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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

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

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]

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. 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...
  2. The Tunnel Big Read Schedule We are starting the Big Read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on Sunday, September 30. Below you will find the schedule and links...
  3. The Tunnel Big Read in October Y’all convinced me, we should do a group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel in October. More details to come. It’ll start sometime around...
  4. Fall Group Read Update Thanks to everyone who took the time to offer some thoughts on what they would like for the next group read. The discussion was great,...
  5. This Fall's Group Read — Make Your Voice Heard! Thanks to everyone who has already offered their preferences for this fall's group read. I've got a pretty good sense of where we're at, and...

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4 comments to The Tunnel Big Read: We Begin

  • Richard

    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.

  • Richard

    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.

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