“I began The Tunnel in 1966. I imagine it is several years away yet. Who knows, perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it. I live on that hope.”
—William H. Gass, interviewed in 1971
When William H. Gass’s 650-page novel The Tunnel was finally published in 1995, following nearly three decades of labor by the critically esteemed author and essayist, it was called a lot of things. Two critics used the word “monster,” and they weren’t simply referring to the abhorrent narrator, history professor and Nazi specialist William Frederick Kohler, who most certainly fits the bill; those critics were describing the book itself. While “Bookworm” host Michael Silverblatt deemed The Tunnel “the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime”—a claim he renewed last year—James Wolcott scored the novel’s long-awaited landing a “bellyflop.” For Steven Moore, writing in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, the work was “a stupendous achievement and obviously one of the greatest novels of the century.” For James Bowman: “a load of crap.” In The New York Times Book Review, Robert Kelly called The Tunnel an “infuriating and offensive masterpiece,” ending his 2,600-word review by essentially—and perhaps bravely—throwing up his hands: “It will be years before we know what to make of it.”
For anyone who still cares about this book—essentially, Kohler letting loose a plotless stream of notes from underground on his crappy childhood, fat wife, dim colleagues, much missed mentor, and lonely existence—it’s been a great year. Dalkey Archive Press, which has published The Tunnel since 1999, has given us two valuable offerings: last spring, Dalkey’s low-profile journal CONTEXT published a two-page document called “Designing The Tunnel,” excerpts from Gass’s 12-point instructions to the book’s designer about layout, type, and the overall visual goals as they related to the book’s themes; and a month later, the publisher released an unabridged audio book of the novel, recorded by the 82-year-old author last year near his home in St. Louis. One is two pages; the other, 45 hours. Both provide compelling ways to re-experience this disagreeable and stunning novel.
How to Design a Lump of Darkness
William H. Gass has long been interested in design, particularly in the marriage of language and art. In his experimental 1968 novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Gass used images and an array of fonts, colors, and symbols to suggest a text as female body below its male reader, the language the love being made. The author has admitted that some of these visual efforts were more conceptually interesting than successful, and at least one of his reasons why—”I was trying to find a spatial coordinate to go with the music”—is tellingly unhelpful. Gass’s interest in the visual arts would continue for decades, through his own photography, the Dual Muse exhibition and conference his International Writers Center put on in 1997 (painters writing; writers painting), and projects relating to what he calls “the architecture of the sentence.”
Thus it’s clear, reading this previously unpublished “Designing The Tunnel” document, that we’re hearing from a writer who cares deeply about the look of a book. “I regard these instructions and the general layout of the text only as indications of my intentions,” Gass began, welcoming the suggestions of a “sympathetic designer” who might take him closer to his goal. That said, he doesn’t sound like an author uncertain of what he wants. Having requested that the book be bound in rough black cloth, with a spine like Viking Press’s edition of Finnegans Wake, Gass stated that the reader “should be holding a heavy[,] really richly textured lump of darkness.” The cover should not have the author’s name. “Why not put the author’s name on the book? Because it is Kohler’s book. Because, in a sense, it is not a book.” Gass sounds like an art-class enthusiast describing his hopes for typography—”I would love it if every line looked like a length of barbed wire”—as well as the treatment of Kohler’s doodles, which might, if successful, bring to mind Hitler’s architectural sketches of camps. “I want something at once naive,” Gass instructed, “a little charming, and a lot unsettling.”
Continuing on illustrative matters, Gass addressed what he called the “PDP Particle,” a structure of four Os connected by an X that is supposed to signify Kohler’s “Party of the Disappointed People.” “The meaning is deliberately left ambiguous,” Gass wrote about the emblem. “But the reader is invited to wonder ‘what the fuck?’” (Various versions of this emblem, and many other doodles, are scattered on pages throughout the book, in order to give a sense of randomness and disorder to what has been compiled and bound.) Perhaps the most revealing aspect of these instructions is the inclusion of a black-and-gray drawing Gass made—it’s credited, though, to W.F. Kohler—that shows The Tunnel the narrator claims to be digging from his basement study to—well—nowhere. Knopf’s first edition included this drawing in its front matter, but only in the recent CONTEXT issue do we see the key Gass made, showing how 12 points on the drawing mark what he considers the book’s 12 sections. The first point, for instance, marks an old coal furnace in Kohler’s basement office, from where he narrates most of the novel; Gass explained that for this section, named “Life in a Chair,” the furnace provides The Tunnel’s “disguise.” Moving across the drawing from left to right, we get to point three, which is placed just above a creaky ladder. “The book begins,” Gass announced. “The drop or initial descent of The Tunnel is excavated.”
