Deeper Into the Tunnel

by sentimentalsurrealist

I’m less than fifty pages away from finishing one of the most brilliant, and most frustrating, and certainly the most downright unpleasant, novels I’ve ever read: William H. Gass’ the Tunnel. I’m capable of flying through books, even long ones, and even on occasion long difficult ones, but this one I started on April 23rd of this year, if Goodreads is a reliable source. So, you might wonder, what took me so goddamn long? 651 pages is certainly hefty, but I’ve read longer books in shorter amounts of time. Why get hung up on the Tunnel? Why did I feel so compelled to interrupt it in favor of other books? 

Because it was, like I said in the intro paragraph, such a thoroughly repulsive read. Now, don’t you get me wrong here for a minute. I don’t mean to suggest the book was repulsively written. Gass is often praised as one of America’s best living prose stylists, and the dude earns his keep with eye-poppingly original metaphors, wordplay worthy of Joyce, and passages of either astonishing lyrical beauty or sheer unadulterated savagery. The guy can write. Nor do I mean to suggest the book is devoid of literary merit. Gass uses this particular novel to explore why the Holocaust happened and examines the possibility of a future Holocaust. All it takes, he argues, is a monster to lead and a Party of Disappointed People (his term) to follow that monster. It took Gass nearly thirty years to finish this book (his first novel, 1966’s Omensetter’s Luck, is less profound but a hell of a lot more fun), and you can tell he poured a lot of effort into it. 

These are the things that makes the Tunnel great, possibly one of the best books I’ve ever read: a combination of terrific writing and insight into the dark side of what they used to call the human condition. So why do I call it repulsive? The protagonist was awful. Just… just hideous. Once again, Gass’ writing being what it is, he was a well-written and believable sort of hideous that came to life and stayed that way. William Kohler is given a history, a family, ambitions, failures, frustrations, a sense of humor, a mentor, tastes in entertainment, and all of the other things that make us human. Gass also instills him with pettiness, dismissiveness, arrogance, spitefulness, sexism, and unrepentant bigotry. He’s not devoid of his good qualities: the guy’s got a brain, that’s for sure, and he’s aware of how much of an asshole he is. The problem? He wants us all to be cowed by his intelligence, and while he’s aware he’s got a lot of work to do on his personality, he seems uninterested in changing a thing about it. If anything, he seems to feel entitled to being a horrible person. This makes him one of literature’s scarier characters.

And while I don’t hold it against Gass for writing someone I didn’t necessarily like, nor am I bitter at him for making me share 651 pages worth of headspace with this gentleman – it is, from an intellectual perspective, a rewarding experience – the sheer disgustingness of this novel’s protagonist makes it hard to bear for any more than about thirty or forty pages at a time. Therefore, while the Tunnel serves a lot of purposes, one thing it doesn’t really do is entertain. It’s one of the least entertaining of the great books, and would be a complete slog if Gass hadn’t busted out the big guns, writing-wise. I live for novels that indulge in language, metaphors that knock me off my horse, phrases turned in just the right direction, and good old wordplay. The Tunnel offers 651 pages of that.

So now we get to the question: should we hold it against a great work of art because it’s not, in conventional terms, entertaining? Is it really such a big stomping deal that the good guys win and the bad guys lose when last I looked the whole point of art was to help us understand our relationship with the wider world? I’ve always insisted that the answer to this was “yes,” but reading the Tunnel, I see a little where the other side is coming from. Not that I’m ever going to put a song down just because it’s “depressing” (you have every right to smack me if you ever hear me say that) or some other silly nonsense. However, the Tunnel‘s narrator was such a taxing character that it made a slog of a great book. In short, let’s call it a definitely amazing thing that I will never do again. 

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