Sign in  |  Register

The New Criterion

Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
- John O’Sullivan

Books

February 1995

Gass attack

by James Wolcott

A review of The Tunnel by William H. Gass.

William H. Gass has been sitting on The Tunnel for quite a while, and I do mean sitting. The author of a previous novel, a dozen or so stories, and several collections of essays, Gass began writing this book in 1966 … 1966—the year the Beatles recorded Revolver, Michelangelo Antonioni released Blow-Up, and Twiggy was fashion’s favorite Q-Tip. It was the year Susan Sontag became the sultry star of deep thought with Against Interpretation. It was six presidents ago, not counting Clinton. Now the psychedelic skies are gray. The bandannas are all undone. The Tunnel reflects the loosy-goosy period in which it was begun and the overriding sense of mission needed to span nearly thirty years of hard mental labor. It isn’t so much a novel as a Sisyphean labor, the uphill climb of a downhill life.

The narrator of The Tunnel is William Frederick Kohler, a historian and college professor whose magnum opus is called The Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. “This is to introduce a work on death by one who’s spent his life in a chair,” Kohler begins, and the phrase “life in a chair” recurs as a lament. The novel has barely begun, and already the narrator is tired. In its opening note of paralysis, The Tunnel symptomizes the species of metafiction Tom Wolfe has called “the catatonic novel or novel of immobility.” Since Gass has spent almost thirty years sitting in a chair writing an epic book about a character sitting in a chair writing an epic book, it’s as if this bulky project was being supported by two sets of buttocks, which still isn’t enough padding. “Yes, I’ve sat too long, no wonder it’s painful,” Kohler sighs. He’s got those big bottom blues.

For Tom Wolfe, the absurd fatalism of faddish metafictions as typified by the Robert Coover story which began, “In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island and shot himself.” The absurd gesture in Gass’s novel, its acte gratuit, is Kohler’s mission to stir from his chair and dig a secret tunnel out of his basement. One night, while digging, he strangles the family cat (“I squeezed with a hate of long duration”), another acte gratuit, like Merseult’s murder of the Arab in The Stranger, only dumber. Kohler pops the dead cat into a paper sack, then resumes his mining operation. Since Kohler is the German word for digger, it’s as if he digs because his name defines his destiny—he’s metaphorical man digging an all-purpose metaphorical tunnel (womb, grave, bunker, time capsule, escape route). But of course Gass’s mouthpiece finds it gauche and reductive to assign “meaning” to his act and thus rob it of its rich, engrossing futility. “With my tunnel I have committed the ultimate inactive act. After all, what is a useless hole? I can honestly say I have accomplished Nothing.” He’s put the zero in Roland Barthes’ zero degree writing.

In the spirit of Donald Barthelme, another metafictionist influenced by the French nouveau roman, The Tunnel makes elaborate use of cartoons, diagrams, different typefaces, and bold headlines to break up its self-referential text with nutty distractions, juggling signs and signifiers like silverware. Yet the novel strives to be more than an anti-novel. It aspires to be a permanent splotch on literature’s soul, a personal neurosis that attains the status of a cultural condition. Its sensibility is steeped in the thick, shadowed enclosures of Kafka, Céline, Rilke, Joyce, and Proust, all of whom are cited in the text. Like Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul and Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, The Tunnel is an effort to disgorge The Last Modernist Masterpiece—to create a super-chunky word-mass in which the sum total of one man’s loquacious consciousness expands like the cosmos (and sums up the century).

Down in the dark, Kohler may be an academic version of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, but in drab daylight, he passes for an All-American slob, a high-I.Q. Homer Simpson washed up like a whale in his metaphysical midlife crisis. Overweight and underendowed (“My weenie was, in fact, a little wormlike model of my soul”), Kohler beholds his sagging flesh with disgust. “My eyes are ringed like stumped trees, but fifty years have not consumed the fat I laid up on my chest when young.” He beholds his wife Martha’s sagging flesh with equal disgust. “Behold the sagging tit, the drudge-gray mopped-out cunt-corked wife …” Together, they recoil at the sight of the two mewling brats they have brought into the world. “They stick with their mother, mostly, thank God, though she doesn’t fancy them either. After God created snot he made small boys with pugly noses to stuff it in. They show their respect for God’s law by picking it out.” As you can imagine, meals at the Kohler household are something of a trial.

