the way great books do, rather disturbing in the dream world as someone else said (sorry, it is in another thread). Now I have to get back to it.

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