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Customer Review

37 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Planmantee Particularly: A new comedy coming this fall on Fox, July 27, 2008
This review is from: The Tunnel (American Literature Series) (Audio CD)
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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 19, 2012 4:05:44 AM PDT
Great review. I am currently reading "Omensetter's Luck" which I am optimistic I will like and I've been tantalized by Gass's studying directly under Wittgenstein; perhaps the leading 20th Century philosopher. So it's been disappointing to read through the reviews and see that this book is not up to it's original billing. Thanks much for review.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 19, 2012 12:47:03 PM PDT
GeoX says:
Wow, thanks. I read Omensetter's Luck some time after writing this review, and I thought it was quite good.
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