‘The Tunnel’: 25 years and a pandemic later

By Joy Williams and Josh Zajdman

Two good friends, we decided to read The Tunnel together.  We live 3,000 miles apart and it was Covid summer. Perfect. 2020, a year of seemingly perpetual gloom doom anxiety and isolation, is the 25th anniversary of the great Gass work. 

We began. We texted we talked left voicemails with passages quotes questions. We were often … disturbed. Shock even horror were not infrequent. But mostly there was awe. Reading took about six weeks after which we questioned each other about our experience. There WERE questions. Our answers might even be questions. Meanwhile Time and History bring the news, which is, as Gass says, “another day another dolor.” 

Joy’s questions, Josh’s answers.

1. What was your emotion upon finishing The Tunnel?

I began The Tunnel by a lake near Canada with relish and anticipation of the undertaking we were about to, well, undertake. In the heart of the heart of a beautiful and inoffensive palette of blues and greens. I finished, weeks later, having finally returned to a Manhattan bearing up admirably under the pressure of the pandemic. Sirens, planes, jackhammers, an urban symphony.

As Kohler put it “What a journey, though, to crawl in earth first, then in filth swim; to pass through your own plumbing, meet the worms within. And realize it. That you were. Under all the world.”

How did I feel under all that world? Relieved, purged, exhausted and changed. Like Kohler over the past 652 pages, we dug, we moved aside, we hid, we picked apart, we doubted, we persevered.  My assumptions, questions and convictions changed throughout. By the time I read that last page, one question immediately bubbled to the top. Not to the exclusion of the rest but merely with a bit more urgency.  Was reading The Tunnel really any different from digging one? Looking back at the elements that constitute a life, moving forward into the unknown? Death or Escape? Relief or uncertainty? Like Kohler, mixing the narrative we’ve been working on with the one that’s composed of secrets, lies, little untruths, desires, hatreds, and, above all, fears. The latter being the book of our life that takes our entire life to write.

It’s easy to compare Gass and The Tunnel to Ahab and Moby-Dick, but it’s uninteresting and facile.

2. What was the need, do you think, Gass felt in pursuing this novel for almost 25 years? What did he accomplish in The Tunnel that he hadn’t or couldn’t in his stories, reviews and essays? Was it the biographical life?

At first glance, I naively assumed that the 25 years was due to the technical form. Gass knew what he wanted it to look like but nobody could accomplish it? It took no less an august institution than the Getty Center to “prepar[e] the manuscript for publication” after all. But after reading the book, I recognized what an idiotic supposition I was working under. Gass’s Paris Review interview took place in 1976, seven years after bits and bobs of The Tunnel had started to be published. In it, Gass says “I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity.” I doubt his sincerity in this. It’s easy to compare Gass and The Tunnel to Ahab and Moby-Dick, but it’s uninteresting and facile. Instead, Gass has written a novel that is markedly different from anything else he wrote or contemporaries of his were writing. To return to your question, I think what he accomplished was the creation of a kind of comprehensive vessel. Namely, the Tunnel (both novel and hole in the ground). As Kohler digs, and intermixes his memoir and magnum opus (which is which, no?), he excises and disinters aspects of his life and forced us as readers to do the same. It’s a book that is unique in many ways, least of which is the gradual accretion of self-awareness which the reader experiences as they wend their way through the novel.

3. Are the sections “The First Winter of My Married Life” and “Why Windows Are Important to Me” keys to understanding the work as a whole? Can the Tunnel be considered as a whole?

I love both of these questions. While reading, I kept wondering whether the experience was comprehensive or even could be. Early in the novel, Kohler has an opinion that I kept paging back to—“What is a book but a container of consciousness?” It could be complete arrogance but in the margin, I wrote “why not consciousnesses?” There is so much in The Tunnel, gluts and globs of experience, anecdote, history, invective articulated by Kohler, surely it operates on planes of consciousness. As a result, I think it can be considered a whole but not objectively. Similar to taking all the laundry out of the washer at once, a sock will always slip through your hands.

