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The Tunnel Hardcover – February 21, 1995

3.4 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A strange and monumental novel that took William Gass three decades to write. When a Midwestern historian sits down to write the introduction to his magnum opus study of the Third Reich, he instead writes a chaotic, obscure and labrynthine exploration of his personal history. Then he begins digging a tunnel from the basement of his house. The writing, the digging, and the reader's reading blend into one profound meditation on history, evil, the living and the dead. PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This long-awaited magnum opus by the dean of American prose modernists, 30 years in the making, is a terrible disappointment. In this endless ramble of a novel, Gass (Omensetter's Luck; In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), though here, as always, possessed of a bewitching and spectacularly fluid and allusive style, fails to find a suitable home for his narrator's wickedly dyspeptic views of history, marriage and culture. William Kohler is a Midwestern academic historian working on an introduction to his life's work-a massive study of "guilt and innocence in Hitler's Germany." This, however, and the fact that Kohler begins to secretly dig a tunnel out of his basement, are the only shards of plot in this otherwise formless book. Gass, as readers of his fiction and gorgeous literary essays will know (On Being Blue), can turn a phrase and render lyrical descriptions that have not only music to them, but also shape and weight. But in portraying the failed career and life of Kohler, these gifts are brought to bear on such a litany of sour rant-about his aging body, his wife's widening girth, the fatuous enthusiasms of his colleagues and mentors-that the reader will beg for a way out of this dark and airless space. Unfortunately, there is no light at the end of The Tunnel, and the promise of a new perspective on our century's most heinous crime-the Holocaust-is very much a forgotten vow.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 651 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (February 21, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679437673
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679437673
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,037,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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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Format: 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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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By A Customer on October 8, 1996
Format: Paperback
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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