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The Tunnel

Thirty years in the making William Gass's second novel first appeared on the literary scene in 1995 at which time it was promptly hailed as an indisputable. O William GassSuch a pain in the assHis difficult proseGets right up my noseNote I ve been reading this novel on off for about 6 months But not no IT S YOUR FAULT CLEAR AS DAY The Tunnel comes to you with the maximum number of intellectual endorsements possible for a novel that isn t James Joyce s Ulysses Before you pick it up you ve been beaten into submission by the priestly class of all that is good and holy in modern literature You are acutely aware you re in the Presence of a Masterpiece So let it be as clear as possible if you don t like The Tunnel by William Gass it s your fault You aren t bright enough we re so sorry It s not for you Here s your money back Go and play with Jonathan Franzen or Joyce Carol Oates or David Mitchell Don t bother us up here in the Gassosphere THE CLASS SYSTEM OF NOVELSThere s a class system in the happy world of the novel like there is everywhere else And there s almost no social mobility This is the thing I mean The highbrow canon Proust Flaubert Joyce Nabokov Gaddis Gass Thomas Mann Pynchon DFW Bolano Faulkner Dostoievsky Bernhardt Alexander Theroux Saramago Kafka Virginia Woolf Flaubert etc etc Also Flaubert Don t forget him Middlebrow Jonathan Franzen Cormac McCarthy Joyce Carol Oates Philip Roth Martin Amis all those Booker prize winners and losers F Scott Fitzgerald Raymond Chandler D H Lawrence Charles Dickens Jane Austen etc etcLowbrow Everything else starting off with Fifty Shades of Grey all genre fiction except that written by Ursula le Guin Neil Gaiman and David MitchellHey don t frown I didn t make the rules This is not an anti elitist rant I think Ulysses is the greatest ever novel I love Virginia Woolf Don t shoot I m coming out with my hands up THE CASE OF WILLIAM GASSIt s both strange and not strange that William Gass is in the Highbrow sectionThe not strange part is that William Gass can write many terrific sentences those ones where you feel the top of your brain lifting up up up Many sentences you just want to beueath to posterity or have Beethoven set to music or make your kids marry them or make them Pope Also he loves his stream of consciousness and his chaotic make of this what you will torrential form of writing All expository material is removed All indications of who is speaking and why is ejected with a clip round the earhole This stuff is for people who can cope All that plotty stuff and indentations and uotation marks are for dweebs who can t cope Gass takes no prisoners And I don t mind that too much I gave Omensetter s Luck a whole 3 starsThe strange part where it seems that the literary elite which clutches The Tunnel to its bosom should actually be throwing it up over the side of the bridge over the troubled water of bad literature is that everything you can identify as character or incident or major theme in The Tunnel is tired cliched and monotonously foghorned about like Gass thinks he has invented this stuff There s a fat white middle aged tenured professor who hates himself and his wife also fat and his kidsThere s an awful lot about the disappointment of middle age esp as regards sexHe d like to diddle his teenybop studentsHe s written a big book on the German population under the Nazis and the big issue of guilt and innocence under the Nazis is he has found ambiguous imagine thatHe is in the process of digging a literal tunnel out from the cellar in his house Like you do Which is a metaphor I guess for Gass trying desperately to find a way out of his own novelWhich for the first 200 pages is peppered with really very lame post modish typographical amusements these will make any reader of House of Leaves or The Familiar or the works of Alasdair Gray sneer mightilyOur professor bangs on forever about his midwestern childhood like about 500 other novels do that I could refer toHe is also obsessed with a previous great mentor teacher of his and bores on for pages about himAll of this is very groanworthy We ve been here before so many many times Another microscopic self flagellation by a male person revealing the true repulsiveness of male persons GreatThen there s the tone which is unremitting Our professor has woken up on the wrong side of the bed on page one and doesn t stop spraying bile and dripping venom on everybody and everything until the final page 652 How do I know this given that I ran out of puff and the will to live just before page 200 THE TUNNEL A SCIENTIFIC CORE SAMPLEI took a core sample Here are the resultsPage 99 I hate all soft pillows they close over you like soft fat wallsPage 199 It s Lacelli s strut that gets me it s his dimpled dandification I can t abidePage 299 The Fascist salute looks borrowed from one of Karl May s awful books about American Indians How and Heil are harmoniousPage 399 His accent is substandard suburban Jersey Shorish and ugly in every way but not overly voweled and wavy he does not speak to sum the situation any miserably than most nevertheless what a wop Mama mia and so what a wopPage 499 I had to lecture on the Treaty of Versailles or on some other sublime silliness of so called human society I had to listen to student excuses I had to mark exams as if I cared whether the dumb klutzes lived or diedPage 599 I hate that pork faced pictureTHE GASS OVENThe highbrow canon is full of miseryguts like Bernhardt and Theroux so Gass fits right in Some fans might say well you know this is all black humour doncha geddit It probably is but it wears you down It s the same tone of voice page after page The same guy with not a good word to say for anybody Hey Gass fans doesn t it ever wear thinBut in fact liking or disliking The Tunnel is a complicated business as is everything to do with this monstrous puthering bloviation because The Tunnel is both brilliant and awful at the same time Page by page line by line it s fabulous and loathsome Wonderful and horrible searingly intelligent beautiful and repulsive all at the same timeI found that I didn t want to stick my head in this Gass oven any so this being the first day of a new year my first resolution was to give up digging I m left with the thought heresy to Gass fans that all the time and effort Gass took on this novel was perhaps could be just maybe a hideous misuse of his brains and time in the same way that Joyce wasted his last 18 years with the unreadable Finnegans Wake FURTHER READING FOR THE CURIOUSFor a brilliant demolition of The Tunnel here s a 1995 reviewhttpsnewrepubliccomarticle14616For a great evenhanded and mostly positive Goodreads review here s this from Ian Graye

