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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tunnel

William H. Gass

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To purchase The Tunnel

Title: The Tunnel
Author: William Gass
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 653 pages
Availability: The Tunnel - US
The Tunnel (audio CD) - US
The Tunnel - UK
The Tunnel - Canada
The Tunnel - India
Le Tunnel - France
Der Tunnel - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

A : complex, engrossing, stark look at a life, exceptionally well written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Antioch Review . Summer/1995 Gary Percesepe
Atlantic Monthly B+ 6/1995 Sven Birkerts
Esquire . 3/1995 Will Blythe
The LA Times A+ 19/3/1995 Michael Silverblatt
The Nation B 20/3/1995 John Leonard
National Review F 1/5/1995 James Bowman
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 17/9/2011 Angela Schader
The New Criterion D 2/1995 James Wolcott
The New Republic F 27/3/1995 Robert Alter
The NY Rev. of Books C 13/7/1995 Louis Menand
The NY Times . 23/2/1995 C. Lehmann-Haupt
The NY Times Book Rev. B 26/2/1995 Robert Kelly
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A+ Spring/1995 Steven Moore
San Francisco Chronicle B 12/3/1995 Paul Skenazy
The Sewanee Review C Fall/1997 Kenneth Haynes
VLS B 2/1995 Albert Mobilio
The Washington Post . 12/3/1995 Michael Dirda
The Yale Review A- 7/1995 James McCourt

  Review Consensus:

  Nothing remotely resembling a consensus. The range of reactions extends from complete dismissal to praising it to the skies. Note that many of the critics also fail to register much of an opinion.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gass's book will be hated, which is a lot to say for a book these days. There will be the usual grumbling about morality in fiction. (...) His credo is that there is freedom and safety in sentences, and language replaces the life. He' s playing the one note he knows." - Gary Percesepe, The Antioch Review

  • "Here is a novel that I truly gnashed over and cursed my way through. (...) It is a vast bog of uneven surface and unmeasured depth in which lie embedded, fully preserved, perceptions, memories, breathtaking cadenzas of longing, and stunning detailings with the precision of a Nabokov." - Sven Birkerts, Atlantic Monthly

  • "At first, Kohler's dyspepsia is invigorating, but after three hundred pages or so, the bile takes its toll." - Will Blythe, Esquire

  • "A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4 1/2 times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book's annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition." - Michael Silverblatt, The Los Angeles Times

  • "There is no light at the end of this Tunnel, not even a whimper, merely a pun, like a shaggy God story, except that God is dead and so are Author Gods. As if he were Isaiah Berlin's evil twin, Gass kills off everybody who was anybody in the Western intellectual tradition (.....) (G)ravedigger Gass has composed a kind of anti-canticle, an aria of obloquy. Each paragraph, each sentence, every clause, every phrase, has been burnished breathless, willfully wrought, stippled stark, with an obsessiveness bordering on Brodkey baroque. Not a lyric, but it's laced with acid. Not a whale tooth, but it's scrimshawed." - John Leonard, The Nation

  • "Robert Kelly, reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, engages in that publication's characteristic diplomacy by writing that "It will be years before we know what to make of it." What he means is that it will be years before anyone who values his position in the literary world will be able to say out loud what anyone with any sense makes of it now: it's a load of crap." - James Bowman, National Review

  • "(E)in orchestraler sprachlicher Kraftakt, der vom Limerick bis in die assoziative Fuge, vom geschichts- oder sprachphilosophischen Exkurs bis zum geniesserisch ausgekosteten Inventar eines Süsswarenladens reicht; eine Lektüre, die den Leser abwechslungsweise durch die Betonmischmaschine eines obsessiv rotierenden Intellekts schüttelt und ins Lebensdrama einer heimgesuchten Familie zieht; eine literarische Herausforderung, die Tabus zerfetzt, provoziert und einen durch alle sicheren Böden brechen lässt. (...) Die Hoffnung auf Zugängliches und Aufbauendes jedenfalls, die Hoffnung auf handliche Schlüsse und mundfertige Antworten möge man gleich aussen vor lassen; mitzunehmen ist der Wille, sich einem literarischen Mahlstrom zu stellen, der die eigene Urteilskraft fordert, torpediert, ihr auch auf durchaus förderliche Weise Breschen schlägt." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "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. Heís 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 (.....) Itís modernismís last gasp, and way too late." - James Wolcott, The New Criterion

  • "Some may seize on it as a postmodern masterpiece, but it is a bloated monster of a book. (...) The bloat is a consequence of sheer adipose verbosity and an unremitting condition of moral and intellectual flatulence. (.....) The abjection of (Gass') hero seems less lived than written. It is an act of ventriloquism: behind the repulsive, potentially fascist narrator stands his critic, the novelist, presumably committed to humane, democratic values. But those values are nowhere intimated in the book, and what emerges is a kind of inadvertent complicity between author and protagonist. The supposedly critical novel becomes an enactment of bad faith." - Robert Alter, The New Republic

