David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Birthday Notes on William Gass and The Tunnel

The original and best cover of The Tunnel.

Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William Gass got me to thinking back on The Tunnel, which I read at a fairly formative time in my life. (Also at a time of total psychic collapse, for which it turned out to be the perfect companion.)

I had already loved In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I had been introduced to Gass through John Gardner’s repeated recommendations, and Gardner’s professions of Gass’s utter superiority to Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, and pretty much every other mid-century American writer made me feel obligated to track down Omensetter’s Luck, then out of print, and read it.

The Tunnel came out shortly after that, and having not known the history of its long genesis, and not knowing too much of Gass’s quasi-Wittgensteinian ideas about fiction and language (Gardner had mentioned them only to say that Gass’s actual fiction belied his theories), I had no idea what it was going to contain. And, well, it was different.

The book didn’t make much of a splash at the time. I got the sense that it was lumped in with Harold Brodkey’s wretched The Runaway Soul and perhaps even Pynchon’s fine Mason and Dixon as long-awaited Big Books that didn’t meet expectations.

Don DeLillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in contrast, exploded into big events. Both certainly had a certain knowing hipness that was lacking in Pynchon, Brodkey, and Gass. (Pynchon might have had it had he not chosen to write about the 19th century.) But of those five books, there’s no question to me that Gass’s is by far the greatest.

It still retains a devoted set of fans (Stephen Schenkenberg has a representative enthusiasm) and detractors. Stochatic Bookmark’s expression of utter annoyance is a very legitimate response to The Tunnel. There is much in it that is intentionally and unintentionally off-putting. And the book’s hidden organizational structure, which Gass has only mentioned after the fact, is exceedingly abstruse.

In the best essay in Dalkey’s online casebook, Melanie Eckford-Prossor says the irony and metafictional gimmicks make the novel ethically repugnant. This is probably a compelling conclusion unless you see the novel as utterly pessimistic, which I did, in which case the mixture of moral and textual relativism with incessant brutality on all levels has a grim, forceful honesty to it.

But Schenkenberg quotes Robert Kelly’s review, which I still think was about the only thoughtful thing written about The Tunnel when it was published. Kelly is far from adulatory, but he took the novel very seriously and did not stop at surfaces. It was also well-written, one of the best reviews I read in the New York Times Book Review.

So I quote the parts that still resonate for me, even if I don’t agree with them:

“The Tunnel” is maddening, enthralling, appalling, coarse, romantic, sprawling, bawling. It is driven by language and all the gloriously phony precisions the dictionary makes available. It is not a nice book. It will have enemies, and I am not sure after one reading (forgive me, it’s a big book) that I am not one of them. Let me tell you what I can.

There was a little boy, an only child, raised in a bleak Midwestern town by an alcoholic mother and a verbally brutal father. It would not take a Dickens to borrow the reader’s sympathy and show us the little boy’s suffering, his slow escape from that abusive milieu, and to delicately sketch the paths of liberty the boy might find, or the hopeless mire into which he might, reader sighing, fall back.

But that is not William Gass’s way. Instead, he leaps ahead half a century and gives us the sex-besotted, verbally brutal professor the boy becomes, a gross character with fascist views and a taste for sly affairs with his students. He gives us the thick of the man, the dirt to tunnel through. To get, if we get, at last to the truth of him. In fact, it is not till more than 600 pages into the book that we learn anything like the full particulars of the boy’s youth. And when we get there, it is only to doubt that history is any more meaningful when it reveals origins than when it displays the blood and ordure of results.

But here the typographical games seem (unlike those in the novella) playful rather than evocative. And while Mr. Gass uses some devices Georges Perec or Harry Mathews might wield as strategies of composition, or grids of meaning, here the devices seem decorative, not so much claims on the reader’s puzzle-solving faculties as rewards to the writer for going on, allowing himself some smutty doggerel after a night’s hard noveling. [I strongly disagree.]

For the first few hundred pages not one of the few characters says anything at all except about the narrator. They have no selves except what they say about Willie young or old. The narrator has engulfed their reality, made their words his own. [I strongly agree.]

But when in the course of his endless bitter reflections on his failed marriage, Kohler exclaims “I’ve been in bedrooms as bad as Belsen,” we recognize only iniquitous nonsense. There is no bedroom as bad as Belsen, and to say so is to signal that you do not know what Belsen is.