It is through this storyboard-like document that we first understand that the plotless stream in fact has segmented plots. Further, we get a better sense of Gass’s intent to have the book take the form of a tunnel itself, with the reader, as he says he wants in one section, “crawling through an unpleasant and narrow darkness.” Reading a document like “Designing The Tunnel” retrospectively, of course, it’s difficult to determine how much intent equals success. Had I found the book unsettling? Check. Unpleasant? Check. Did I wonder, at least once, ‘What the fuck?’ Mission, in this case, accomplished.
Unabridged & Unrelenting
The handsomely packaged audio book is the much greater boon. In addition to mp3s on three CDs and Michael Eastman’s photographs of the recording session, the audio book package includes “The Tunnel in Twelve Philippics,” the most illuminating document I’ve seen about this novel’s structure and aims. Interviewed at a bookstore in New York earlier this year, Gass spoke about the origins of the “Twelve Philippics,” which, like the earlier design document, was previously unpublished. (The word Philippic, meaning bitter tirade, comes from the orations of Demosthenes against Philip, king of Macedon, in the fourth century BCE.) Gass reported that an early editor of The Tunnel manuscript was having difficulty understanding the big novel, and the gentleman kept wanting to make it smaller. Gass wrote the “Twelve Philippics” in response, in an effort to articulate the importance of the overall structure. “I was trying,” he told the New York crowd, “to show him that the building would fall down.”
Gass has stated elsewhere that the “Twelve” of the title comes from composer Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, which the author adopted for The Tunnel’s construction. In a 1998 Lannan Foundation interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass, responding to a question about “the music” of his work, spoke about how such structures aid his fiction writing, which is concerned more often with themes than a single narrative. Using Schoenberg, he devised a work consisting of 12 chapters of about the same length (marked by the 12 points mentioned above); in each chapter one of the book’s main themes would dominate, with the other themes rising and falling behind it, less loud, but always present.
The classical music critic Alex Ross has written that “Schoenberg’s strict method, ordering the 12 pitches of the scale in nonrepeating atonal rows, was exhilarating therapy for composers beset by a multiplicity of stylistic choices,” a statement that aligns with Gass’s use of it as an aid to writing. (What Ross wrote next—”The plague was on audiences, who detested the jumbled, athematic textures common to the idiom”—well describes the reactions of some of The Tunnel’s critics.) A literary blogger’s report on the New York reading, and specifically Gass’s comments about the 12-tone system, attracted a bit of sniffling. One writer commented that while he admires the bravery of Gass’s work, the “essential silliness” of the Schoenberg matter is bothersome. “I only make a big deal about it because I think this is a (subconscious?) left-over from the extra-literary effects once used to sell literary art to the masses (nowadays we just use sex or personal tragedy) . . . the writer as Wizard; the reader as Rube.” Though Gass himself has been quick to deflate the significance of this structure-adoption (in one interview, lightly mocking his “grandiose scheme of things”), it seems odd to fault him for what seems more like a private organizational system than something on which the book’s public reception rests. As Greg Carlisle recently pointed out in his study of David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest, that novel’s structure was based on a fractal object called a Sierpinski Gasket. Like Gass’s Philippics, Wallace’s method is foremost about devising a framework for the author in his writing chair, and less so the reader in his.
In the audio book’s liner booklet, after the initial listing of Philippics one through twelve, there is a structural description of The Tunnel, which includes brief remarks about point of view, text divisions, thematics, and, as explained here, the novel’s “Initiating Situation”: “Kohler teaches at a major Midwestern university. He has studied German during the thirties, returned with the first army during the invasion as a debriefer, then as a consultant during the Nuremberg Trials. Writes a book called Nuremberg Notes. Its softness earns him some suspicion.” As always with William Gass, there is an inherent benefit of just taking in his words. Its softness earns him some suspicion. The alliteration is Gassian, and the scene-setting economic, informative, and satisfying.
