The Tunnel Big Read: We Begin


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.

To start us off on this Big Read, I’m going to quote verbatim from the Wikipedia page for The Tunnel.

I’ve mostly kept these Big Reads to contemporary novels, and part of the reason for that is that I think we, as a community of readers, should participate in evaluating the works. One very important aspect of these reads, of course, is to experience the books as a group and help one another interpret and enjoy them. But another equally important aspect is to say whether or not we like these books, and if we think they are worthy of the contemplation and time that their size and (occasional) difficulty requires. That is our privilege when reading books that have not had the chance yet to acquire the layer of dust necessitated by the “classic” designation—more than a privilege, it is a responsibility.

The Wikipedia page for The Tunnel captures this fact magnificently. Wikipedia, of course, strives to be an encyclopedia, yet it also strives to be up-to-date, a goal which can at times be in tension with the attempt to be authoritative. We see that in the case of the entry for The Tunnel, a book about which posterity has not yet made up its mind. (And, readers of Gass will know that he regards the opinion of posterity as the most valid of all.) In that spirit, over the next month or so I hope that we will become a part of that posterity that will inevitably evaluate this book.

Critical reception

Some critics have harshly decried the novel, for instance Robert Alter in his review of the book in The New Republic,

“Some may seize on it as a postmodern masterpiece, but it is a bloated monster of a book. (…) The bloat is a consequence of sheer adipose verbosity and an unremitting condition of moral and intellectual flatulence. (…..) The abjection of (Gass’) hero seems less lived than written. It is an act of ventriloquism: behind the repulsive, potentially fascist narrator stands his critic, the novelist, presumably committed to humane, democratic values. But those values are nowhere intimated in the book, and what emerges is a kind of inadvertent complicity between author and protagonist. The supposedly critical novel becomes an enactment of bad faith.”[1]

However, other critics commended the work. In his review of the novel in the New York Times Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote:

“So why, given the considerable grimness of The Tunnel, does the reader still track its endless coils of prose? For the lyrical set pieces, for one thing; the haunting evocations of a small-town childhood so sensually rich in detail that the prose is sometimes hypnotic. But more compelling still is the tension Mr. Gass has created between literary art for its own sake and transcendent psychological truth.”[2]

A third opinion is raised by Robert Kelly, who writes in the New York Times Book Review that “It will be years before we know what to make of it.” [3]

Recent Posts

Criticism Isn't Free

CR is dedicated to thoughtful, in-depth criticism without regard to what's commercially appealing. It takes tens of hours each month to provide this. Please help make this sort of writing sustainable, either with a subscription or a one-time donation. Thank you!


Got Something To Say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


I really admire the way you put it, Scott: we will be part of those who can help decide the reputation of this book for posterity.

I will make one specific note on the Robert Alter review. As far as I am concerned, any critic who accuses a novelist of “bad faith” is ipso facto full of crap. I’m sorry, but those two words are the same ones George F. Will used in his “review” of Don DeLillo’s Libra. Anytime a critic accuses a novelist of a moral failing, or worse yet, of “bad faith” (whatever that means, exactly…what DOES it mean? Faith (or lack thereof) in what? And what “faith” does Alter demonstrate anywhere, in anything, at any time, on this planet? Where does he demonstrate “good faith” in his reviews? Please!) I think anyone with a mind of his/her own should turn the page.

P.S. I know what “bad faith” ostensibly means, obviously; but I find it a moral failing on the part of a critic to assume that a novelist is demonstrating “doublemindedness” in a harmful, intentional way. And the way the phrase is used by Alter, Will, and sometimes others says to me that they are accusing the novelists of being purposefully evil in some way. THAT is what I cannot abide.

I’m only 40 pages into The Tunnel, and I’m sure you can accuse Gass of all sorts of things based on this book, but to label someone as having (or having written in) “bad faith” is just ridiculous to me. Period.

My favorite line from Kelly’s review, which was the only good review of it published at the time, as far as I know: “It is driven by language and all the gloriously phony precisions the dictionary makes available.”

NB on Bad Faith: whatever one thinks of Gass, I’d say Gore Vidal makes a pretty good case for Henry Miller’s Sexus being in bad faith.

I’m not going to begin to try to “defend” Miller from Vidal, or you, or anyone else. But I will say this: have you ever read any of Vidal’s tripe? I won’t accuse him of bad faith, but will accuse him of bad novels. They’re boring, dilletantish, and snobby at the same time, which is a weird feat to pull off.

But, again, I would not accuse him (who also seems to have thought he was God) of “bad faith.”

This really is a great place to start, and though it seems obvious in a way, it’s worth a fresh reminder (for me at least) that we’re under no obligation to this book, this thing. I’ve liked the handful of essays of Gass’s I’ve read (for an academic writer he feels brilliantly sensual in his approach to literature) but at this point in the book I can see how easy it would be to make a case for this novel’s being complete crap, a noble (or not) but failed experiment.

Not that I’m arguing that yet. Judgment reserved. So far I’m at the stage of loving a lot of the language but feeling like I’m failing at parsing enough of the meaning to make substantial assessments of what I’m reading. Like I need to keep re-excavating to find out what’s sifting through my fingers as I pass it by.

The Latin American Mixtape

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2015. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.