One of my favorite passages from “Why Windows Are Important to Me” reads “Watch out, then watch out for us, be on your guard, look sharp both ways when we learn—we, in any numbers—when we find who is forcing us—wife, children, Commies, fat cats, Jews—to give up life in order to survive.” Survival versus living pops up conceptually and continually.

The only thing I could do was make a martini and think. I’ve thought about it every day since.

I agree with you about “Why Windows Are Important to Me” and “The First Winter of My Married Life.” However, to return to your second question, it’s only if we add Blackboard to the mix, that we can consider The Tunnel as a whole. As a result, the breadth of Kohler’s life (domestic and professional) and concerns (memory and history, and what constitutes them) is most wholly rendered.

4. Is the last line one of the best last lines ever?

That last page and a half just leveled me. I am still unsure if it was cumulative or what but I read, I finished, I exhaled, shot out a couple expletives and closed the book. The only thing I could do was make a martini and think. I’ve thought about it every day since.

5. Does The Tunnel age well? The Times reviewer said it will be years before we know what to make of it … well it’s 25 years now.

That seems like a yes or no question. However, it isn’t. I kept thinking of film and opera while reading The Tunnel. There are these beautiful, almost pastoral, depictions of nature and domestic life that glimmer in and out of the reader’s view, returning like leitmotifs. Something isn’t right but it’s beautifully rendered. As if Raymond Carver wrote the script for a Douglas Sirk film. They pale in comparison, however, to the sustained arias of ugliness, misogyny, racism, that are so brutal but will simply not be ignored or sped past. These arias are absolutely necessary. They are what scan as eerily relevant to today’s reader but they are most frightening to anyone with a passing glimpse into American history. When The Tunnel first came out, people bought into the surface level. Those that read it, at least. This was a book about Germany and Nazis and Fascism, oh my. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and Gass’ll tell ya, this is a book about America. Yes, the only country where a Party of Disappointed People could poisonously bloom. A PdP that was discontent in the Clinton era that Gass published The Tunnel into but which was never identified because nobody bothered to flip the log of complacent democracy over. Well, Trump did. All those PdP members scattered like roaches to their nearest polling places and here we are, ready for history to repeat itself in four months.

K does love to loathe. Their life becomes bitterly choreographed, their spite, practiced and habitual.

So, does The Tunnel age well? Yes, no, both. Is it hard to read? Yes, for a variety of reasons. Are all of them discomfort-inducing and to the careful reader eerily prescient? Yes, yes, they are.

Perhaps Herschel Honey deserves the last word.

“Do not hate us because you aren’t perfect or the world is unimprovable; because wrongs can’t really be righted; injustice lingers like a congestion in the lung, waiting for reinfection; do not despair because there is no cure, for there is no cure, no cure for any of it; there’s no stopping the fall of man, but at least we all fall along with one another.”

 Poet, Prankster, Prophet. William H. Gass

Josh’s questions, Joy’s answers

1. What did you make of Martha, Kohler’s depiction of Martha and Martha’s discovery of the dirt?

K loathes his wife but he loathes himself, his parents, his children and his colleagues even more. Martha has a certain power over him because, after all, she knows his penis, his widdler, which she calls Violet for its shyness. K admits his “weenie” was in fact “a little wormlike model of my soul.” His hatred of Martha goes back to the earliest days of their marriage when they lived in a grim faculty prefab by the Wabash, so close to the unknown couple next door they might as well have been them, flushing screwing cooking and screaming in concert. A wretched winter brings them close to parting but K in his perverse fashion decides: “We’d remain married. I would see to that. One life would not be long enough for my revenge.” K does love to loathe. Their life becomes bitterly choreographed, their spite, practiced and habitual. Too, she becomes fat. Fat to his pudge.