Summary The Tunnel

Writing a novel about his own life instead of the introduction to his magnum opus The Tunnel meditates on history hatred unhappiness and above all languag. Being William Kohler The Tunnel is a sort of portal through which we enter into the head of one William Frederick Kohler We poke around in his memories and his thoughts exploring all the little twists and turns of his mind The uestion of how a child goes from innocence to becoming a monster is answered through Kohler s ramblings and flashbacksBut monster is the wrong word here He never achieves anything that grand There is no murder or torture No scheme to dominate the world Nothing one could point to and say see look at this great evil He threw a brick on Kristallnacht He kills an inconvenient cat He takes advantage of his studentsNasty but his sins are small scale of the heart And author William Gass has painted with words a picture of that heart and the darkness in which it dwells Yes we dig deep into that tunnel The danger for us the reader is finding our way out again for this is an exuisitely written book Bits of poetry keep jumping out of the page the rhythm of words and sentences drawing you in circling around and around in a most hypnotizing fashion There are whole sections of The Waste Land in here transposed into Gass s own words Detail is piled on detail too Images are created that seem to be from your own memoryI read The Tunnel at the same time as Wittgenstein s Mistress and there is a similarity Both are written by lonely people shouting into their typing paper s blankness Except for their memories they are in effect all alone in the world But with The Tunnel I never doubted the presence of a human being It is ugly and beautiful It is mean It is wretched The random snatches of memories introduce us to the people who have been important in Kohler s life Wife Lovers Mentor Colleagues Parents It s all rather painful He has no kind thoughts or fond memories or sympathy for the broken people who raised him Yet even through this mess of unreliable telling our heart aches for them all For the broken dreams For the twisted minds that can t be put rightThe text is filled with wordplay limericks letters literary and historical allusions An annotated version would be helpful though probably most of these references could be picked up by any well read person At least enough to know something is going on here There is much physical inventiveness too using devices such as concrete poems bold text script crossword puzzle design running down the pagevarious fonts Illustrations Here are some examples From bits of Kohler s memory one of the people we meet is Susu So terrible yet so beautifully createdI came to hear skinny Susu sing in her low throaty Sprechstimme which was nevertheless French a song about the carrion crow It had innumerable verses and she never sang them all How her voice reached me through the noise and bulk of those bodies belly to belly like the bottles on the bar was a mystery belonging to magic than to science Her sounds were hesitant shy as though regretting they had come and hardly strong as the waitresses who dressed in costumes purportedly Bavarian elbowed everyone aside to slop down drinks Perhaps it was drawn to me as sucking insects are and became devious Certainly that song was thirsty for my blood and I never really heard any other Perhaps I shouldn t smoke so much Perhaps the roses will freeze In the camps a cigarette was often hard to come by We often smoked together you and I toes exuisitely touching once at the hips again at the elbows the smoke going off toward the ceiling in a lazy curl the way our bodies seemed to burn off after lovingSusu would sing it once every evening she would sing it with blank black doll s eyes and a fixed sad smile she wore the way she wore her clothing absently scarcely moving her mouth Her dresses were cut in a deep V like the style you see in Lautrec s posters of Yvette Guilbert Sometimes yellow mostly green they were stretched so tight across her boyish braless chest the nipples leaped out from the fabric like bumps on pebbled water The song could have come from her eyes just as well They never blinked I had a passion for that woman Immense Now I can t bear to have a table touch me In this house I avoid chairs with arms and sit in the middle of couches and then only on the yielding edge I am impressed by what the world will swallow Mouths too I must confess no longer please meSusu I love you A little like the mantis I remember since her head would swivel slowly in the hard inhuman manner of the mantis and her face was blunted at its points like a badly damaged triangle Not you Lou You stood straight yet every curve was languorous smoothly moving like a line drawn through the unobstructed space of sleep They fell when shot in all the ways open One could have made a study of such falling bodies the stance the weight the tension of the limbs the impact of the bullet I love you Susu anywaythat blank watchfulness which Susu had so much of a watchfulness a mirror s you knew there was no consciousness behind something is watching something is watchful but what At the back of Susu s eyes of course there was plenty there was Hieronymus Bosch there were diableries so my life lasts a little longer And what did I read about you Susu in those documents Susu my slender singer whom I love that you roasted the thumbs of a dozen Jews and ate them while they watched those who had not faintedWhen the smoldering Monro Cast Is under tow to New York snapped her lines and became snagged on a sand bar only a few yards off Convention Pier in Asbury Park bodies began to bob up on Asbury beaches 25 cents was charged to gaze upon the stricken ocean liner from the Hall at night people crept aboard to steal from the bodies and loot the ship hacking off fingers to get their rings while a mortician among the spectators on the pier passed out his business card Is there any way of digesting facts like this like this one as Susu digested the handy phallic thumb sticks of her Jews Why she didn t have their cocks cut I cannot imagine Wasn t that what she was up to Could she my Susu have shrunk at it Hers certainly wasn t an anti Semitic act because it violated the Nazis dietary laws Could she have sucked such thumbs without the Reich s grand plans could she have realized herself and come so splendidly upon her nature She might have sung songs all her life and fingered milkless leather dildoes who can tell Susu you at least became a true black ueen the evil you created was as close to you as you were you confronted it you took it in your mouth added it uite palpably as weight as measurable nutrition to your hard flat stomached self In fact I always wondered just how much you were a woman No A man in drag that kind of ersatz ueen would fashion for himself an ampler bosom not so ample as my wife s perhaps there is a limit What did I find to admire ever in such flaps The Germans executed my Susu themselves Neither her exemplary performance as a commandant s whore nor her sweetly twisted songs and whispered singing could save her when they found she had some gypsy in her though after her head was amputated color photographs were taken and kept as souvenirs in little folding cases covered neatly in blue cloth with a small though conventional gold decoration Sing Susu through your severed head through your severed arteries and I shall put my mouth to your lips as though you were such an instrument My breath shall reinflate your brain Susu O bag of pipes I approach you in my dreams The deeper we go into The Tunnel the disturbing it is To look through such eyes and to know that this too is what it means to be a human being

