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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 pages 127 through 247. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

As we read this section of The Tunnel, I think this novel’s shape, inasmuch as there is a shape to this book, is beginning to come into view. Although The Tunnel continues to display nothing like a linear or even episodic logic—I think the proper term is “associative” or “poetic”—we are at least beginning to develop signposts to help us through the thicket of words. It’s in this week’s stretch that we find out some juicy bits about Kohler’s romance with Lou; it’s here that he begins work on the tunnel; we also find out here why his marriage is failing and what his wife, Marty, is like; we also begin to put some flesh on his work colleagues, Planmantee, Herschel, and, of course, Culp.

All this information may not make the book any more linear for us, but it does begin to let us to what Kohler has been doing for all these years as a professional historian: begin to ascribe some sort of order and logic to the disorderly journalings of a broken man. As such, I found in this section The Tunnel taking on many of the trappings of conventional realism. What I mean by that is that I am beginning to think that The Tunnel is not a book primarily about philosophy, aesthetics, or even world history; it is a book about a man, William Frederick Kohler, with these other elements coming into play only as much as the story of his life dictates.

Now is a good time to begin assessing Gass’s style in this book, which I would refer to as “maximalist.” In his criticism Gass has made his love of listing clear, and we see that tendency in great effect here. Page after page, Gass has Kohler give image after image, constantly restating his thoughts in numerous ways, when just one statement would suffice. What do we think of this mode of writing? Is it beautiful? Does it serve a purpose in this book? What does Gass hope to achieve with this constant near-repetition?

I think we see something along the lines of an answer on page 186, where Kohler is recalling the rant-like lectures that he has been inflicting on his students (whom he appears to despise). Near the bottom of the page he writes, “when sentences are sufficiently condensed, the sweetness gets squeezed out.” He follows that on page 187 with the remark, “little by little small things don’t get large,” before concluding, in typical self-loathing fashion, “playing with words is a sign of an infantile imagination; it is worse than playing with your tiddlywinks; it displays a gruesome . ..  what was it? it demonstrates a disagreeable . . . deplorable . . . no—it argues a . . . a loathsome mind.” There are a number of ways to read these lines, but I think what can be said of them with some certainty is that Gass is arguing here for a sense of massiveness and thus reality that comes with such a robust wordscape. He seems to be indicating that the only way to bring life to Kohler as he wants it done is to let him loose on the page, regardless of the fact that at times these lengthy displays will become a little tiresome. (Although, it is a mark of Gass’s prowess that in general I’ve found his lengthy paragraphs to be more inventive than onerous.)

I think we also get a window into Gass’s intentions with the entrance of Kohler’s dreadful friend Culp, whom I’ve found much more disagreeable so far than Kohler himself. (If anything, Kohler seems to be a mere derivative of Culp, eagerly following along in his repellant jokes in an attempt to please.) One of Culp’s great lifelong projects is a history of the world told in limerick form (discussed on page 165). Here we see an extremely skewed approach to history, though we might ask if the limerick is inherently any less valid a form as a journal or an academic work such as Kohler has written. We see a number of examples of Culp’s limericks, as he discusses the challenge of writing them with the word abbot in the first line, which Kohler has asked him to do. What ideas about history does the limerick privilege? What events? Even what proper names? By extension, what ideas about people and events do other forms, like the novel or the journal or the poem, implicitly serve?

Getting into the whole conceit of the limerick, Kohler begins to extemporaneously comment on the form, beginning on page 166, where he remarks, “Culp’s conversation was designed to make everything appear to be stupid, callow, scarcely whelped . . . if only language were made of slang, and each word had a brief green life, a short season in our speech before blowing away, there would be no real enrichment of meaning, no investment over time, of careful human thought in any inscription . . . punning would replace the rule of reason.” I think here we see the emergence of one of Gass’s major tropes as a writer, the idea that literature is really only just language. If you deform the language too far, the literature becomes meaningless, or, at least, its idea of what is “real” begins to be ordered along significantly different lines than what someone who uses a different form of language would consider real. Here you can see James Wood’s somewhat impoverished articulation of Gass’s philosophy, and his own thoughts on the matter:

On the other side, among those with too little belief in character, we hear that characters do not exist at all. The novelist and critic William Gass comments on the following passage from Henry James’s The Awkward Age: “Mr Cashmore, who would have been very red-headed if he had not been very bald, showed a single eyeglass and a long upper lip; he was large and jaunty with little petulant ejaculations that were not in the line of type.” Of this, Gass says: “We can imagine any number of other sentences about Mr Cashmore added to this one. Now the question is: what is Mr Cashmore? Here is the answer I shall give: Mr Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organisation, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy. He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him.”

