THE TUNNEL by William Gass

reviewed by Paul McRandle

METAFICTION may have fallen from favour with many critics, but William Gass hasn’t suffered for it. Not even the most hidebound can deny his stylistic powers and elegance. Born in North Dakota in 1924, but raised in Iowa by an alcoholic mother and an arthritically crippled father, Gass was no member of America’s privileged elite. In fact, his authorial career began rather late if spectacularly with the publication of Omensetter’s Luck in 1966. He proceeded to publish two classic novellas, In the Heart of the Heart of the Countryand The Pedersen Kid, following these with collections of essays on metaphor, the word as world, and his literary lights.

William Gass  

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However, it is in his longest work of fiction, The Tunnel, that Gass expands his concerns to their fullest extent. This novel flies its colours well before it even begins, starting off with images of the Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions: Bigotry, Spite, Resentment, etc. down to Sloth, Churlishness and Jealousy. These would pretty well sum up the narrator’s vision of himself and it’s hard to imagine a more bitter novel, certainly one that can be read
But honestly bitter; rather than simply striking an attitude, The Tunnel elaborates defeat and pettiness and the stagnant qualities of the midwest with more care than imaginable. William Kohler is the voice, the mind, the subject and predicate of its 652 pages and when he’s not writing limericks about Auschwitz, he’s designing flags for his Party of Disappointed People, his own gathering of the resentful. He is a professor of history, author of a book on the Nuremberg Trials, and the novel itself is his attempt at an introduction to his life’s work: Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. But things have already gotten out of hand. These notes which make up the novel (and, in Gass’s ideal world The Tunnel would have been printed unbound as a pile of paper) have to hide themselves from Kohler’s wife, filled as they are with confessions of affairs, with the politics and philosophy of his “loathsome mind,” and with the details of a tunnel he is digging beneath the house, details which include filling all of her prize antique dressers with dirt. There’s no plot, just Kohler fuming or ruminating or riffing on some subject, but much of the novel is bound within the moral compass of a childhood similar to Gass’s own, spent enduring a boozy mom and overbearing, arthritic dad.
A line from Pope defines his magnetic north: Our proper bliss depends on what we blame. This is what Kohler understands so well, what makes him so American, as if for every pleasure taken there must be a betrayal. Naturally, his marriage is sexless. He’s been condemned by his colleagues for his affairs with students. He lives with the ecstatic fear that his wife will discover either the dirt or the hole. Meanwhile, he keeps writing with perverse concentration about brushing his teeth or the size of his penis (so very small). But in one his few lines that does address that other, hidden academic text, Kohler speaks clearly about the cold, lofty place he inhabits and the purpose of his work : “This book is intended to make you a mountain. From such a mountain you may see dead Jews.” If William Gass builds worlds out of words, it is not to blur with prettiness the outlines of this world but to view it with piercing clarity.

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