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Masterpiece The story of a middle aged professor who upon completion of his massive historical study Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany finds himself. It feels like I have been reading this for as long as Gass spent writing it it s a hefty tome and not easy to read The primary character around whom all this revolves is William Frederick Kohler I am reliably informed that in the US the word Kohler has plumbing connotations He is a middle aged history professor at a mid western university who has just completed writing his magnum opus Guilt and Innocence in Hitler s Germany He is struggling to write the introduction and reflecting on his life and marriage Kohler is trying to escape from his life and a symptom of this is the fact that he is digging a tunnel from his cellar under the yard As one reviewer says the whole is a plotless stream of notes which covers his awful childhood his deteriorating relationship with his wife his infidelities with his students politics with other lecturers and his general loneliness Embedded in it all is an undertone of vitriol and bigotry Kohler however is an eual opportunities bigot he hates everyone and adeptly insults and abuses all who are not him He doesn t like himself either It is driven by language and in some ways has a Dickensian feel only child raised in a bleak town with an alcoholic mother and a bullying father Gass could have painted the childhood he does paint at the beginning of the book to get the reader onside with Kohler and to create a sense of journey and understanding He doesn t do this he starts with the middle aged Kohler who is sex obsessed repulsive sharing some of the fascist views of those he writes about and seducing students And Gass lays it on making Kohler deliberately cartoonish in his repulsiveness There are plenty of cultural references which non Americans will probably struggle with and perhaps those who are younger A whole section on the sweets and candies of childhood would probably be a delight to readers of a certain age What there is not certainly near the beginning of the novel is interaction with other characters We spend most of the time with Kohler in his head Kohler s views on Hitler and the Nazis are also challenging Kohler believes he would have followed Hitler Kohler puts in a plea for the abuser because it s easy to be a victim He is accustomed to making off the cuff remarks that are staggering offensive such as I ve been in bedrooms as bad as Belsen Clearly untrue and just adds to the reader s picture of Kohler Kohler is an awful character routinely racist sexist and offensive A number of uestions arise Obviously one asks how much Gass identifies with his creation Gass has answered that himself To write of such a man you have to know loneliness of course but only of the kind that everyone has experienced at one time or another It s like the terrible blizzards I once put in a short story I had never experienced blizzards like that but I had experienced snow You just turn up the volume One rather clever reviewer made a comment about Gass sitting in a chair for thirty years writing a novel about a man sitting in a chair for thirty years writing a book Another uestion that occurred relates to a British sitcom of the 1960s Till Death Us Do Part written by Johnny Speight It was about an East End Londoner called Alf Garnett and his family played by Warren Mitchell Garnett was racist sexist obnoxious and anti Semitic and was meant to be so outrageous that it would be obvious that it was a satire Speight was working out his issues with his own father as Kohler was doing He was shocked when Garnett was treated as a hero who represented the feelings of many ordinary people in the US the series was redone with the main character being Archie Bunker Does Kohler feed into that sort of feeling There are certainly people around like Kohler He s not a criminal murderer or the sort of monster who populates popular fiction He is an ordinary university lecturer in an ordinary town Gass has argued that history is about values and their weighing up Gass very effectively sums up his creation and why he is as he is Kohler is a master of sophist reasoning He certainly knows right from wrong but that does not guarantee that one will make the right choices Plato said that no one would knowingly do evil I think people knowingly do evil all the time for selfishness or revenge or all sorts of reasons Evil has always given pleasure than virtue and we don t really like virtuous people there s contradiction and confusion and deliberate darkness In terms of the writing Gass produces verbal pyrotechnics on every page and it is certainly the work of a great writer There is also a good deal of truly awful poetry crude and offensive limericks particularly those about concentration camps Kohler seems to loathe women most of them but his base and inner feelings probably reflect a strain in men which insists on pursuing the illusion of youth The font changes and there are drawings and sketches and a whole variety of other stuff Given all the above what do I feel It is a great book a great literary novel I didn t love it in the same way I did Omensetter s Luck but I don t think it is a book to be loved It s not comfortable or easy The scholarship on The Tunnel makes that clear For me Gass is saying that whatever caused the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism it s still there alive in people like Kohler who just need to be led and captivated The Tunnel captures the ordinariness of human evil