But of course characters are assemblages of words, because literature is such an assemblage of words: this tells us absolutely nothing, and is like elaborately informing us that a novel cannot really create an imagined “world”, because it is just a bound codex of paper pages. Gass claims that “nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him”, but that is exactly what James has just done: he has said of him things that are usually said of a real person. He has told us that Mr Cashmore looked bald and red, and that his “petulant ejaculations” seemed out of keeping with his large jauntiness.

Still, even if there must clearly be a reasonable middle position, somewhere between the book-club self-identifier and the full-blown postmodern sceptic such as Gass, the difficult question remains: just what is a character? If I say that a character seems connected to consciousness, to the use of a mind, the many superb examples of characters who seem to think very little bristle up (Gatsby, Captain Ahab, Becky Sharp, Jean Brodie). If I refine the thought by repeating that a character at least has some essential connection to an interior life, to inwardness, is seen “from within”, I am presented with the nicely opposing examples of those two adulterers, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest, the first of whom does a lot of reflection, and is seen internally as well as externally, the second of whom, in Theodor Fontane’s eponymous novel, is seen almost entirely from the outside, with little space set aside for represented reflection. No one could say that Anna is more vivid than Effi simply because we see Anna doing more thinking.

Other things: interestingly, in this section Kohler describes the scene when Lou broke up with him, although (someone correct me if I’m mistaken), we don’t get a satisfying explanation of why she leaves him. This is interesting, since it’s clearly an epoch-defining moment in Kohler’s life. Does he not know himself? Is he afraid to set it down on paper? We also have an extended description of Kohler’s many quarrels with his wife, Marty (told, once imagines, in a highly biased fashion by Kohler himself). Kohler seems to try to be elevating these fights to some heroic status, interspersing the words “THE QUARREL” in all caps throughout this section and relating his own domestic disputes to events of world-historical significance.

This is also where Kohler begins digging his tunnel. Although it is only glancingly discussed, we do get enough meaty descriptions of the tunnel and Kohler’s digging as to feel is a real presence in the novel; somewhat disturbingly, he comments at one point on how his music is turning black, and he mentions how he must be careful not to hit the gas lines running beneath his home.

I rather liked how Kohler relates his tunnel to the idea of the abyss (which he claims “exists only in English” [184]), as well as his lengthy discussion of that subject and its relationship to doom [184 – 190]. “The abyss is the obliteration of the sign; it is reality without disguise, without appearance, without remainder,” [184-5] Kohler writes, following it with “History is the abyss of the doomed.” [185]

From Koher’s rather romanticized description of the abyss and doom, which he “aspires” [185] to, it seems clear that he does not view his own tiny tunnel as an abyss. But it does seem to be bound up with Kohler’s dark ideas of senselessness and the labyrinth of language, which I would say he is attempting to inhabit, literally, by building this tunnel. I would also relate the construction of the tunnel to the idea of writing, where one is constantly pushing up against the lip of the blank page, forging forward bit by bit into the unknown . . .

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The metaphor of the tunnel seems to be taking on more importance. ‘Uncle Balt and the Nature of Being’ describes Uncle Balt as a vapor-ish funnel like a tornado, which happens to, also, be like a tunnel. At this point, I think Uncle Balt has an importance to Kohler which Kohler hasn’t recognized but Gass has recognized.

I think Scott’s right about the act of writing itself being alluded to in the digging of the tunnel. I think there’s an argument that the typeface oddities, the limericks, etc. can be seen as obstacles as Kohler writes or digs this tunnel of an introduction. Maybe his work ‘Guilt and Innocence’ is one of those obstacles. It seems to have a confusing effect on Kohler, as if he’s not sure whether he’s anti-Semitic or anti-Nazi. This, for Kohler, has explosive possibilities like the gas lines Kohler has to dig around.

