Gass on history: “What counts for me…is what happens to human consciousness…what was lost when you piled up bodies, what is gained when you decide not to.” – Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt
I felt ready for The Tunnel. I could have warmed up more with his first novel Omensetter’s Luck and read Gass’s fiction in order of composition but an inside voice said, No, and as I kept paging through The Tunnel, I knew I was holding the object I’d have to read next. But surely, just looking at The Tunnel and not reading a word is an experience of the book, of the art. One marvels at how many typefaces there are, how many bolded sections, the pictures, the comics, the limericks, the stanzas of poetry—a book beginning with two opposing pennants on the page after the title pages (The Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions). Niggardliness is opposed by Churlishness. Spite by Sloth. What is going on here? We aren’t even on page one and passiveness has been pasted and highlighted, poured over the reader’s mind.
The Tunnel is a modernist text, an exemplar of the avant-garde. One starts inside the mind of William Kohler, an elder history professor who is trying to write an introduction for his large book Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, and stays there. The Pennants are Kohler’s consciousness and as the first pages unfold one sees that the tunnel of title is everywhere. Kohler is trapped. He doesn’t know what he has lived for, he doesn’t know why the mass murdering follows human history like smoke from a cigarette. He looks inside; he spills portraits of himself:
And this transcendental moment was routinely followed by that listless descent down the pallid slope of some supremely ordinary Sunday afternoon…—O it was a yawn across a chasm—it was my waiting for the echo of that yawn—and yet it was also an afternoon through which I sometimes raked the yard or burned leaves without once considering the nature of loss, grief, loneliness, or even invoking the poetry of change. In fact, despite my mood, I rather enjoyed the deep red flakes of fire the leaves became, the blue smoke too, like an Indian signal, although my head was clogged with the certainty, as if I’d come down with a cold, that everything would soon be over; that the open hours ahead of me were closing like a store; my free and undemanding time was passing as unboarded as a train; or that my pure, uncomplicated play—my movie, ballgame, picnic, the Wild West I daydreamed, the robbery of a train—or the sweet world of wish and rich invention—was coming to an end as every holiday does, and ending emptily, too—pushed out with a grunt like the last stool; and, of course, this conviction ate at life’s advancing edge the way a worm gnaws at a leaf; it shriveled the imagination like a frightened penis; for what could one hope to catch through one’s forties every seventh day, and became an accountant, as I have done, in self-defense: weighing the light lick the tongue first gave the cone, the cunt, the honey spoon, the licorice stick, against the envelope it wet, the postage stamp, dry nervous lips; measuring a few great words read right against the accumulated weight of the wishy-washy, of tons of trivia and tedium, of Nothing itself—the melancholy experience of pure durée. (28-29)
Like Kohler’s head, the images of a life lived (failed?) clog to create a simmering push at summation. All of Gass’s clogs are rich and beautiful, taking one to edge and keeping one held over and spinning; no rest and relaxation, few pee-breaks.
After going through a third of the 654 pages and four philippics (“a damning speech or tirade,” Gass’s version of chapters—there are twelve in all), what’s striking is how these 50 page (on average) sections are like classical music compositions, say, the structure of Bach’s cello suites, made of six parts: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, (minuet, bourrée, or gavotte), and gigue, where notes repeat and variations are heard. Themes arise, words, ideas, and images get introduced and recur and recur askew: slighted, plump, and shattered. In the third philippic, We Have Not Lived the Right Life, family life (his childhood) is introduced early on, along with the terror of Midwestern weather: tornadoes, cyclones, and dust. But inside these recountings swim memories of women he had affairs with (“I do not understand what makes another body so appealing”) (107), worry that his wife will see this document, The Tunnel, the sweep of his study and Kristallnacht, as well as a colleague called Culp who is obsessed with Nun puns, only to float back to the bees and grasshoppers of childhood, Uncle Balt, images of his mother stunned on a landing by either lightning or wind, glass “…blown as it was against her scalp, and clinging to every strand of hair like frost on blades of frozen grass” (113), and a long list of family at a Midwestern wedding: “…aunts with hats who sighed with such expression you’d have thought they were blowing kazoos.” (143)
Of bringing all these memories of life and the narrator’s splayed and sorry opinions on them together, Gass says:
The notion, that as you proceed through a book, just as you proceed in a sentence from its subject to it’s conclusion…what you arrive at alters the meaning that you began with, so that the whole text is constantly reverberating back on its beginning and altering the original and then you start out over and over again in a certain sense, in this circular, Joycean fashion and these alternations, these oppositions…get cozier and cozier…sort of mix the way you’d get in a good stew; there’s a flavor coming out of the interaction of the ingredients. – Bookworm interview on The Tunnel
Because I haven’t found any listing of the Twelve Philippics on the internet, I will list them here with page number (they are very playful, pregnant titles, like those of Wallace Stevens’s poems):
I – Life in a Chair p.3
II – Koh Whistles Up a Wind p.49
III – We Have Not Lived the Right Life p.96
IV – Today I Began to Dig p.147
V – Mad Meg p.214
VI – Why Windows are Important to Me p.282
VII – The First Winter of My Married Life p.334
VIII – The Curse of Colleagues p.386
IX – Around the House p.437
X – Susu, I Approach You in My Dreams p.475
XI – Going to the River p.534
XII – Outcast On the Mountains of the Heart p.583, 632*
*Any Gassian can feel free to correct the two page numbers given, but the caps of the title on p.583 indicates itself as a philippic, though the flush left title on p.632 is in keeping with the previous eleven.
A highly recommended look at Gass’s The Tunnel is “Basking in Hell: Returning to William H. Gass’s The Tunnel,” an essay by Stephen Schenkenberg at the Quarterly Conversation.