He’s no happier out of the house. Kohler’s history-department colleagues are the usual campus zoological specimens, so sneered-at and scrawled that they’re like Wyndham Lewis grotesques used for target practice. At faculty meetings, Kohler goggles at them as if peering through a fish-eye lens, the goofy distortions of their features giving them a surface animation. There’s Culp with his cartoon voices, Herschel with his big ears, Planmantee with his buggy eyes, Govemali with his pursed lips—a collection of small fry and papier-mâché dummies that make up the most forgettable, interchangeable line- up of supporting characters ever pasted on the page. Gass has never been much of an animator, indeed, disdains the practice. The play of opposing forces, the competitive pursuit of earthly prizes (sex, power, wealth), has no place in his aesthetic, which deems suspense, local color, and character development as cheap ruses and crude stuffing to keep old-fashioned fiction chugging on all fours. “Stories are a bore,” he pronounced in the last issue of Antaeus. They’re moldy and they stink. Or as he put it, “There’s bird drop, horse plop, and novel plot.”

Even if Gass were as happy to saddle a story as Anthony Trollope, he would soon find himself alone in the pasture. As he admitted in an interview in Joe David Bellamy’s 1974 anthology The New Fiction, he’s constitutionally incapable of creating conflict and byplay between others. “I haven’t the dramatic imagination at all. Even my characters tend to turn away from each other and talk to the void.” For him, the true conflict is within. “I am (though I wasn’t raised as one) a Protestant, wholly inner-directed, and concerned only too exclusively with my salvation, my relation to the beautiful, my state of mind, body, soul… . The interactions which interest me tend to be interactions between parts of my own being.” Which raises the question, Is Gass sitting on Kohler’s lap, or is Kohler sitting on his?

As Gass’s alter ego, Kohler is more than a standard misanthrope and killjoy. The big gasper in The Tunnel is that this distinguished historian is in fact a Nazi apologist—a fascist nutcase. He keeps a yellowing stash of anti-Semitic propaganda in a trunk, makes anti-Semitic asides (“I do two things Jews never do: drink and go down”), and considers Hitler, for all his flaws, history’s greatest superstar. Kohler toys with the notion of the cancerous introduction to Guilt and Innocence as his own Mein Kampf, and ponders starting his own loser brigade, The Party of the Disappointed People, complete with uniforms and armbands. (The PDP banner is displayed in the front of the book.) Through Kohler, Gass can think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. Everything verboten can be voiced. As for instance when Kohler says, everybody identifies with the victims of the Third Reich, but no one takes the trouble to put themselves in the other guy’s jackboots. Sadists require consideration, too. “[I]t is easy to be a victim, you don’t have to do a thing, you simply weep and bleed—but, ah, the beater, to be the beater is not a role whose easy mastery is readily admittable.” Moreover, no one ever considers the plus side of Nazi genocide —its contribution to the temporary curtailing of kitsch. “[We] shall never know how many callow effusions we were spared by a cutthroat; how many slanderous tongues were severed; what sentimental love songs were choked off as though in mid-note by the rope; the number of the statues of Jesus, Mary, or the Pope, whose making was prevented by an opportune blindness or the breaking of the right bones; what canvases depicting mill wheels in moonlight, cattle at dawn, children and dogs, lay unexecuted on their easels because of the gas, talent thrown out as if it were the random pissing of paint into a bedpan; so that, over all, and on sober balance, there could have been a decided gain.”

Besides (Kohler argues, getting ecological on us, taking a global perspective, gearing up for another spurt of run-on sentences), the body heaps left by the Nazi war machine were a small theater of destruction compared to the worldwide smoke and pollution caused by that rolling coffin, the American automobile—“the world’s most effective killing machine, with victims outnumbering any war, with millions maimed, shocked, crazed by the car, half the world trashed by its production, made brutal, ugly, used up, useless, with endless highways and hospitals to maintain, most citizens in debt to their eyes for this toy, only so my father and I and everyone like us could drive about in our insulated canisters and curse one another. Mr. Hitler’s Holocaust can’t hold a candle. After all, his is kaput. This way to the gasoline, ladies and gentlemen.” Six hundred seventy-two pages of this is a lot.