While it is impressive that a novelist can pull off the tricks of creating such a sexist, bigoted, hate-filled character and of making the reader accept his vision of the real, there is a risk, one that every satirist takes. The risk is being believed, taken literally. To this day, we tend to think Jonathan Swift loathed humankind on the strength of Gulliver’s aversion. William Gass takes the risk, and it is no small achievement to make us take our bearings from Swift and Wyndham Lewis and those magniloquent sourpusses Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Samuel Beckett, ghosts who seem to hover, as James Joyce does too, over this novel. But it is not much comfort to lay aside this infuriating and offensive masterpiece and call it a satire, as if a genre could heal the wounds it so delights to display. It will be years before we know what to make of it.

That bit 600 pages in, the birthday party scene, is one of the most conventionally appealing (if pathetic) sections of the novel. It is held back for a very good reason. It’s only by being placed at that very late point that such a sympathetic story can register as an indictment rather than as a comforting avowal of humanity. That questioning of what we take to be our most human qualities is one of the core strengths of The Tunnel: trying to figure out what evil there is lurking in the good.

Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule and American Democracy

I criticized Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven for reductionism, and in turn commenter Tocqueville criticizes me for reductionism. I think in the reductionism sweepstakes, it’s hard to beat a line like this:

The growing tolerance of profanity, sexual display, pornography, drugs, and homosexuality seemed to indicate a general collapse of common decency.

Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven

By the seventh or eighth time Lasch lists his grab-bag of decadent bugaboos, he really pushes credibility. For comparison, Lasch only mentions Vietnam about three times in the entirety of Heaven, which is fairly ridiculous for a book claiming to explain American culture during the 60s and 70s.

For a better, less-blinkered look at the 60s, the times which caused Lasch so much heartbreak, consider Morris Dickstein‘s Gates of Eden, which is ambivalent toward the movements of those times, but acknowledges their partial strengths and, more importantly, the logic of their evolution and collapse.

And for a better history of democracy and class in America, consider Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy, which addresses many of Lasch’s points in far more nuanced fashion.

Comparing the annotated bibliography’s of Wiebe and Lasch’s books is instructive. While Wiebe lists dozens if not hundreds of works of history and documentary, Lasch tends to focus on theoretical and ideological work. There are a couple exceptions, such as Lasch’s detailed list of works on 19th century populism and syndicalism. These were his areas of expertise in his younger years, and indeed he displays a far richer understanding of them than of the FDR and LBJ eras.

As one barometer, while Wiebe has read Lasch, Lasch has not read Wiebe, whose The Search for Order was already considered a classic at the time Lasch wrote Heaven. Lasch preferred to stick to Carlyle and Emerson, despite their being absurd elitists themselves.

Wiebe, in contrast, has comprehensively studied the entirety of American history in reasonably rigorous fashion, and it shows. Even when his conclusions are debatable, they do not seem to have arisen out of abiding prejudice.

Wiebe’s central thesis, like Lasch, revolves around the loss of popular involvement in American democracy, but Wiebe doesn’t blame it on the hippies and feminists. For Wiebe, Lasch’s beloved populists and syndicalists represented a dying breath rather than an invigoration. Wiebe points to the period of 1890 to 1920 as one in which the “people” started to drop out of democracy. During this time, he claims, the two-class system of enfranchised white men and the disenfranchised everyone else gave way to a three-class system of national elites, the local middle-class, and the lower class.

The history of the 20th century becomes the history of the first two of those new classes coming into increasing conflict while both ignored the lower class.

What emerged with industrialization in the United States was a three-class system, conflictual but not revolutionary: one class geared to national institutions and policies, one dominating local affairs, and one sunk beneath both of those in the least rewarding jobs and least stable environments–in the terminology of my account, a national class, a local middle class, and a lower class. New hierarchies ordered relations inside both the national and lower middle class; both of those classes, in turn, counted on hierarchies to control the lower class.

Like Lasch, Wiebe bemoans the national elites trying to assist the lower class without bothering to raise their civic awareness or solicit their votes, but Wiebe’s point is that this technocratic policy machine was in place long before the dirty hippies and the Warren Court showed up.