Turning the booklet’s page, we are in deeper, and Gass’s remarks about the novel are direct but don’t drain the life out of the book itself. (I have in mind the DVD-commenting actors who over-explain a scene until it’s lost what made it interesting.) Of the novel, Gass stated, “It is the opposite of history,” in that it “denies and defies all the ordinary methods of narration, plot, character, and so on.” The Tunnel’s subject: “Many elements go into this novel, but its fundamental subject is the fascism of the heart, the character of the household tyrant and imaginary genocide.” The book’s action: “There is scarcely any at all.” The narrator: “wholly unreliable.”
There is still more in the booklet—about characters, about philosophy and forms, and a list of the novel’s seven key issues. The list begins with “The nature of history. Status of narrative” and ends with “Belief, illusion, fiction, and the purity of the mind.” For me as a reader, the articulation of the second key issue—”The nature of bigotry. Tribalism, Resentment.”—is most valuable, in that it is a reminder of why the book is, and must be, soaked in sourness. If it’s possible to love this book, and I think it is, it can be done only through an embrace of its honest bitterness, an understanding and acceptance of Kohler’s hatred (“Hate has given force and purpose to my life”) in the manner that he himself has accepted it (“Can I forgive the plague I am?”). But as repugnant as this novel often feels, Gass sweetens the sourness with exceptionally controlled, poetic, and seductive prose. “Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea,” Kohler soliloquizes,
of lives embittered by resentments so ubiquitous the ocean’s salt seems thinly shaken, of letdowns local as the sofa where I copped my freshman’s feel, of failures as frequent as first love, first nights, last stands; do not warble of arms or adventurous deeds or shepherds playing on their private fifes, or of civil war or monarchies at swords; consider rather the slightly squinkered clerk, the soul which has become as shabby and soiled in its seat as worn-out underwear, a life lit like a lonely room and run like a laddered stocking.
You may well ask, at this point, what it’s like to spend 45 hours with such a man. What it’s like to jog to Kohler (hatred through the headphones), to cook to him, to ride a foul bus with a fouler voice inside. And to that word, voice: Gass’s is suited to the task of making such a trip endurable. It’s rich and pleasant and clear, capable of a sinister growl and a barely abiding, stretched-out sigh. And there are many of these sighs, right up to the novel’s last lines. (“Or shall I, like the rivers, rise? Ah. Well. Is rising wise?”) Indeed, one of the achievements of this audio book is its pacing; Gass’s unhurried delivery of his anti-hero’s often beautifully formed scorn is what allows us to understand what it’s like to live inside his skin. For several pages in the book’s second half, Kohler shaves and shits, feeds the birds, makes some toast. The morning ritual. Slowed down. Ah. Well. Let’s head downstairs. Nice. And slow. On the page, we can move quickly through such sticky stuff; not when it’s spoken. We have no choice but to experience this character as he experiences himself—his wipes and gripes are in real-time—and this is partly what makes the audio book an invaluable tool for understanding the novel.
The audio book’s other principal benefit is a simple one: it allows us to revisit, and experience aurally, this author’s exquisite prose. While much of the book is concerned with the ugly, Gass gives glimpses of Kohler’s other sides, before his heart burned over with futile rage. Not incidentally, these instances all occur in the past, and they offer a chance to enjoy the prose without feeling uncomfortable about its context. (Is it right, I wondered when I first read the novel, for a writer to use such poetic metaphors to describe a Holocaust’s heap of bodies?) Though Kohler detests his parents even more than he does his wife, there is the occasional memory still shiny, unburned. “I remember, as a boy, being taken fishing by my father,” he tells us. “Brown trout lay hidden in little stone holes like the complete expression of a wish.” In a long passage about the family’s ritualistic Sunday drive, Kohler recalls vividly the stops for ice cream, with his young self standing along the long counter looking at the flavors through the glass. Strawberry “looked like wounded vanilla,” and Neapolitan “was like eating a flag.” But there, to the right, was Rainbow, his favorite. “I loved its accidental and chaotic benevolence. It was like having a noise melt in your mouth. Grape eased into pineapple, then bent itself about banana. A nut would turn up.”
