“The Tunnel” is the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime. It took nearly 30 years to write, including long periods of silence and the author’s repeated decisions to abandon the work; but some of us have been peeping over William Gass’ shoulder, reading sections as they appeared in literary magazines, beginning in 1969 when a chapter called “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” appeared in the New American Review.
That piece took my breath away. The narrator, William Kohler, a professor of modern German history and specialist in the Third Reich, told us about the Midwestern town where he was born, called Grand (“simply Grand”). The beleaguered town is visited by dust-storms and swarms of grasshoppers, tornadoes and blizzards, no plague more devastating than the invasion of relatives come to celebrate a cousin’s wedding:
“Ponderous aunts and uncles, uncles lean as withered beans, aunts pale as piecrust, grandmapas with rheum and gout, cousins shrill as sirens, sounding themselves through the house like warnings of death from the air (later in London, I heard them often), cousins who scratched you under the table, all agloat cousins who told on other cousins, cousins who scooped up fistfuls of mashed potato and let it slime over their wrists; aunts who wore hats in the house, aunts who starched and ironed linens, aunts who stirred pots, flagellated rugs, opened doors for dogs, swatted flies, and reminisced fondly of death and diseases as if they were high school dances, former flames; uncles and great-uncles who, like the hoppers, spat long brown jets of chewing tobacco across the railings while they rocked; nieces and nephews, a few of those too, who peed in their pants, threw up, bawled, and beat you on the shins and ankles with alphabet blocks; relatives at every conceivable remove, but not removed, each noisily present. . . .”
The sentence swelled and flooded over three pages, a vast paragraph wave of nausea written so beautifully, so lovingly that it reads like a celebration, sweeping to such a crescendo that I couldn’t stop to savor its phrase-by-phrase marvels of sound, of metaphor, of placement, of compact description. I read it aloud to friends, to teachers, to whoever would listen. Its rhythms entered my conversational speech. As the years passed and “The Tunnel” continued to appear in the literary magazines, I came to recognize that the material was dark and difficult and that the prose was designed to render the intractability of the themes at their different levels of difficulty.
Now at last we have “The Tunnel.” For months I have been digging through it. A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4 1/2 times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book’s annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition.
For here you will see the seasons change, and when winter thaws, you will see and hear prose melt. You will sit in weeds by the banks of the Wabash and you will draw rivers in loving strokes down the body of a lost love and witness a prose that can caress as it touches the page. You will be abraded by the harshness of the narrator’s rejection of humanity and you will be drawn, miserably, into the contemplation of a consciousness that has seen the nightmares and aberrations of history not as exceptions to the human but as the ultimate expression of the human.
What is “The Tunnel” about? Where are we when we start? For convenience, I will quote from William Gass’ own description of his book. William Frederick Kohler “teaches history at a major mid-western university. He has studied in Germany during the thirties, returned with the 1st Army during the invasion as a debriefer, then as a consultant during the Nuremberg Trials. Writes a book called Nuremburg Notes. Its softness earns him some suspicion. He has been working for many years on his magnum opus: ‘Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany.’ As the novel begins, he has just concluded this book and has begun a self-congratulatory preface when he finds himself blocked and unable to continue. He finds himself writing these pages instead. Since they are exceedingly personal, and he doesn’t want his wife to see them, he hides them between the pages of ‘Guilt and Innocence,’ since he knows she will never read them.”
For 30 years, Gass has been living inside Kohler; it must have been like inhabiting a small apartment in hell. At one point Gass wanted the book jacket designed without any author’s name. What you were to be holding in your hands was, presumably, the tunnel itself, a burrowing into blackness. Physically, Kohler is fat, as big as Hermann Goering, big as his book, big as the tunnel he is digging under his house to escape his life. The tunnel is Kohler-shaped, an emptiness stretched to re-womb and/or bury him. Kohler presents himself as spiteful and abusive, vicious and bigoted (he’s being euphemistic: I’d say genocidal).
Why should we want to spend time in such a frightening, awful presence?