Turn of the century labor and suffragette movements fought for increasing political influence while tacitly accepting the emerging class divisions. The sheer homogeneity of white men and their nepotistic political clubs had helped form an egalitarian, populist sensibility amongst them that necessarily could not survive the enfranchisement of minorities and women. Wiebe of course has no nostalgia for those days, but he identifies in them a sense of white men’s investment in civics that has never been restored to the American people since.

Further fissures emerged around the time of the Great War. Popular support for the war convinced many intellectuals and policymakers that the “people” could not be trusted to act on their own behalf, and so they embraced a more centralized technocratic regime. By the time of FDR, Wiebe can point to a figure like government antitrust lawyer Thurman Arnold, whose Folklore of American Capitalism (1937) “derisively dismissed the very thought of popular rule.”

This system held stable to a point, but with the increasingly liberalized, top-down stance of the national class (at least domestically) and the increasingly visible consequences of those policies, the conservative local middle class grew antsy and alienated, leading to “Reagan Democrats” and the eventual reactionary shifts that then followed.

I think Wiebe underestimates the mostly unfortunate role that the media played in controlling the discourse from the late 70s onward, but his point that neither the local middle class nor the national class could claim popular legitimacy is well-taken, and it continues to be a genuinely serious problem for any national progressivism. This of course is Lasch’s point too, but Wiebe shows that Lasch has completely mistaken its origins.

The book turns more speculative at its end, where Wiebe prescribes a loose, multi-level communitarianism as a panacea for Americans’ alienation from their government. Far less draconian than the visions of Alastair MacIntyre or even Michael Sandel, his vision is a bit too diffuse to be convincing, as though the depths of the difficulties and conflicts he has just chronicled have overwhelmed him, a sign that he realizes that things have become too complicated and huge to make the reinclusion of the lower classes an easy thing. But I take this ultimately to be a sign of the strength of his historical account.

Christopher Lasch on Raising Children

Christopher Lasch was a confused and confusing cultural and political thinker, and The True and Only Heaven (1978) is not a good book, full of misappropriated intellectual ideas used in service of a fairly reductive and conservative attack on progressive thinking and cultural politics. (Albert Hirschman’s three reactionary tropes of perversity, futility, and jeopardy are on display throughout.) Lasch’s wide intellectual canvas, which incorporates Blumenberg and Löwith as well as Carlyle and Sorel, makes his simplistic agenda all the more regrettable.

But the introduction, which gives the personal background for how he came to such grouchy views, is rather touching and worth reading.

Like so many of those born in the Depression, my wife and I married early, with the intention of raising a large family. We were part of the postwar “retreat to domesticity,” as it is so glibly referred to today. No doubt we hoped to find some kind of shelter in the midst of general insecurity, but this formulation hardly does justice to our hopes and expectations, which included much more than refuge from the never-ending international emergency.

In a world dominated by suspicion and mistrust, a renewal of the capacity for loyalty and devotion had to begin, it seemed, at the most elementary level, with families and friends. My generation invested personal relations with an intensity they could hardly support, as it turned out; but our passionate interest in each other’s lives cannot very well be described as a form of emotional retreat. We tried to re-create in the circle of our friends the intensity of a common purpose, which could no longer be found in politics or the workplace.

We wanted our children to grow up in a kind of extended family, or at least with an abundance of “significant others.” A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing children and adults— that was our idea of a well-ordered household and more specifically of a well-ordered education.

We had no great confidence in the schools; we knew that if our children were to acquire any of the things we set store by—joy in learning, eagerness for experience, the capacity for love and friendship—they would have to learn the better part of it at home. For that very reason, however, home was not to be thought of simply as the “nuclear family.” Its hospitality would have to extend far and wide, stretching its emotional resources to the limit.

Our failure to educate them for success was the one way in which we did not fail them—our one unambiguous success. Not that this was deliberate either; it was only gradually that it became clear to me that none of my own children, having been raised not for upward mobility but for honest work, could reasonably hope for any conventional kind of success.

The “best and brightest” were those who knew how to exploit institutions for their own advantage and to make exceptions for themselves instead of playing by the rules. Raw ambition counted more heavily, in the distribution of worldly rewards, than devoted service to a calling—an old story, perhaps, except that now it was complicated by the further consideration that most of the available jobs and careers did not inspire devoted service in the first place.

Diplomacy, really? That makes me smile.