Yes … Martha’s discovery of the dirt K has been excavating in his digging of the tunnel and hiding in the drawers of her antique bureau collection…this is not good. Big as a bureau herself, she totters toward K in his study and dumps a drawer of dirty all over his manuscript Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. “‘I want all of my dressers emptied and scrubbed,’ she says in a chillingly calm and even tone. I dumbly nod. ‘In a day or two I’ll be moving the furniture into my shop.’” This happens on pg 649 of this 652-page novel. Discovered and chastened (?) K’s rantings just … stop … But the remarkable thing—should I have mentioned this earlier?—is that K in his digging has irritably murdered Martha’s cat who has found in the tunnel a pleasant place to defecate. He has strangled her cat, her dear pussy and hidden it in one of the drawers though not the drawer she has opened. If it had been the drawer containing her poor cat Martha surely would have clobbered K, suffocated him, pounded him pulpy. Blood would have been spilled on pages 650 and 651. But this was not to be. I thought about Schrodinger’s Cat but I never really understood that thought experiment and Gass would probably dismiss that connection as far too facile, even meaningless.

He suggests that we never look beneath the surface of life, which at best is merely tolerable.

2. The headline of the February 1995 New York Times review of The Tunnel was “A Repulsively Lonely Man” as if Kohler’s loneliness was actually repellent. Do you think so? Is that how you would characterize him?

I don’t think of K as lonely. He’s got his rage to keep him toasty. And words of course which accompany his every scurrilous thought. He has a cold soul, a fascist heart and for all his cleverness with words he can only make them stink—like the corpse flower in bloom. His head is full of stinking garbage—he says so himself. The image of toilet paper floating in a bowl like a great coil of cloudy sky can represent his thoughts as well. He’s dreadful certainly but can’t seem to make those around him suffer. To a great extent they behave as if he isn’t there. There’s his name—Kohler—which brings first to mind the plumbing necessity. (Oddly the love of K’s life is the young insouciant “Lou” which sounds like Loo—a match!) On pg 560, K goes on about sex with Lou. “I wore the wild look then. The greatest gift you can give another human being is to let them warm you till, in passing beyond pleasure, your defenses fall, your ego surrenders, its structures melt, its towers topple, lies, fancies, vanities, blow away in no wind, and you return, not to the clay you came from—the unfired vessel—but to the original moment of inspiration, when you were the unabbreviated breath of God.”

Reading this I became nervous. K waxing pretty? Embarrassingly pretty. But then, thank goodness the next paragraph begins: “Well my language gives the game away. Orgasms pass more quickly than most pleasures. Only illusions remain. The great moment is but a string of grunts. Piggly is wiggly for a while before the porker becomes a cropper.” Sex is merely “bumpydump and gicky … a penis party, bum bash gash gobble, tongue tie, frig fry, oil change, sperm spill, spit trade, clit lick.…” and so on.

K isn’t lonely, he’s disappointed. He suggests that we never look beneath the surface of life, which at best is merely tolerable, for beneath the surface of life you will find “the pit, the abyss, the awful truth, a truth that cannot be lived with, that cannot be abided: human worthlessness, our worthlessness, yours and mine.”

3. Kohler sits in Tabor’s chair and his influence looms large. But what about the four horsemen of Kohler’s very particular apocalypse—Herschel. Culp. Planmantee. Governali. Did they work for you as characters or merely as functionaries of opposing viewpoints?

Gass believed that great character was an absolute necessity for great fiction. At the same time, he was amused that readers who get caught up in the passions and travails of great characters in fiction must ignore the fact that they consist merely of words. K’s colleagues, who he naturally detests (he also despises and pities his students) represent different views of history. They are defined by different theories that will get them through another semester of teaching. For the pompous Planmantee, history can be rationally, tediously understood. Culp finds it hilarious and smutty and has an offensive lyric for everything (he’s a popular Boy Scout leader). Governali finds it as thrilling and entertaining as going to the theater. Herschel, “tenured by the pity of others” is moderate to the point of vacuity, willing to see all sides of any history. Governali suffers an interesting and vaguely tragic fate while Herschel is beset by an abrupt and humiliating incontinence. Still, in the aggregate the four are not terribly interesting as characters. A superb character is Magus Tabor or “Mad Meg.” Magnificent too is the bellowing Uncle Balt. K at some point says he made Balt up, not realizing in the moment that he himself is a fiction.

As for Trump, what could better describe him than the phrase “a loud doll” which K employs against that “twerp” Hitler.

