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VINE VOICEon April 30, 2004
If I were to tell the protagonist from The Tunnel that I had issues with his book, he'd probably just wave me sideways towards the Party for Disappointed People. Get in line, he'd sigh. Life is disappointing.

I liked the conceit of the Party for Disappointed People. I liked many of the one liners. I admired Gass' writing ability. Mostly I admired the project even if I confess that I couldn't like the book.

652 pages of dense (often unreadable) prose with a grotty poorly-endowed main character who has affairs with his students, kills his wife's cat and generally feels sorry for himself. Whoosh. It took me weeks to read, and *nothing* takes me weeks to read. I genuinely tried to follow everything in the book, but I have to confess that my grasp of his German experiences is spotty and I never really got Susu. The clearest and most readable bit was the bitchy backbiting about his colleagues in the department where he teaches. That was at least funny.

Generally, I felt like it tried way too hard to be a huge sprawling classic. I agreed with much of what it said about history and how you approach it-- again, the project is what I admired. Maybe I just couldn't feel too much for a book that seems to reject any ability to feel joy or to be anything except disappointed. I mean I *love* Beckett, but Gass isn't Beckett and I never got the feeling that he earned all that bitterness. Kohler isn't sympathetic either as a hero or as an anti-hero and while I guess that's part of the point, I didn't find that I admired the point.

Maybe I'm just not literary enough. Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky. Anything is possible. Read it yourself and see.
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on July 27, 2008
Loopy work of genius, or insane self-indulgence? I went back and forth in my opinion whilst reading this book, but ultimately, I think the only reasonable answer is "why not both?" Unfortunately, I think we can also add "catastrophic artistic failure" to the list.

On a sentence-by-sentence level, Gass's writing is absolutely dazzling, it's true. That should not be understated, because it's what redeems the book, if you think it's redeemable. One might politely question whether it was actually worth spending thirty years to write, but it's obvious where all that time went. The frequent tyographical tricks are perhaps less groundbreaking than Gass thinks they are, but they're amusing enough, and they certainly don't detract from the work. For a pure aesthete, therefore, this novel--or, perhaps, "novel"--may be just the thing. Furthermore, some of the vignettes, particularly those concerning Kohler's childhood, are fairly arresting. In particular, the section towards the end which tells of his mother's alcohol-related institutionalization is repellant but quite arresting. So while I don't want to understate the things that The Tunnel does well, I cannot help but feel that when examined holistically, things fall apart a bit. A big bit.

Kohler, the narrator, is a repulsive figure. I think few would attempt to argue otherwise. His endless, resentful self-pity--I hate my colleagues; I hate my wife; I hate my parents; I hate my children; I don't get the respect I deserve just because I'm a Nazi sympathizer and possibly also because I abuse my power to seduce my students--is enough, truly, to wear a man down. Even if some of his complaints (not the last one) may have some legitimacy (and given what a wildly unreliable narrator he is, this is by no means certain) his inability to let ANYTHING go, EVER, is not itself a particularly attractive trait. Occasionally a tiny sliver of humanity may slip through, but it is quite overwhelmed by the ever-present darkness.

So why, one might ask, are we subjected to six hundred fifty pages of EVERY SINGLE DAMN THING that goes through this man's head? Is this not a deeply perverse exercise? Gass has stated that the book is meant to serve as "a progessive indictment of the reader;" that he "want[s] to get the reader to say yes to Kohler, although Kohler is a monster. That means that every reader in that moment has admitted to monstrousness." Very well: but does he actually achieve this effect? I'm not trying to sound self-righteous, but I think that I personally must remain unindicted here. The only times it's possible not to object to Kohler is on those uncommon occasions when he's not being objectionable--and that doesn't seem like much of a feat on the author's part. As for Kohler's bitterness, his hated of everything around him, his self-identification with the Nazis: no. No, not at all. His explanations of bigotry and his rationale for the Party of Disappointed People (which is to consist primarily of bigots) are unconvincing. The point that people behave as monsters because of comprehensible socioeconomic disappointments is so obvious as to go unsaid; that doesn't mean that one has to identify with them or accept what they do. It's not a matter of not wanting to be the kind of person to whom this stuff appeals; it's a matter of it simply NOT APPEALING, and I would be a little nervous to meet someone to whom it did. You know what novel succeeded in implicating the reader--or this reader, at any rate--by making him say yes to a monster? Lolita. So it can be done. Gass just hasn't done it.