Kohler is not only the German word for digger, it is also (as the narrator reminds us at one point) the brand name for a famous line of plumbing fixtures. When he isn’t sitting in his chair, he’s sitting on the toilet. He tries to be quiet. “Unfortunately, I fart a lot.” A long inventory of a typical Kohler day (it reads like Nicholson Baker without Baker’s bemused knack for novelty) begins with a full paragraph describing how the old professor wipes himself after his morning visit, how many sheets of tissues he folds, how he sinks the basket. “I just make a pass and drop the result in the john as if I’d picked up a bug in a glove of Kleenex.” Since the personal is political in The Tunnel, Kohler’s crapulousness (Gass’s pun) expresses his notion that everybody and everything begins and ends in crap. I don’t take the measurements of my turds, he snarls at his fellow faculty members, and of Planmantee in particular he says, “The waters of forgetfulness shall wash him away like a smear of shit on the enamel.” As far as he’s concerned progress is illusion, culture is camouflage, politics charts the movement of herds; in the privacy of our stalls, we remain cavemen in a crouch. “Causes collect like waste in the bowels of history. History, in fact, is horse drop, cow plop, nose snot, rope knot, flesh rot, ink blot, blood clot, street shout. Who says I have a loathsome mind? Who dares say so? And every event, then, is somebody’s—something’s—stool.” From Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil to Kohler’s banality of anality isn’t much of an intellectual advance.

Light relief from these ranting solos and rhetorical set-pieces is provided by the limericks Gass/Kohler records and composes.


A nun went to bed with Herr Hitler,
whose cock just got littler and littler.


O what I would do


if you was a Jew,
he cried as he bit her and hit her.

And:

A sensitive Nazi at Auschwitz
was annoyed by rabbinical outfits.


These habits retard


the melting of lard,
which is the reason for being at Auschwitz.

Perhaps this is the proper moment to pause and note that, in his acknowledgments, Gass thanks the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Purdue Research Foundation, Washington University, and the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities for their “generous assistance.” Great work, guys.

The irony is that when Gass first discussed The Tunnel, he struck the defiant pose of the lone, proud artist camped in his foxhole, determined to buck the philistines and go against the American grain. “Who knows, perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it. I live on that hope,” he said. For all his flirting with the prospect of The Tunnel containing the explosive power of a Forbidden Book (call the bomb squad! this baby could go off at any moment, taking the traditional novel with it!), he has hardly found himself shunned by fiction editors. His acknowledgments also mention that portions of the novel have appeared in Conjunctions, Esquire, Fiction, Grand Street, Granta, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, New Letters, The Paris Review, Perspective, Salmagundi, TriQuarterly, and The Yale Review. Which suggests that as bad as Gass is, he isn’t as bad as he wants to be, or thinks he is. His guff can be accommodated. Goading the reader with obscenity and bigotry, Gass breathes so hard, we never believe Kohler as a cracked vessel of foul vapors and invidious intent. He’s a bogus boogie-man, guilty of overacting. He hogs the page.

The Tunnel bellyflops not because it is morally repugnant or systematically repellent, but because it is so damned literary, or rather literary in the wrong way. The Tunnel aspires to the unparaphrasable status of pure style, not the skeletal whiteness of Gass’s story “The Pedersen Kid” but the imperial swagger and flash of Flaubert. Kohler’s pride in achieving “Nothing” with his tunnel echoes Flaubert’s desire to write a novel which would be “a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support.” Style for its own sake can harden into fancy claptrap, a suit of armor with no one inside. As Kingsley Amis observed in a dissenting review of Nabokov’s Lolita, “Style, a personal style, a dis- tinguished style, usually turns out in practice to mean a high idiosyncratic noise level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax, and diction …” Now and then Gass stuns with a simple statement: “My father suffered thirty years of pain. A continent could call it a war.” But for the most part, The Tunnel is as loud as a factory-floor as Gass lambastes the reader with showy catchphrases, schoolboy puns (“regular as cock work”), sound effects (“like the menacing beat of my army’s boots: thap thap thap …”), colorful relatives bellowing in bold caps (“how can a man remain sane with all this gabble and geese hiss goin on AROUND HIM?”), outdoing even Nabokov in his compulsive use of alliteration: “Mammaries in memory invade my meditative moment.” “Honesty is the historian’s hardest hoe, Herschel insists.” “We are all charter members of the 4-H Club: Hitler, Hess, Heydrich, Himmler. Heil nonny nonny and a Ho Ho Ho!” “… feel that formerly feckless fist smash a hated face into blissfully bloody bits.”