About the Author: William H. Gass

William Howard Gass was an American novelist short story writer essayist critic and former philosophy professorGass was born in Fargo North Dakota Soon after his birth his family moved to Warren Ohio where he attended local schools He has described his childhood as an unhappy one with an abusive racist father and a passive alcoholic mother; critics would later cite his characters as



10 thoughts on “The Tunnel

  1. says:

    There are so many possible ways of existence “We have not lived the right life” But is there the right life to be lived? The Tunnel belongs among those books one drowns in like in the delugeThe man of action has a destiny a star he follo

  2. says:

    RING THE BELLS RING THE BELLS THE GREAT MAN IS GONE FLOAT YOUR GASS REVIEWSThe first 200 pages of this novel carry the reader aloft on flowing waves of sumptuous musical prose sentences so serpentine and silky so alliteratively slinky one’s only response is to ride these dreamy masterful currents of polished perfection with near spiritual

  3. says:

    O William GassSuch a pain in the assHis difficult proseGets right up my noseNote I've been reading this novel on off for about 6 months But not

  4. says:

    It feels like I have been reading this for as long as Gass spent writing it; it’s a hefty tome and not easy to read The primary character around whom all this revolves is William Frederick Kohler I am reliably informed that in the US the word Kohler has plumbing connotations He is a middle aged history professor at a mid western university who has just completed writing his magnum opus Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s

  5. says:

    When this book was published in 1995 by Alfred Knopf I was in the middle of deep reading on the Holocaust Many of the titles I still hold in my library I felt at the time that an inundation in this subject matter kept me from enjoying The Tunnel I was wrong about that though I am deeply thankful to MJ for jogg

  6. says:

    RIP Hamlet What have you my good friends deserv'd at the hands ofFortune that she sends you to prison hither? Guildenstern Prison my

  7. says:

    Being William Kohler The Tunnel is a sort of portal through which we enter into the head of one William Frederick Kohler We poke around in his m

  8. says:

    Our proper bliss depends on what we blameThis unhesitatingly gets the full fathom 5 star treatment because without a doubt it is an amazing work; I was amazed among a host of other emotions and the 26 years of labor Gass put into The Tunnel are apparent in every carefully wrought sentence in this monster masterpiece However it is an extremely unpleasant read perhaps the most unpleasant and disturbing read I’ve come acr

  9. says:

    The Tunnel ConceitThe tunnel is an authorial conceit on the part of William H Gass as well as his protagonist William F Ko

  10. says:

    For six hundred and fifty one pages Gass invites the reader to wade through a lifetime of memories dredged—and at times perhaps cooked—up by a caustically disillusioned and despairing professor of history at a midwest American un

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