I’m finding this book to be exceedingly tedious–and increasingly so the deeper I get. I’m at the point where I think I may simply stop reading this in favor of something more interesting. Far be it from me to defend James Wood (I am in complete disagreement with his condemnations of what he calls “hyper-realism,” am a major fan of DeLillo, for instance, and find many of Wood’s theories of art bordering on religion–and I mean actual Christianity, not just as “art-as-religion”–but in a way that is, to me, utterly unconvincing. He’s a Puritan. However, reading this article, and particularly what he writes about what Gass seems to think about “character,” I find myself agreeing with Wood very, very strongly.

I’ve been reading as much as I can of Gass in interviews and essays in an attempt to help myself enjoy The Tunnel a bit more, if possible, and Wood seems to pretty much nail a lot of what I’ve read Gass say himself elsewhere. So I wouldn’t call Wood’s paraphrase/summation of Gass’s ideas about character here “impoverished.” What I would call impoverished is Gass’s book, the Tunnel. It is not impoverished of beautiful language, but it is impoverished of much of interest beyond a spewing of words. When Thomas Bernhard has one of his narrators rant and rave and postulate and expostulate and twist and turn in an endless stream of often paragraphless prose, I find the voice so hypnotic most of the time, and the delineation of a character so refined, that I willingly follow wherever he’ll take me. Bernhard also manages to be simultaneously funny and deadly serious without resorting to infantile language, dirty jokes, or poo-poo jokes. There are no “cheap” laughs in Bernhard. If there are any laughs at all in The Tunnel, they’re for the most part completely cheap and infantile. I too can sit down and have a narrator rant and rave for pages and pages and pages, but so what? There’s some essential degree of added pressure, of humanity, I daresay, in Bernhard’s narrators, as compared to this cypher Kohler. And while I may not be able to exactly articulate what that difference is, I can say this: I find myself wondering if perhaps it’s because Gass is deliberately setting out to obliterate character, to prove that the words of “Kohler” are just a bunch of words.

This where I agree with John Gardner over Gass. If you want to be Jacques Derrida and just look at language as a series of meaningless symbols on which we impose meaning, and then make THAT the central event/cause/energy of your huge novel, by all means, go to it. But I’m not going to follow you down that “tunnel,” Mr. Gass, because your book bores me to tears.

I don’t see “bad faith” here; what I see is a completely hollow writer writing a completely, and intentionally, hollow book, and then enjoying it when people break out in a sweat about it.

Again: Boring.

I sincerely hope everyone else enjoys the rest of this Big Read; I have enjoyed every one in which I’ve taken part up to this one, and I’m sure I’ll thoroughly enjoy a Big Read in the future. But I’m sitting the rest of this one out. I’ve got Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, Chabon’s new book, Antony Beevor’s The Second World War, Zadie Smith’s NW, among others, staring at me from my nightstand. And Bolano’s Woes of the True Policeman is going to be released in about a month. I feel certain to enjoy that much more than this. Life’s too short for me to force myself to read a book that puts me to sleep, or just gets me irritated for no good reason.

    I’ve been wrestling with some of these same thoughts and issues—wtf is this book, what is it doing, is it a joke and is Gass a dick and am I a ponce for following it along? But then I remember stuff like the bit about Uncle Balt which I adored and I think, this can’t be complete tripe, right? There’s something going on here? What am I, how much am I missing? Or is there nothing actually to miss?

    Basically I’m pressing on, with misgivings (and am certainly glad to see someone else’s so well stated!), but, man, sometimes, I wish I just had this this as an InDesign document so I could remix it into better (personal) shape.

    I can agree, to a large extent, with Richard on this point, “It is not impoverished of beautiful language, but it is impoverished of much of interest beyond a spewing of words.”

    But that is Kohler and reading him is to deconstruct him as Darby mentions. Gass, in the character of Kohler, is putting under the microscope an erudite, spiteful, pedantic, confused, character. But the poetic structure with it’s alliteration, the great metaphors, typeface oddities seem to only contribute to writing as an art rather than contributing to the character of Kohler. Maybe that’s why Kohler is an academician, rather than a bricklayer. As an academician Kohler can, logically, be spiteful and poetic, whereas were Kohler a bricklayer he could only be, logically, spiteful.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


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.

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