So what's left? All we really have is pages and pages of an unpleasant individual expounding upon his unpleasant life and his unpleasant philosophy. Yes, there are dirty limericks aplenty--always a plus--but most of them scan quite poorly and/or try to use the same words twice for the rhymes, so even that's a letdown. The book is impressive as a character portrait, granted, but is it really useful or informative or edifying or ANYTHING to force readers to spend so much time with this guy? Is this really the reason why people love the book so? Really? Please, someone kindly tell me: if not that, then what purpose does all of this serve? It's not a rhetorical question; I would be much obliged if somebody would enlighten me. Most of the glowing reviews seem extremely vague on exactly what, in their view, makes this a great book.

Again, I want to emphasize: the writing on display here is amazing, and it's enough to render the book at least somewhat readable. For that reason, and because there's really nothing else like it, it might be worth a go. It's certainly memorable; I hope, however, that, if completed (write faster! You're eighty-four years old!), the legendary Middle C has more to offer the reader than occasional bleak aestheticism.
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on October 8, 1996
The premise of the Tunnel is quite intriguing. It is is book
that deceives, that doesn't even show you the truth obliquely, as
Emily Dickinson put it, but instead gives you its mutilated remains
and asks you to play coroner. It is a difficult read, and requires
that you suspend your expectations for coherence, succinctness, logical
narrative flow, and even consistency in font and formatting.
In exchange, you get plugged into the raw static of a tortured mind.
Is it innovative? Definitely. Is it successful? Sometimes.
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on March 24, 2015
Jesus. Christ. This a nightmare. A gorgeous, linguistically breath-taking masterwork 26 years in the making, but a nightmare none the less. William Frederich Kholer, who might or might not be a proxy for Gass himself, just vomits hate at EVERYTHING. His placid, academic life, his miserable midwestern childhood, his straight-out-of-a-nightmare parents, his feckless colleagues, his wife, his kids, his students his culture, his age, and above all, himself.

And yet the whole thing is told in a crazed first person voice that moves with hypnotic virtuosity between flashbacks of domestic life, bitter childhood reminiscences and that is shot through with rants, screeds, dirty limericks, experimental typesetting and word play so acidic and so funny that I actually found myself laughing out loud at several points. Like Celine, Gass creates a sickifying, vaguely fascist logic that seems to reach out, grasp at, and state right into the very worst parts of oneself. If Dante's inferno had a 10th level, it would be sitting in a room having a conversation with this books narrator.

This is a potent, at times jaw-dropping work of literature, and easily stands toe to toe with the more widely celebrated works of its age, but it's also an invitation to explore raw hatred in its numerous, crippling forms. The Tunnel offers a crushing, deforming view of humanity and history that I was almost completely revolted by. It's also, I think, a masterpiece. Pick this up at your own risk
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on January 6, 2006
Consider that William Gass created this masterpiece over roughly the same time frame it takes to pay off the average mortgage -- 652 pages in 30 years. One has to respect such care in crafting The Tunnel. How many times was this draft edited to create in essence a final draft written at the plodding, prodding pace of 22 pages per annum? Gass took more time crafting The Tunnel than Joyce did Ulysses. And it shows. The syntax is not of this world. His use of metaphor is off the charts in its creativity. There are worlds, even galaxies, in his words. The writing is sheer poetry in places -- a pure joy to read. He is honest, pithy, probing, penetrating and very often hilarious in his Notes from Underground. Like Proust I recommend that you read Gass slowly to revel in the world in his every well-placed word. There is unquestionable genius in this work as evident as the genius of William Gaddis or Joyce or Proust. Gass and Gaddis redeem the contemporary American novel and Dalkey Archive should be congratulated for its devotion to publishing American masters whom America has not yet properly recognized as such. I really can't say enough in praise of this substantive literary novel, which is profoundly wise and brilliantly crafted and even luminous as a literary legacy sure to render Gass prominent, permanent billing among the American masters of the late 20th century. Savor the writing of William Gass: real genius resides underground in The Tunnel.
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on September 14, 2015
There are novels that that are gloriously proud of their complete lack of plot (Renata Adler's "Speedboat" comes immediately to mind) and there are novels that base the entire plot on a single character's thoughts as he does what could be considered a mundane task (Baker's "The Mezzanine", about what a fellow thinks about as he rides to the top of an escalator on his lunch break) and while those novels have their pluses and minuses, neither of them quite matches the ambition of William Gass, who attempts to weld both concepts together and make it last for six hundred and fifty pages.

Gass is one of those authors who you can't tell if he's highly regarded because he's tremendously talented or just somewhat obscure. Both are true to an extent, as a prose stylist he is extremely talented as anyone who read his first novel "Omensetter's Luck" (which had its experimental moments but also is about postage stamp sized compared to this one) and his assorted short stories can attest. But his output is extraordinarily sparse, making fellow low output authors like Thomas Pynchon and Joseph McElroy to be practically garrulous in contrast. He only three novels to his credit, and the third one came out a few years ago. Currently he's in his eighties. This is not a man who bangs out a rough draft over the course of a long weekend, clearly.