4. Kohler was actively involved in Kristallnacht. He kept a box of Nazi memorabilia that was so abhorrent Martha wouldn’t allow it in the house. Was Kohler an anti-Semite?

In the essay collection, Habitations of the Word, Gass wrote this: “If I write well enough and dispose my voices artfully, I can say anything [the emphasis is his]; only then can one dare to speak the truth about one’s self.”

Anti-semitic. No. It seems too simplistic a way to approach this monster of a book. Still, some early reviewers were suspicious. When asked by one of them that very question Gass replied: “The Tunnel is not about the Holocaust, it’s about fascism in America.” That Gass would venture saying what his novel was “about” is funny sort of, certainly not his style. The musings of this constructed “consciousness”, K’s, are cruel obscene, scatological, nasty. When we enter the tunnel with him we enter the cesspit. He is very much not a cheerleader for humanism.

Beyond the wonder at the unremitting avalanche of language, its bitter ruthless life, The Tunnel impresses because it presages so much our present political distress and disgrace. K wishes to create a political organization The Party of the Disappointed People or PdP. He creates symbols, medals and pennants for the PdP representing all manner of passive attitudes and emotions that its adherents exhibit—sullenness hypocrisy self-pity, vindictiveness, pettiness sloth jealousy.… The PdP is a white grievance party just like this country’s Republican party. As for Trump, what could better describe him than the phrase “a loud doll” which K employs against that “twerp” Hitler.

In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra writes of the “flailing states of Anglo America.” He begins with a quote from Paul Valery: “The abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all.” The Tunnel is “about” history which consumes insatiably all things and is thus terrifying, and the abyss of history which is more terrifyingly still.

As for K being anti-semitic—K is anti-all and everything. Why bother to be discriminating. As another disillusioned figure proclaims in the title story of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country: “I want to rise so high that when I shit I don’t miss anybody.”

5. In one of your questions, you suggest that Gass wrote from a place, or with the intention, to accomplish something with The Tunnel that he wasn’t able to in the rest of his work.

Still think so?

For some time I held the mistaken notion that Gass wrote The Tunnel without much obsession, nibbling away at it in those moments between composing his stylish and bold essays. But Gass took his ambitions for The Tunnel seriously. It was to be his magnum opus. He believed that great literature “requires everything and expects nothing.” He believed that the reader enters a great book for the first time “not in order to read but to reread it.” He believed in The Tunnel and considered it a great commanding and demanding work.

Gass wrote hundreds of essays and dozens of fictions. He preferred writing fictions and delighted in finding the different forms that would suit them while avoiding narrative at every turn. In The Tunnel, Lou asks K that bright and soggy questions why do you write and he replies “I write to indict mankind.” Humankinds’ venality and stupidity do seem to be one of Gass’ great themes, dished up in grimly playful and greedily vigorous language. Words for Gass are pure pleasure, the sentence, sly and endlessly permutable. (In a later novel, Middle C, a professor, when he’s not tending to his “Inhumanity Museum,” endlessly rewrites a sentence that he’s been obsessed with for decades—“The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.”)

I do not plan on rereading The Tunnel right away! But I have read much of his work many times and will again. His book on translation, Reading Rilke, is brilliant, and a great deal of fun. Too, are many of his essays and reviews. The stories—“Icicles,” “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s”—present an intoxicatingly different and satisfying reading experience. The Tunnel has no interest in being satisfying. It has no desire to be loved by you, the reader, but many of its moments are indelible, virtuosic—Tabor’s long dying, the blackboard, the driving lesson and birthday party, the mother’s alcoholism, those eternal falling anvils in hell.…

So much to guiltily enjoy. For The Tunnel is the most tenebrous of novels.

Joy Williams is the author of novels, collections of short stories, and Ill Nature, a book of essays that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel The Quick and the Dead was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Among her many honors are The Paris Review’s 2018 Hadada Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Rea Award for the Short Story and the Strauss Living Fund from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was elected to the Academy in 2008. Williams lives in Tucson, Arizona, and Laramie, Wyoming.

Josh Zajdman is a reader first and always, a writer when pressed and is currently working on a book about Proust.