  • "The Tunnel is not a novel. Apart from the narrator, it has no characters (though it has some extended descriptions of characters) and it has no plot. Everything is recollected; nothing is dramatized. It makes some claims, in the early going, to be a kind of inverted epic, and Kohler composes an appropriate invocation of the muses (...). But apart from its scale, there is nothing generically epic about the book. It begins and ends in essentially the same place. As a piece of writing it is, like its protagonist, singularly inert. It performs very large circles around a stasis." - Louis Menand, The New York Review of Books

  • "So why, given the considerable grimness of The Tunnel, does the reader still track its endless coils of prose? For the lyrical set pieces, for one thing; the haunting evocations of a small-town childhood so sensually rich in detail that the prose is sometimes hypnotic. But more compelling still is the tension Mr. Gass has created between literary art for its own sake and transcendent psychological truth." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

  • "The Tunnel is maddening, enthralling, appalling, coarse, romantic, sprawling, bawling. It is driven by language and all the gloriously phony precisions the dictionary makes available. It is not a nice book. It will have enemies, and I am not sure after one reading (forgive me, it's a big book) that I am not one of them." - Robert Kelly, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Tunnel is a stupendous achievement and obviously one of the greatest novels of the century, a novel to set beside the masterpieces of Proust, Joyce, and Musil as well as those of Gass's illustrious contemporaries." - Steven Moore, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Too fascinating in its separate parts to dismiss, too meanspirited to be read without feeling soiled, eventually The Tunnel is just too much of a good, and bad, thing: too rich to absorb, too intemperate to endure." - Paul Skenazy, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Almost every page of the book is intolerable. (...) A lovingly rendered assault on the ear, on goodness, and on reason, The Tunnel has not yet found its readers." - Kenneth Haynes, The Sewanee Review

  • "Designed to frustrate, then humor -- to provoke, the seduce -- The Tunnel risks losing us during its chewier passages. Even when the prose is a marvel of headlong driving through hairpin turns, sometimes there's just too much of it." - Albert Mobilio, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Reading Gass is like reading Thomas Mann: The Tunnel's moral seriousness matches The Magic Mountain's and Doctor Faustus's, but I find Gass the better writer." - James McCourt, The Yale Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       William Gass' magnum opus, thirty years in the making, is an unusual summing-up. This tome fits in the long (and fat) line of American novels that try to be comprehensive and larger than life, encompassing everything and more. In recent decades Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, and others have had a go (or several), and here is Gass' contribution. The Tunnel stands out for a number of reasons, the two most obvious being that it is a nasty piece of work, and that it is incredibly carefully crafted. These, especially, are both the greatest weaknesses and greatest strengths of the work.
       The language of The Tunnel is meticulous and inspired. Sentences, paragraphs, pages are perfectly cadenced, a sheer reading pleasure rarely found. Gass writes stunningly well, and many of the details and asides are more fully realized and better done than many an author manages anywhere in their texts. The danger, of course, is that Gass gets lost in the beauty of expression. Even this might be manageable, except that finally the novel does read like one that has been cobbled together over the decades. The short, strong sections that have appeared over the years in eighteen different literary publications (though often in quite different form) are not ideally tied together. It is not a fatal weakness, but a noticeable one.
       More difficult to adjust to is the darkness of the novel. It is a bleak tunnel, with no exit, a somber ride, with Gass unrelentingly dragging his readers down deeper. Most such big books -- certainly those by Pynchon, Barth, and Gaddis -- are marked by a sense of humour, often emphasizing the absurd. Gass offers little in the way of such amusement. There is no relief in what little humour is on offer, and even the absurdity hits too close to home. There is a lot of pain and disaffection in this book.
       The framework of the novel is relatively simple: its narrator, William Frederick Kohler, is a professor at a Midwestern university. He has basically finished his magnum opus, analyzing Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, and sits in his cellar trying to write the introduction to the work. What he writes instead is this -- an introduction and explication not only of the work but of his own life.
       It is not a happy life. Kohler is unhappily married to Martha, father of two sons he can not relate to. He had an unhappy childhood, and he is dissatisfied with the world and himself. A recurring theme is his idea to found the Party of Disappointed People -- the PdP. (He doodles designs for the PdP logo throughout the book, including proposed flags, insignias, banners, and a "Medal for ingratitude". The last page is a picture of the PdP logo.)
       The Tunnel is a book about history, the German example used as a focus, but one whose lessons Kohler sees applicable in all the world, at any level. The most influential figure in Kohler's life is "Mad Meg", Magus Tabor, a German professor of history. This professor, "an aborigine on display," determined Kohler's view of history. Tabor has little respect for historical data and so-called hard facts: "data are dogs," he claims, "they merely need to be trained." His strong personality and unusual approach to the study of history greatly impress a susceptible Kohler.
       Kohler readily identifies with the Nazis -- not necessarily as a sympathizer, but understanding what they do. He is outraged by some of their actions, but he understands how it came to that -- and sees himself acting similarly. Morality is not black and white in this book. Kohler revisits Kristallnacht and the events leading up to it in the book, his historical analysis pointing to the ambiguities and complexities of the event. The outcome was reprehensible, but Kohler paints a more complex picture of what led to it.
       It is hard to sympathize with a character who can so easily identify with the Nazis, and Kohler has few redeeming qualities that might change one's opinion of him. However, he also makes few excuses. He is honest in presenting himself as thoroughly unlikable. His arguments, as to man's weakness and willingness to commit such heinous crimes, are his central issue. He shows little professorial respect for ideas, understanding the importance of life itself, focussing as much on sex as anything (and his own sad and sorry sex-life (and sexual organ)). He is, realistically, filled with contradictions -- surprisingly, Rilke is his favourite poet (and a major influence on the book).
       Kohler slowly reveals more about himself, telling of his unloving childhood and his parents, then of his marriage and his early, difficult years as a young, married academic. (Gass presents many of these descriptive scenes exceptionally well.) Later the focus is on colleagues. Kohler does not do well in his personal relationships, reviling everyone on these pages with his poison pen.
       Language also plays a significant role for Kohler. From the many references to Rilke (art he can admire, though he questions the man) to his limerick-spouting colleague Culp, Kohler finds some release in poetry. (There are quite a number of limericks in the book, among the few genuinely funny parts of the novel -- though most might be considered quite offensive.) But language pervades all, as Gass constantly reminds his reader. He has Magus Tabor state:

