The Tunnel Feb 1, 2009
William H. Gass?s novel, The Tunnel, stretches the very definition of a novel, it being a vast and introspective interior monologue narrated by one William Frederick Kohler, a history professor at a midwestern university (the plot, if plot there be, consists of Kohler?s digging a secret tunnel out of his basement). Kohler begins his writing intending it to be a brief introduction to his just-completed immense history of the Holocaust, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler?s Germany, but it quickly becomes instead an extended rumination on and justification for his own life, a book in itself; at one level it even seems to enable Kohler never to complete his magnum opus.
Gass?s use of language is little short of magical, with precise and creative vocabulary, brilliant and varied syntax, luscious and luxuriant cumulative sentences ? extended jazz-like riffs of alliteration and roiling metaphors - that roll as deliciously in the mouth as they resonate enchantingly in the ear. Read on this level alone, the novel rewards the time spent with it, but there is far more here to be plumbed. For the first 100 or so pages of this 650-page work I was sustained by Gass?s linguistic virtuosity alone, while only barely able to endure the tediousness of the narrator?s bleak character. From then on, I became mesmerized by the story and the psychological despair the narrator was experiencing.
Kohler ruminates obsessively, his mind sometimes going off on huge digressive tangents, always returning predictably to a handful of core issues - it being not inapt to use the cliché, ?like a dog returning to its vomit? - in this, his autobiographical musing, each return further fleshing out the reader?s understanding of the narrator and his pain. His is a story of disappointment, of profound disillusionment over almost every aspect of his life ? and not his own life only, but also the world as he finds it, for there are cultural and political ponderings here, too ? wrenching poignancy often carefully hidden in a morass of crabbiness and disgust but powerfully present nonetheless. And, oh yes, let it be stated that there is much humor in this novel, humor clever and trenchant, frequently Galgenhumor, most often biting and bitter. I frequently thought of Kierkegaard?s calling despair ?the sickness unto death;? I was also mindful that Erik Erikson described the struggle of the eighth age of man as ego integrity vs despair, the need to be able to accept and affirm what one?s life has been instead of being filled with the sense of its having all gone wrong, of its having been wasted, disgust and defiance often hiding despair. At novel?s end, an ambiguous hint of possible acceptance seems to flit across the page, but is the hint itself illusory? And the question naturally arises: Do the circumstances of Kohler?s life lead to his bitterness and despair, or does his congenital temperament and a kind of existential bitterness determine how he views and experiences what life presents to him? No easy answers to these issues are provided, but reading the novel is itself a wrenching, an anguished, an ultimately rich journey.
This is a deep and difficult work, not for the faint-hearted, but immensely rewarding for the reader willing to persist - thinking, feeling, and agonizing along with the tragic teller of the tale. It is a gem, but a gem well disguised and hidden, requiring patient reading and, indeed, endurance on the part of the reader, an exercise in rooting in and removing much mud and detritus. Many, perhaps most readers might find it intolerable,
but for those who persevere and read sympathetically, it is deeply touching and profoundly rewarding, probing and exploring the depths of our humanity. I shall not easily or quickly forget this work, suspecting that it will remain one of the most powerful that I have read.