Come on, you’re kidding. Does this question need to be answered? At this hour of the world? Have you read Dostoevsky? Shakespeare? Actually, though, the question is interesting, because unlike the great monsters of literature--Garcia Marquez’s dictators, Rabelais’ giants--Kohler is powerless, pathetic and pitiable. Our terror in reading is at finding how many places he seems to be like us. Toward the end of the novel, when you read Kohler’s lecture, “Being a Bigot,” you’ll feel, at first, an easy superiority. You snicker with condescension. Then you hear Kohler saying things that people around you say every day--when their cars are broken into, when a proselytizer rings the doorbell with some pamphlets. The problem with the character is not that he is a monster; the problem is that the monster has taken recognizable human form. Ordinary people feel their disappointments with burning resentment everyday. Ordinary people think of hitting their children; some ordinary people do. The monstrous is all around us. We feel comfortable blaming a Hitler, but in this book Hitler is just a spark that sets resentment ablaze.
The ancestor authors for this book are Flaubert, Rilke and Joyce. Flaubert because he describes with loving, careful relish the bourgeois life which, as we know from his letters, he ardently deplored. Rilke because of the ambience of pure loss in his poetry and prose, and because of his decision to find a way to praise poverty and desolation, a level of praise that turns his writing into a spiritual project. Joyce because of his systems and his archeology of minutiae--newspapers and garbage floating in the Liffey, making complete itineraries that Joyce chooses to keep track of--and, most crucially, his aesthetic decision to leave the author out of the novel, lounging indifferently above, paring his fingernails. These three are the most passionately human writers of modern literature, but they have come to suspect that something is encroaching on, is infecting, what was previously considered human. In “The Tunnel” that infection has become an epidemic.
So, instead of writing his preface, Kohler begins to dream and doodle. He writes about his childhood, his years as a student in Germany, his time in the army, his marriage, his most memorable infidelity, his greatest love, his uncircumcised and small penis, his love of sweets. He writes about his alcoholic mother; his demanding, unsatisfiable, bigoted father; his passionate, word-drunk teacher-mentor in Germany; his pack-rat maiden aunt under whose bed he remembers finding dozens of empty boxes nesting inside one another, box upon box.
Itemizations, listings of all kinds are clearly essential to the book. Because Kohler studies genocide, he knows that anything not individualized becomes a part of the mass--and masses are murdered or forgotten. History is, to certain eyes, the story of mass uprisings; to other eyes it is the story of the doings of the great. His obsession to list innumerable details is linked with a desire to rescue the individual from the giant mouth of the great death pit, symbolized by the mass burials in the camps over the Polish border.
When Kohler left Grand, he fled from family, “nervous; bent; randy and dissatisfied; vexed; so much so I removed my person from my cousin’s wedding celebration (for which I’d bought a new blue suit), and amid hostile uncomprehending faces, angry arguments and explanations, coupled myself to one of those trains like a car crammed with refugees, and had myself drawn away toward history and other desperations.” He flees to Germany, where he studies history.
Upon his return, he settles, with a degree, a teaching appointment and a wife, into his “life in a chair” (we are made to remember that the French word chair means flesh ). He has two children, one of whom he can’t bring himself to call by name (the careful reader will intuit that this child bears the name Adolf), a no longer desirable wife, unbearable colleagues and affairs real, imagined and remembered with girls whose names all rhyme: Lou, Rue and Susu. (The still more careful reader will come to be aware that when he hears that “ooh” sound, there is some unsatisfying sexual spending going on in the vicinity, as in that “new blue suit” above.)
Kohler writes about his colleagues in the history department, four ludicrous professors, none more or less ludicrous and pathetic than Kohler is himself. We hear their insane quarrels about the nature of history, and as their views of history begin to coincide with their family situations we discover the next link in the long chain of substitution that binds this book: Kohler sees in his family and its quarrels and secrecies the needs of a secretly rising party--the Party of the disappointed People.
For it is “the fascism of the heart” that is the subject of this book. The Third Reich is seen as the active uprising of the passive attitudes and emotions. What are they? Envy, Spite, Secretiveness, Resentment, Bigotry, Long-suffering, Frigidity, Niggardliness, Malice, Sullenness, Churlishness, Hypocrisy, Self-pity, Vindictiveness, Pettiness, Procrastination, Sloth and Jealousy. They are immortalized right in the front of the book, on multicolored pennants (penance?), seen as soon as the title page is flipped. These are the repressed and emerging emotions of the Party of the disappointed People (PdP), Gass’ vision of a new Nazi Party in the process of coalescing, until, one day, led by a Fuhrer, the disappointed people will rise. (We are told that America will not have a Fuhrer. The first dictator of America will be called Coach.)