The study of history is essentially the study of symbols and markers, of verbal remains -- symbol middens, shall we say ? -- and tombs. Our study, gentlemen, the study of history, is really a study of language. Only words speak past the present; only words have any kind of honest constant visual life.
       Kohler claims that "I had begun life with the poet's outlook, in the celebrational mode." Disillusionment, however, is not long in coming. The blame lies with his unloved parents, on whom he dwells more and more, as well as the world as Kohler finds it. Disappointment rears its head at every corner, and Kohler can identify with society's losers, bigots, and fellow-travellers -- and their ultimate incarnation, the Nazis. Language and his love for it keeps him somewhat human and grounded, but it can also be brutal:
Language is always honest. Language doesn't lie, only its users. (...) Notice how 'lover' is mostly spelled by using 'over,' and 'sex' is two-thirds 'ex.'
       Kohler is not German, as he often reminds the reader (or himself), but he is drawn to Germany. Professionally, the history Kohler focusses on is that of Nazi Germany. His first book, Nuremberg Notes, was "a collection of observations of the War Crimes Trials." Kohler's approach -- wondering about "the real reasons for this legal charade" -- won him no praise. Kohler continues to be uncompromising in his examination of the Nazi period, an attitude easily mistaken for that of the apologist.
       Kohler seeks escape and refuge, in both the book which he can not complete and in his life. He secretly tunnels under his house, out from the cellar, and though he does not get very far it is an accomplishment he takes pride in. Instead of release, however, he finds himself in danger of being buried alive. Similarly, what was meant to be an introduction to his grand tome shifts more and more towards a memoir of his unhappy childhood and his unhappy life.
       The Tunnel is a sweep of history, with the odd arc of Nazi Germany and the American Mid-West dominating it. There is hardly a word about modern Germany, nor much of the rest of the world (beyond the mention of some stray tyrants). It ultimately reads surprisingly like a work of regional (Mid-Western) literature.

       The Tunnel is a dark, big book, without the passion of the European pessimists (Gass is no Strindberg, nor, for all the pseudo-sympathy for (or understanding of) the Nazis, is he a Céline). The moral questions posed loom large and Gass presents them well -- but not everyone will want to hear them. Kohler admits to belonging to the huge disenfranchised group that would make up his imagined Party of Disappointed People, but few others are likely to admit to identifying with that group.
       Gass writes exceptionally well, and in large part this book is, on a purely literal level, a great pleasure to read. The moral dilemmas might give pause and quite a few nasty things do happen (and Gass does the graphic as well as he does everything else), but this is a masterfully written book.
       It is also a surprisingly domestic and rural book, for all its pan-historical ambitions. It considers the twentieth century, but ultimately shies away from it. The Nazis are examined in detail, but even America is otherwise examined in relatively cursory manner. Kohler is too self-obsessed and too filled with egomaniacal loathing to give much of a picture of his students and life in general. The book also reads as if written in the 1960s, stuck in the moment of its first conception.
       It is, nevertheless, a significant achievement. There are aspects of the book that are off-putting, but it is exceptionally well done, raising important issues and framing them well (and in a manner one does not frequently encounter). And Gass is an exceptional stylist, with only a few sections that might be described as over-written (and simply none that might be called under-written).
       Definitely not a book for everyone, but a must for anyone interested in serious literature. It is among the few American books written in the 1990s that will undoubtedly last, and it is arguably among the best (certainly better than, for example, Pynchon's and DeLillo's 1990s efforts).

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The Tunnel: Reviews: William H. Gass: Other books by William Gass under Review: Other books with introductions by William Gass under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author William H. Gass lived 1924 to 2017.

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