And yet from this he drew the wrong lesson, blaming the failure of his children to integrate themselves into the world successfully (he says as much) on changing social mores, rather than on the “old story” he even cites above. He dismissively says:

Liberalism now meant sexual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights; denunciation of the family as the seat of all oppression; denunciation of “patriarchy”; denunciation of “working-class authoritarianism.”

Well, as someone who believes in some of the above, I can say that the sort of “extended family” he cites is not incompatible with them. But perhaps he saw his children rebelling and couldn’t distinguish the youthful urge to reject everything from the necessary push for social justice at the same time. It was probably something that was difficult to assess while it was going on. But it’s been 50 years and I think we can separate out what is and is not compatible with his happy vision above.

Franzen Again

The New York Times wouldn’t print Birdwatching is an Alternative to Love, but they did print a shorter response to Jonathan Franzen’s op-ed bemoaning the loss of love and pain in the modern world of gadgets:

Technology and Love

To the Editor:

I am puzzled by Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (Op-Ed, May 29).

I am significantly younger than Mr. Franzen and so experienced very little of the vibrant pre-technological world of love and pain he describes before the onslaught of the Internet.

In searching for archaeological evidence of this now-lost world, I expected older American literature to be chock-full of the Sturm und Drang whose loss he bemoans.

Yet in reading John Cheever and John Updike and Joseph Heller and Richard Yates and Raymond Carver and Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos and Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, I saw the same repressed, numbing malaise of “liking” Mr. Franzen bemoans, frequently portrayed in more acute terms than in any of Mr. Franzen’s novels.

Shouldn’t contemporary writing reflect a far more loveless and lifeless and superficial world than those books written before the age of the BlackBerry, when such distractions from love and pain were not available? It frightens me to think that techno-consumerism may not be the key nefarious influence at work, and that therefore bird-watching may not be the solution.

Brooklyn, June 1, 2011


And now back to the embargo on Franzen over here.

Mark Twain’s Cynicism and That Last Part of Huck Finn

When I was in high school, I read Huck Finn, and like so many others, I thought the book fell into a hole for its last third, when the Jim-Huck adventures end and Tom Sawyer takes over with some juvenile antics. I had recently read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and so I recall thinking and saying that even the first two-thirds of Huck Finn weren’t as good as Invisible Man (either as a treatment of race or as literature period; I still rate Invisible Man higher!).

But still, the last third of Huck Finn was bafflingly bad compared to what went before. I know that a long time had elapsed before Twain had written that last third, but that didn’t seem to explain the drastic shift in tone and content. As Thomas Powers says in Incandescent Memory:

The last third of Huckleberry Finn is stage-managed for laughs by Tom Sawyer, dropped into the story by authorial fiat. Tom masterminds Jim’s escape from the Phelps plantation according to all the ‘best authorities’ of boys’ literature. Any evening after dark Jim might have walked out of the cabin where he was being held prisoner, but no, Tom insists they must dig him out, and secret letters must be written, and Jim the lonely prisoner must be friends with spiders and snakes, and a whole lot of other nonsensical stuff which we may as well concede is funny in its way and funny to a point. But it is no longer Huckleberry Finn; it is no longer an unflinching tale of the cruelty and wrong of human bondage.

Except it is. It took me many years to go back and reread it because I drifted toward European literature and resided there for quite a while, but when I did, Huck Finn read a bit differently than it had when I was 15. Tom Sawyer becomes the cruel master in a pantomime of slavery and exploitation. Here’s a passage from when Tom is working out a coat of arms and inscription for “Jim the lonely prisoner”:

Tom’d got all that coat of arms business fixed, so now he started in to finish up the rest of that part of the work, which was to plan out a mournful inscription — said Jim got to have one, like they all done. He made up a lot, and wrote them out on a paper, and read them off, so:

1. Here a captive heart busted.
2. Here a poor prisoner, forsook by the world and friends,
fretted out his sorrowful life.
3. Here a lonely heart broke, and a worn spirit went to
its rest, after thirty-seven years of solitary captivity.
4. Here, homeless and friendless, after thirty-seven years
of bitter captivity, perished a noble stranger, natural son of
Louis XIV.

