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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: harold brodkey

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.

Harold Brodkey

Jonathan Baskin assesses Harold Brodkey in Bookforum. For however obscure Brodkey is now, I remember his Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks–the first collection and then the big one–as two books that were everpresent in the small fiction sections of suburban bookstores in the days before Borders and Barnes and Noble made extensive selection de rigeur. Then his mammoth The Runaway Soulcame out and Brodkey disappeared overnight, victim of universally bad reviews excoriating his self-indulgence and florid prose. Then a few years later I heard about him again, when he died of AIDS. Now his books are out of print, though readily available for pennies.

Random House and Penguin controlled much of the contemporary fiction that I read as a teenager, and so I read Brodkey with a mixed response. I never connected with his writing, and his story “Puberty” was outright disturbing, a vision of teenage sexuality foreign from anything I knew. The sex writing, which might constitute a good 50 percent of his verbiage, taught me little about either.

Baskin wonders if Brodkey will make a comeback. I don’t think he will. Far from “the American Proust,” Brodkey’s writing is strikingly bad, the sort of thing from which one can learn because its defects are so apparent. Of the passages Baskin quotes, it’s only the final one, reflecting on his imminent death, that carries the clarity and immediacy of good prose. The others avoid it with a secondhand narcissism that illustrates the most common fallacy of aspiring writers: that if the feeling accompanying the writing was sincere and intense, the writing must be instilled with that same significance. Writers learn to look back and see with a detached eye how they failed to communicate. Brodkey, it seems, took longer than most.

Consider (and I must quote from Baskin’s exemplary passages here, since my own Brodkey books are long gone), from “S.L.”:

The elephant-gray mass and rumble of the air, and the itchy, carpetlike closeness of Da’s heat. . . . My face snakily writhes against the fat, resilient bicep of Daddy’s arm. I am now largely on my belly in his arms. “From the backside you look just like everyone else, kiddo–you look like an asshole.” I hang, I arch–like a bowsprit–a branch of the rubbery, muscle-and-spine, oaken pounding-along tree of that man: this is in the state of Illinois, in the now quickening rain; he is running toward the gate of the park: I see the torn rooms of the out-of-doors. Dad says, “NO,” and refolds me in his arms, defining me as Error and A Fool and someone he wants bodily near him, someone whose bodily welfare concerns him: it’s interesting and I start to laugh.

Note how the prose acts as a damper on the emotions that are in play. The word “snakily” throws a wedge into its sentence, conjuring the wrong associations of the scene. Describing “closeness” as “carpetlike” is more confusing than it is enlightening. To “hang” and “arch” is to denote two separate images combined together without explanation. His fathers tree is overloaded as rubbery, muscle-and-spine, andoaken. Dad defines him in an unspecified manner as three divergent things in close succession. The narrator’s response is that he finds it “interesting” and then he laughs. Well, I suppose I often laugh at interesting things too.

“Yes,” comes the defense, “but he still communicatesa feeling.” I disagree and say that Brodkey throws out so many ambiguities that he tricks the reader into imposing conventions onto the scene. The sheer vagueness of the word “interesting” (which I, like you all, was banned from using in high school and which has taken on a wry, ironic cast as I’ve aged) leaves a blank space for readers to fill: they come up with how it was interesting, because Brodkey doesn’t tell them. No doubt Brodkey had a specific image and sensation in his mind, but his sheer failure to convey it is appalling. Brodkey worked with raw, universal material that was familiar to everyone who read him: childhood, love, sex, family. Had he written about something more particular or foreign, his books would have been blatant muddles of confusion. Yet because people can figure out something like what he was trying to say, they mistakenly credit him with having said it in a new way.

I don’t trash Brodkey out of spite or play, but to try to illuminate via negativa what writing must do and how it can fail, as well as how readers can compensate for it. (And more pertinently, why they compensate for it.) Consider in contrast Stephen Dixon, who has been working with similarly quotidian material for over thirty years. Yet where Brodkey is nebulous, Dixon has always been insistently specific, drawing every distinction and particular out of common experience. It’s not that this sort of concreteness is necessary or even desirable for the material, but even for its sheer lack of flash, Dixon’s writing is far more evocative than Brodkey’s. Brodkey treats himself far more seriously than he treats language. My opinion? To cross Yeats and Wittgenstein: In language begins responsibility.

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