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.
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.”
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.”
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.”