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.