Fist is a driving word in The Tunnel. It appears often in the early pages of the novel, symbol of the author’s fighting anger. Gass has called The Tunnel a bitter book, but it’s beyond bitter, this beating rhythm in his fists. What is the source of Gass’s bottomless anger? In his recent Antaeus essay, Gass reveals that, like the parents in The Tunnel, his father was a bigot and his mother an alcoholic. “[She] was drunk more than a dozen years before the blood vessels in her throat burst and she drowned by drinking her own blood.” The big theatrical revelation in The Tunnel (despite Gass’s disdain for drama, it has the third-act audience-hushing pathos of a monologue in Eugene O’Neill or William Inge) is a recounting of the disastrous birthday party for young Willie. For paragraphs, pages, he describes the preparations, the balloons, the chocolate cake decorated with Hershey’s kisses. On the big day, disaster—no one attends. Out of a drunken fog, his mother speaks. “I remembered the plates,” she says, “but I may have forgotten to mail the invitations.”

The air tenses. “My mother is watching my father watch her watch him. She has just come out of the kitchen with the cake. She passes a vague hand across her face. I’m sorry, she tries to say. I found the envelopes in the drawer this morning, she confesses. With the forks.” Gass scorns realism (it’s not inward or language-intensive enough for him), yet this is the only scene in the entire 650-page novel that seems to be honestly happening before our eyes and not intermediatied through musty filters of modernist funk or buried under the dead paw of the past. The German catastrophe Kohler contemplates is an elaborate, sloppy fake-front. It isn’t the Holocaust that’s haunting Gass, it’s alcoholism: a drunken mother dashing the hopes she’s raised. When Kohler realizes there’s to be no party, he mutters, in one of the novel’s rare understatements, “Boy. We almost had a good time.” Then Gass cranks up the wind-machine and The Tunnel ends with a Joycean gust of reverie that will fool no one with its forced lyricism.

It’s modernism’s last gasp, and way too late.

 

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

  1. The Tunnel, by William H. Gass; Knopf, 672 pages, $30. Go back to the text.

James Wolcott is an editor at Vanity Fair.


more from this author

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 February 1995, on page 63

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Gass-attack-5104

E-mail to friend

add a comment

Leave this field empty
Name:
Email:
Website:
Verification:

The New Criterion

By the author

Tales from the crypt

by James Wolcott

"The New Yorker," page by page.

S.O.B. story

by James Wolcott

A review of The Art of Burning Bridges: A life of John O’Hara, by Geoffrey Wolff.

Synthetic grit

by James Wolcott

Review of Night Train by Martin Amis

You might also enjoy

Most popular

view more >

Subscribe to our newsletter!

* indicates required

Webcasts

The Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity
On May 5, 2014, The New Criterion and PJ Media presented the second Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity. The award is given to highlight egregious examples of dishonest reporting. Also awarded this year was the Rather, a new award for lifetime achievement in mendacious journalism.
The Duranty Prize is named after Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow corresponded in the 1920s and 1930s who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s forced starvation of the Ukrainians (the Holodomor) and many other aspects of Soviet oppression. Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his efforts. It has never been revoked.
Audio copyright Ed Driscoll, www.eddriscoll.com.


Introduction to The Kennedy Phenomenon
Roger Kimball introduces The Kennedy Phenomenon, a conference presented by The New Criterion on Tuesday, November 19.


The Kennedy Phenomenon: "Watching the Kennedy Train-Wreck"
Roger Kimball reads Peter Collier’s paper on oft-overlooked unsavory details of the Kennedys' lives. Much of the paper is drawn from Collier’s book, coauthored with David Horowitz, The Kennedys: An American Drama.