This one apparently took about thirty years to write and presents us with history professor William Kohler, who has just finished a book about Nazi Germany and is attempting to write the introduction to it, but gets sidetracked with documenting his thoughts as they occur to him. By the time he starts to dig a tunnel in his basement for reasons that don't make a whole lot of logical sense unless you start assuming that pretty much everything everyone does in this novel is metaphorical, and that you're never going to see that introduction (um, spoilers, I guess).

This sounds like a grand idea except a) its six hundred and fifty really dense pages (and just to make it more fun, Gass seems to have a great time playing with the font and layouts of some pages, perhaps as a way to keep himself interested in a project that has last almost as many years as my current time on this earth) and b) our narrator is a nearly detestable character, with sympathetic views toward Hitler at times and not very fond thoughts about anyone except maybe the students that he perhaps convinces to sleep with him. The fact that a plot barely exists goes without saying, and the closest the story gets to one is the aforementioned tunnel that Kohler is digging, which doesn't seem to be going anywhere in particular except down and gets brought up again pretty much at random intervals. Needless to say, the bones of this do not make for gripping material.

Yet, there is a certain draw to stuff like this, and not just because there are a subset of readers out there who like to undergo literary challenges (like those races people do where they run past pits of fire and under barbed wire in the name of exercise) or are just downright masochistic. I'm not going to pretend this is for everyone, or even people who like difficult books . . . the overall payoff seems somewhat vague so if you're into this then you're in for the ride and not the destination. But be prepared to devote an inordinate amount of time for get through this . . . I've made it through Faulkner and Joyce and Proust without too much trouble beyond just buckling down and these pages required almost absolute focus, with a density that demands you read each page twice to peel back all the details and sort it before moving onto the next one. To read for two hours and realize that you've barely cleared a hundred pages is dispiriting enough, to realize that you still have over five hundred pages to go is an extremely daunting prospect . . . and with the promise of only more plotlessness dictated by a fairly unpleasant narrator to come, its understandable how people might just decide to give up. There were moments when I looked at how much I had to go and thought "What am I doing?"

What saves this from being a complete waste of your time is twofold. One, my God can Gass write. Sure, it may have taken him thirty years, but even if I spent twice that long on a novel I don't think I could have come up with prose that unspools as beautifully as his does, where metaphor after brilliant metaphor parades before you, each more dazzling than the next, with descriptions so vivid that it starts to verge on the sensual, where everything is balanced so perfectly that the fact that the prose is genius never calls attention to itself, it supports what the novel requires at all times while never becoming flashy or showy. The little layout and typography tricks are beside the point and barely necessary, as the prose does more than it needs to in order to carry the day. Some might say its about the only redeeming quality in the entire work.

But some sections are just plain brilliant in their evocations. You may not find much interest in his thoughts regarding his wife, his children and his colleagues but sprinkled throughout each section are supremely detailed observations and nuggets of offhand insight that may not give you a deeper examination into the human condition but get you far closer to this man's ragged psyche that anyone would possibly want to be. Yes, he's an extremely unpleasant person and spending six hundred pages with him may be five hundred and ninety nine pages too many . . . yet I don't think its necessary to admire or identify with a main character to appreciate what the novel is trying to do. I don't feel a need to spend anymore time with him than I have to, but the time spent with him isn't completely worthless by any means.

The best moments often come in his detailed recollections of his childhood, with an alcoholic mother and a tough father suffering from severe arthritis . . . seemingly taken from Gass' own life they acquire a resonance far beyond anything else the rest of the novel can promise, achieving that rare sense of what childhood actually feels like (even if this one isn't any fun) where the only comparison I can think of us is director Terence Malick's recent film "Tree of Life", where it manages to evoke equal impressions of wonder and darkness in realizing that just because you don't fully understand what's going on doesn't mean you don't understand that it's bad on some level.