Tom’s voice trembled whilst he was reading them, and he most broke down. When he got done he couldn’t no way make up his mind which one for Jim to scrabble on to the wall, they was all so good; but at last he allowed he would let him scrabble them all on. Jim said it would take him a year to scrabble such a lot of truck on to the logs with a nail, and he didn’t know how to make letters, besides; but Tom said he would block them out for him, and then he wouldn’t have nothing to do but just follow the lines. Then pretty soon he says:

“Come to think, the logs ain’t a-going to do; they don’t have log walls in a dungeon: we got to dig the inscriptions into a rock. We’ll fetch a rock.”

Jim said the rock was worse than the logs; he said it would take him such a pison long time to dig them into a rock he wouldn’t ever get out. But Tom said he would let me help him do it. Then he took a look to see how me and Jim was getting along with the pens.

This is a sick variation on Tom Sawyer’s bad boy antics from the earlier book. He gives Jim what is tantamount to slave labor, and then allows the inefficacious Huck to “help” Jim with it. He has more sympathy for his imagined royal prisoner in his fantasy than for Jim. Tom here is a shallow privileged brat who treats slaves like his own private playthings.

Huck, for his part, quietly goes along with all of Tom’s maneuvers, having lost whatever self-respect and moral uprightness he might have gained earlier in the book. What is life and death to Jim is fanciful, unreal fun and games to Tom.

An ensuing scene in which Tom tries to sell Jim on “making friends” with a rattlesnake is even more disturbing:

Tom: “Yes — easy enough. Every animal is grateful for kindness and petting, and they wouldn’t think of hurting a person that pets them. Any book will tell you that. You try — that’s all I ask; just try for two or three days. Why, you can get him so in a little while that he’ll love you; and sleep with you; and won’t stay away from you a minute; and will let you wrap him round your neck and put his head in your mouth.”

Jim: “Please, Mars Tom — doan’ talk so! I can’t stan’ it! He’d let me shove his head in my mouf — fer a favor, hain’t it? I lay he’d wait a pow’ful long time ‘fo’ I ast him. En mo’ en dat, I doan’ want him to sleep wid me.”

“Jim, don’t act so foolish. A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t ever been tried, why, there’s more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it than any other way you could ever think of to save your life.”

“Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no sich glory. Snake take ‘n bite Jim’s chin off, den whah is de glory? No, sah, I doan’ want no sich doin’s.”

“Blame it, can’t you try? I only want you to try — you needn’t keep it up if it don’t work.”

Tom condescends to Jim and is disbelieving at Jim’s lack of gratitude. “Can’t you try?” he says, patronizingly. He also has Jim dress up as a woman in order to escape, in case the humiliation wasn’t already apparent enough. And Jim calls him “Mars Tom” the whole way through.

The heartwarming friendship between Jim and Huck looks awfully hollow by this point. Tom, of course, proves utterly useless during the real escape from the angry mob, when Huck finally has latitude to act on Jim’s behalf once again. Seen in this light, the end is a lot closer to ghastly works like The Mysterious Stranger, in which Twain abandoned all hope for humanity and virtue.

The Mysterious Stranger was adapted rather too closely in The Adventures of Mark Twain, which I’m really glad I missed as a kid (“What’s your name?” “Satan.”):

Returning to Huck Finn: I didn’t realize any of the implications of the last part in high school. I was young and naive. I wish someone had told me. Now it seems obvious.

Update: I have to add this even more grotesque display of Tom’s callousness, when he tells Jim to play music for the rats in his cell and Jim says he doesn’t think the rats will be interested:

They don’t care what kind of music ’tis. A jews-harp’s plenty good enough for a rat. All animals like music — in a prison they dote on it. Specially, painful music; and you can’t get no other kind out of a jews-harp. It always interests them; they come out to see what’s the matter with you. Yes, you’re all right; you’re fixed very well. You want to set on your bed nights before you go to sleep, and early in the mornings, and play your jews-harp; play ‘The Last Link is Broken’ — that’s the thing that ‘ll scoop a rat quicker ‘n anything else; and when you’ve played about two minutes you’ll see all the rats, and the snakes, and spiders, and things begin to feel worried about you, and come. And they’ll just fairly swarm over you, and have a noble good time.”

Yes, dey will, I reck’n, Mars Tom, but what kine er time is Jim havin’? Blest if I kin see de pint. But I’ll do it ef I got to. I reck’n I better keep de animals satisfied, en not have no trouble in de house.”


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