The adult Kohler loved as well, and we’re witness throughout the book to actual tenderness and vulnerability as he relives his doomed affair with a young part-time student named Lou. It is upon her back that Kohler was commanded to “do rivers.” “With my right forefinger slanted slightly to bring the nail into play,” he recalls, “I would inscribe the course of a river—so gently, so slowly, it might have been a tear’s trail—running its convoluted way the length of Lou’s back, semicircling a buttock, and concluding in her crack, at a fulfillment one might call a delta.” The novel’s real season is winter, though. Rivers freeze. And Lou—as Gass’s hero Rilke would say—was ahead of all parting.
The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved. My hand fell to hers, too, somewhat like a discarded glove, and she took it with a squeeze, so that the chilled soon lay within the chilled, I thought, like a bottle of champagne. Cold hand, moist part, I said. Hers slipped away.
There is one character Kohler feels more for—Magus “Mad Meg” Tabor, the volatile and brilliant mentor Kohler had during his years studying in Germany—and this man gains the most from the audio book treatment. Because Tabor’s presence in the novel is often through lectures (“His hot hall held us like a thermos,” Kohler recalls), the listener to the audio book is put in range. Though Kohler’s still the one describing the lectures—about history and language, the impossibility of having a single true text—we now feel like we’re there, listening.
You shall listen a little longer. My unravelings reach their end. What I’ve said to you today, and every day so often through the year, is very obvious, very plain, very easy, very simple and straightforward, very clear. Gentlemen: now I close. If the study of history is the study of language in one form or another, and if we really fabricate our past, not merely—weakly—live it; then we can begin to see how the world was Greek once, or Roman, since every page of consciousness was written in these tongues then. All the central documents—laws, plays, poems, reports, abiding wisdoms, letters, scientific learning, news—were couched in Greek or Latin phrases, and the chief historians consulted them, composed their chronicles from the same speech, in the same words. Don’t you see that when a man writes the history of your country in another mother-language, he is bent on conquest? If he succeeds, he will have replaced your past, and all your methods of communication, your habits of thinking, feeling, and perceiving, your very way of being, with his own. His history will be yours, perforce. Per-force!
As Gass takes Mad Meg toward his final point of climax—”Conquest via history is the only kind with any permanence”—there is shouting and swearing and a room full of chanting—”GERMAN. . . GERMAN! . . . GERMAN . . . GERMAN!“—and students are in tears and breaking their chairs, and Tabor is soon gone, and the novel’s section ends abruptly, with a silence. But it is not a book’s silence, but the kind that follows a speech, a performance we hear. It is riveting, and it is finally clear, only through listening—to Gass as Kohler as Tabor—that Mad Meg stands at the center of the book. His command—Conquer via history, gentlemen—is not just the force behind Kohler’s career; it is the reason the pages of The Tunnel exist at all.
* * *
William Gass may be personally drawn to the visual, both as a narrative tool and as a subject itself. (He’s at work on a novel about a museum, in this case, a man’s personal museum of inhumanity.) But what has become clear over several months of living with The Tunnel—of thinking about its design and structure as well as its themes—is that, at last, it is really the prose that matters. The novel’s little logos, Kohler’s doodles, the drawing of The Tunnel itself—these are instructive and they have their cumulative effect for the reader. But none of it feels significant after you have had the chance to listen to it whole.
Gass has acknowledged that as a novelist he’s drawn to “fulminators,” from preachers like Reverend Jethro Furber in his novel Omensetter’s Luck to Kohler and Tabor in The Tunnel. It is this aspect of his work that so lends itself to the audio experience. You’ll recall that Gass, in those first notes to the book’s designer, remarked that, in a sense, The Tunnel “is not a book.” But try as he might—with comic-strip balloons scattered in the text, a page made to look like a wrinkled grocery sack—it is impossible to convince us that what we’re holding is not a book. What Dalkey Archive Press has done with this indispensable recording, then, is not simply give us another way to experience this landmark novel; they have enabled Gass to realize one of his principle hopes for The Tunnel itself. First they made the book; then they made it disappear.
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