But much like Malick's polarizing work (which, if for nothing else, can be watched in far less of a time than it takes to read this novel), this one surrounds those moments of sheer writerly brilliance with sections that fall with a thud as Kohler goes on and on about his colleagues (only one section, depicting an older professor's slide into sickness and death really made an impression) and his wife and everyone else with a scorn that is sometimes self-directed but never seems entirely self-aware of how hypocritical he's being. It almost dares you to stick with it and for those who do, there's some debate as to whether the effort is worth the payoff. For me, whether a "difficult" novel is successful (or has a chance at being considered such) has to do with how well it creates its own world inside the pages and in doing so engenders a sense of immersion. I think this novel accomplishes that to a healthy degree, where Kohler and his past and present come across as astonishingly real, even if the world it creates is bleak and somewhat smothering in its relentless distaste for anything resembling a cheerful human emotion. But in creating its own reality so completely it makes the novel harder to dismiss than a book that's difficult for the sake of being difficult. There are moments that strike me as unbearably personal and while those moments may be far fewer in number than most readers would want, it does suggest that a human heart, black and shriveled as it may be, beats somewhere within this novel and makes it tread uneasily on the line that separates things that need to be experienced from things that exist purely to be endured.
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on June 1, 2001
Having several times emerged, soul intact, out the other end of author Gass's novel--I have read the book thrice over--nothing could be clearer than that his tunnel DOES have a beginning, as it likewise is posessed of an end. Its source is the foetidly teeming cesspool of its author's aesthetically blissful, honorably loathsome mind. Its terminus--having looped its way in non-linear transit, two steps forward, one back--the catchbasin of its reader's. Kafka's abyss, Melville's whale, Joyce's Dublin, Faulkner's Yoknapatawha, Lowry's volcano, Pynchon's movie theater, now Gass's tunnel. This is a vastly uplifting, profoundly entertaining work of art, a tour de force performance, as are all Gassian works, that succeeds in being innovative and instructive at once. Does it require "close" reading? Is it subject to multiple interpretations? Is it an exercise in form over content? Perhaps. What it requires moreso is the reader's willingness to experience its text as an act of music, as it is one of architecture. Gass typically is taken to task for "playing God" with his readers, for demanding THEIR surrender to HIS art. In fact, that is precisely what he does, and it is that alchemical quality that renders his work so divine. It is not everyday, after all, that a writer can so miraculously convert dross to gold. That "The Tunnel," more's the pity, is not for everyone, is scarcely its author's fault. We have a habit, as readers, of looking our best gifthorses in the mouth, and this novel, the writer's masterwork, is nothing if not a gift. He is a national treasure, William Howard Gass, and each of his sentences is a gesture of generosity. At last, however hateful, "The Tunnel" is that rarest of creations, a thing of sublime and subterranean beauty, one that cuts with unflinching grace and honesty against the grain of its own self-created ground. Those who fail to recognize this are no more deserving of blame than are the tone-deaf for having tin ears, but they are, perhaps, owed our condolences. Is life a tunnel? A tunnel life? Might both be true? Dig into this novel, delve, dredge, quarry, excavate. The answer awaits.
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on November 25, 2014
I described this to a friend of mine as a "hyper-Lolita," in which an aesthetic ideal is pared with something unambiguously bad in order to explore human nature. Though this is certainly a reductive approach, I think it has something to offer re: Gass' writing. In an excellent review of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (, Ryu Spaeth suggested that Gass drills into the deepest wells of darkness in order to find pockets of beauty, made even more beautiful by contrast. Here we find Gass tunneling down into the dark, dirty corners of humanity, and at the end of his labor, a truly gorgeous product.

There are sentences in here you couldn't be criticized for wanting tattooed across your forehead. The poetry of language is insane, made more so by how unapologetic it is in its self-indulgence. Gass may not be a prose stylist quite on par with Joyce or Nabokov, but with The Tunnel he's come about as close as any living writer has, and will surely be remembered for years to come as a writer of great talent. Though the main character himself is loathsome, Gass can still stir sympathy in any reader willing to give it, especially in the vividly evoked scenes of Kohler's childhood (Kohler being the name of the protagonist). It's definitely not for everyone as it can be a lot to stomach, but if you're feeling up to it, The Tunnel has so much more to offer than just dirty jokes and alliteration (though it has those, too, as almost all good things do).
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on April 26, 2016
Simply amazing. As a result of this one novel, Gass has become one of my favorite authors, with the likes of Joyce, Pynchon, Mann and Wallace. Every page, every paragraph is filled with prose beautiful, inventive, and challenging. Not for the squeamish, the faint of heart: There's raw emotions, real evil unearthed in THE TUNNEL. But if you love literary works and a challenge, don't miss this book.
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on May 13, 2003
As my first introduction to Gass, I found The Tunnel to be slightly daunting, but as the story kept unfolding, I found myself being more and more enraptured by the novel. The wordplay, the asides, I could not restrain myself from continuing to read the novel. The novel never moved slow since aspects of Kohler were being developed over the whole thing.
A short summary: This is a book about a history professor who just finished writing a massive book on Hitler, save the introduction. The book revolves goes through his character and life as he sits in anguish attempting to write the introduction.
The setup may seem uninteresting, but it is far more interesting than you could ever imagine. The development of Kohler and all the people around him by Gass is phenomenal and looking at the faults of Kohler and his character are astonishing. A+ book, everyone should read it, if for no other than to learn more about themselves.
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