After twenty-four days of finally working my way through William H. Gass’s masterpiece, I can say that my nails feel as besmirched as Herr I’m-Not-German Kohler’s. Gass, in his highly entertaining notes to the editors of the book, states that “[t]he reader is to feel, as he or she doubtless will, as if they are crawling through an unpleasant and narrow darkness.” Quite right. And in his interview with Michael Silverblatt (whose blurb adorns the cover of my Dalkey Archive paperback), Gass makes no qualms about the aspirations and demands of his book. Silverblatt, an avid and insightful reader if there ever was one, even confesses to swaying–yet not faltering–under the heft of the first 90 pages. The Tunnel is deliberately large, complex, and difficult. How else shall we, as readers, grow?
The novel is meant to present the interleaving of William Frederick Kohler’s massive academic study, Guilt & Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, and his diverting attempts to write the study’s introduction. But Kohler does not like introductions; he likes endings; so his stops and statrts end up churning out a heap of pages about his own life. To say that it is confessional literature is an understatement–Kohler’s level of baring it all puts Dostoyevsky to shame. So searing and intimate are the pages he turns out that he takes to hiding them within the pages of his historical study. What we, the readers, then have is the stack of interleaved pages. But although, to the reader who has not yet read The Tunnel, this could sound like something akin to Burroughs’s cut-ups, I found the text fairly linear and readable. Perhaps, though, this is indicative of the warping I’ve undergone from the ilk of books I invite into my mind.
Without a doubt William Kohler is the most embittered, angriest, loneliest man in all of literature. As much as I stay away from such superlative statements–for I haven’t, of course, read all of literature–I feel confident in my assertion. Kohler will upset you if you have at least a paucity of a moral code. He resents everyone and everything around him and holds nothing back in his telling us so. A principal target of his bitterness and resentment is the female, especially his wife Martha. This is a bold move on Gass’s part, delivering a novel in 1995 while the women’s lib movement of the 70s and 80s was still targeting WASP writers (or what David Foster Wallace called “Great Male Narcissists”) for their base misogyny. But Gass has a trick up his sleeve. Kohler, in his monumental attacks against the feminine, is not very…endowed. Yes, and it consumes him, as the reader will find. What is interesting here it that, one of the invectives against WASP mega-novels is that it is a way of asserting the phallus on the world. We are thus forced to look for something beyond this easy way out; and, in the end, Gass will begin to bring us to an understanding and, just possibly, to sympathize with Kohler.
In the midst of all this anger, all this loneliness, however, is a deeply poetic language. Indeed, Kohler states many times that he gave up poetry and took on history. So we know he has poetic tendencies. Gass, of course, is a master of the metaphor. The style and language used throughout The Tunnel will singe even the densest eyebrows. Your toes will curl at some of the sentences he pulls off. Yes, this incongruity of pulchritude and grotesquerie is what causes the reader to latch onto the text both against and out of the will. It is hard to stave off my inclination to list out all of the sentences I highlighted in orange (my designated color for passages that stylistically dazzle me), but to do so would be to reprint the book and invite copyright trouble.
The book is not a direct meditation on Hitler’s Germany; it is not Kohler’s scholarly thesis. It is, rather, the confessions of a brilliant yet embittered madman, struggling to make some sense of life. His myriad propositions about what history is are sometimes profound and sometimes bathetic. For me, the most striking meditation concerns what Kohler phrases “life in a chair.” For anyone with an academic, bookish, intellectual bent, Gass perfectly captures the pleasures and the pains of such a life. But, make no mistake, this is a sprawling, dense book that requires more than just the bedtime reader. It is a project that invites you to explore your own self, to examine the soft, vulnerable underbelly of life that we’d rather keep hidden.