Resentment brings the party into being: “Bad luck alone does not embitter us that badly . . . nor does the feeling that our affairs might have been better managed move us out of range of ordinary disappointment; it is when we recognize that the loss has been caused in great part by others; that it needn’t have happened; that there is an enemy out there who has stolen our loaf, soured our wine, infected our book of splendid verse with filthy rhymes; then we are filled with resentment and would hang the villains from that bough we would have lounged in liquorous love beneath had the tree not been cut down by greedy and dim-witted loggers in the pay of the lumber interests. Watch out, then, watch out for us, be on your guard, look sharp, both ways, when we learn--we, in any numbers--when we find who is forcing us--wife, children, Commies, fat cats, Jews--to give up life in order to survive. It is this condition in men that makes them ideal candidates for the Party of the disappointed People.”
The tunnel begins to form itself inside Kohler. His past--down to the nonexistence of Santy Claus, down to a disappointing birthday party, an unhappy fumble with a cousin in a car--his past is an assemblage of rejections, betrayals and unpleasant surprises that reflect an inability to accept the nature of life itself. Life is an aggregate of unkept promises, but in his obsession with everyday disappointments, Kohler hollows out the core of life, tunneling deeper and evacuating the content. The book likens his process to a difficult bowel movement.
Kohler imagines himself the possible leader of the potential PdP, and his manuscript is strewn with sample slogans, proclamations and doodles, designs for banners and uniforms, terrifying swastika-like symbols. As he empties himself of his life, he digs (in fact? in metaphor?) a tunnel through the cellar floor, an escape route, whose entrance he hides beneath an abandoned furnace. He hides the dirt from his dig in the drawers of his wife’s cumbersome Victorian dressers and armoires. (“I don’t want your dirt in my drawers, any more than I want your ideas in my head,” says his wife with apparent calm.)
If you sit down to read “The Tunnel,” really read it, you can not help but come away altered. Not because the world it describes is imaginary, but rather because in “The Tunnel” states of reality are multiple and simultaneous. How literature does this is a question of style. Imagine meeting yourself as a fatso in a Dickens novel, now you are abject in a Raymond Carver story, now obsessed and lurid in a case study by Freud, and now, barely there, you’re abstracted by Plato. Do you still know who you are? William Gass can give us a Raymond Carver character as analyzed by Freud blown up into a balloon by Dickens’ caricaturing style--and give us a Platonic theory of identity as an encore. Can Gass still be himself? I would recognize a page of William Gass anywhere.
There is another, related, paradox: What is outside us as reality and what is inside us as perception do not match. In Gass’ novel, the world is observed, internalized as thought and then externalized as language. This amounts to three worlds simultaneously rendered: the world as it would exist if it could exist without us, the world as taken into the mind’s convoluted darkness, and then the world blended with our thoughts about it and alchemized in language. The book consists of worded thoughts, the silent mind given language and exteriorized on the page--exteriorized interiority.
Gass describes reality as being like a fly that is caught in three different webs at the same time. Kohler has evacuated himself in word, thought and deed. He has performed the most rigorously fearless moral inventory in all of literature. This is the ennobling or elevating aspect of this tunnel to hell. At the end of the book, Kohler’s manuscript lies on his desk, covered with earth and dirt, and he is ready to die, or abide, or mourn: “Meanwhile carry on without complaining. No arm with armband raised on high. No more booming bands, no searchlit skies. Or shall I, like the rivers, rise? Ah. Well. Is rising wise? Revolver like the Fuhrer near an ear. Or lay my mind down by sorrow’s side.”
This masterpiece, which begins with the information that “the descent to hell is the same from every place,” ends elsewhere. Kohler, brutally honest, cannot say where he is now, but I am reminded of the great final paragraph of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities":
“The Inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space.”
Where to Begin Tunneling
When Joyce’s “Ulysses” came out, helpful critics recommended passages that nervous readers might begin on (this often amounted to a list of the “dirty parts”). In Randall Jarrell’s essays the grateful reader finds lists of the most nearly perfect poems by Robert Frost, or the best stories by Chekhov or Kipling. In similar manner, I want to offer a list of sections of “The Tunnel” that will give an interested but timid reader an experience of the rapture I find in this book: We Have Not Lived the Right Life (pp. 96-146), The Sunday Drive (pp. 219-236), A Fugue (pp. 239-240), Kristallnacht (pp. 317-334), The First Winter of My Married Life (pp. 334-356), Child Abuse (pp. 375-379), Around the House (pp. 437-475), Being a Bigot (pp. 522-533), Do Rivers (pp. 554-563), Sweets (pp. 564-583), Aunts (pp. 583-603), Mother Bakes a Cake (pp. 603-615).