The first movements in ‘The Tunnel’

By Greg Gerke

A major blockage to people’s enjoyment of The Tunnel is not so much the exuberant and bombastic voice narrating the book—which some might call (or just unknowingly construct for their reading mind’s conscience) the “implied narrator,” Wayne Booth’s term for the image of the writer that the reader makes’as he or she reads the text—but the actual fiction character that the train of words represents, William Kohler, the youthful aesthetic grown sour hateful historian-academic. This character is somewhat distinct from William Gass, the artist, though it is a creation sharing more than a few details of the man’s life—a maneuver today often read as consecrated under a Barthesian-fueled auto-fiction but reading more as immediate, absorbing and “relevant,” rather than the brick and mortar metafiction of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Gass’s exemplars.

Readers seemingly forgive Nabokov’s Humbert and his pedophilia, but Kohler, a Nazi sympathizer and tunnel digger, doesn’t have a perverse crutch (besides being a septuagenarian cat killer) or a Parisian pedigree. He is old, white, male, and Midwestern—four characteristics not so sympathetically viewed today. They probably weren’t so special in 1995 when the book was released, but now there are so many marks against such a being (even when not the narrator), it’s like a much striated tree that some growing child has been hitting with a metal toy over many years.

Kohler’s voice, as written by Gass, is the length of life, something like a tunnel and the journey therein. It represents some wretched ideas, but it also retains some of the wonder at living.

Due to Kohler’s transformation for the worse, The Tunnel is a most exquisite refutation of today’s too-believed old saw, People don’t change. No, they can. And sometimes they change multiple times, and, even sometimes change into their parents, though they vowed never to. In no way do I claim this to have been William Gass’s intention—I firmly believe that themes are not something great writers consider too closely. Gass obeyed his muse, which is why he once said, “[Y]ou start working on something, and you find you’re really writing something else. You thought you were going this way; in fact, the text [the muse] is going another way.” The main battle the reader wages in reading an original piece of literature is to rid their mind of the author’s picture that an industry of critics, publicists, and publishers have built up around him or her.

There are stripes to the mammoth zebraed creation around Gass, but most go like this: the essays are great—no, wonderful—and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country has a few of the best novellas ever (and Omensetter’s Luck is still quite an achievement, don’t you know it was on that David Foster Wallace list), but then, Gass became word drunk in The Tunnel and Cartesian Sonata—of the latter, the influential and anti-avant-garde critic James Wood wrote, “… to write over one’s characters, to give them thoughts and verbal powers only a writer could have, is to turn those people into writers,” a bizarre contention that invalidates many works in the Western canon. Then comes Middle C—well, that was okay—at least he’d tuned things down a little. Won an award.

Kohler’s voice, as written by Gass, is the length of life, something like a tunnel and the journey therein. It represents some wretched ideas, but it also retains some of the wonder at living, something every child once has. Getting to know anyone is an exercise and most other literary characters have a greater identification factor: Ishmael has his boat and a nemesis and Gatsby has his money and his fantasies. Kohler, in being the mean old white bigot, gives Gass’s feat a higher degree of difficulty. Violence, Cormac McCarthy’s go-to, is easy because it has a built-in attention/tension factor, but Gass’s fiction has always been interested in a heightened program full of thought and little action, somewhat like the philosophy (which he saw mostly as fiction) he taught for years. Gass metaphorically explicated it best in his debate with John Gardner, responding to the latter’s “The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground,” with “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.”

The Tunnel, which is Samuel Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape writ large, also mirrors the condition of getting to know people. We often don’t tell our innermost secrets right off to our friends, we intercalate them over time in drunken confessions or as concomitant actual crises come up, just as Kohler enfolds his history into his historical work, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany—that work is The Tunnel itself. There can be no literal tunnel at all or, maybe there is, or, maybe Kohler is Beckettishly (as in The Trilogy) making up stories to amuse himself and the reader with hate-laced tales. The one of storing the dirt he digs into his wife’s large collection of dressers, in their drawers, adheres to some reality that the reader comes to expect, especially when the third section of the book “Today I Begin to Dig,” the so-called real opening, contains much more of Kohler’s truthfulness.

How then to identify with a bigot? Kohler gives us his case history, with some beginning false starts, lies, and withholds, but also the hard truths of growing up in a house of misery with psychologically abusive parents (something he inherits) as his mother will eventually drink herself to death—these games around these truths (along with his past mistresses, the wife he hates, and his participation in Kristallnacht) are the fig leaves he covers, by shaming syntactics, his deplorable life with. Still, the young Kohler found a world in books and art and developed an aesthetic sense—descrying the beauties of the world whether in nature: “There were weeds like wild hair, indefatigable ivy… The washed bowls of the pools gleamed like teaspoons, and I could easily see grains of sand crawling slowly along a bottom from which the light rose like a cloud of steam …” or in words: “… I would die down … in the language and lap of Shakespeare or Carlyle or Mann or Cervantes.” How to reconcile?

Susan Stewart has observed how “[i]ts disturbing story is that of the ethical relation between the individual and the collective in the twentieth century; it is told in a prose of disarming brilliance and beauty from a comic perspective of moral vacuity.” The Tunnel invites the reader into his or her own tunnel to find out what depravity might exist—what are we hiding, what exists in the midnight of our souls? It’s a parable most want to reject, but in which some will recognize worth. It’s a book ultimately about us and our country, composed from the Johnson to the Clinton Administrations as select seeds were planted for what would sprout in 2016. Gass called it a “It Can’t Happen Here book,” further adding, “Well, to say that’s those people is to cop out. It’s us…. The whole world, which is constantly flowing, has to be perceived and saved and redeemed, even if it’s awful.”

The text is a lifelong therapy or a weeks-long brain surgery on Kohler, its composition (Kohler’s mimicking Gass’s) a painful rebirthing or maybe unbirthing, with Gass’s creative powers fighting his own biography kestrel-like in the country of the blue and on into the night-side of writing: dreams, sleep, and unreason, blurring reality through the detritus of words in the tunnel. Poet Geoffrey Hill riffed off of Yeats about the process of creation: “It is the being forced down under the surface by the resistance of technique that inaugurates a self-alienating process, which, as it drives down into strata that are not normally encountered, may produce alien objects.” Hence, in the second movement (or “phillipic” as Gass named them): “I love History because I hate Time and all Time contains … I jig on the graves of all those days: July 6, 1415, for instance, when they burned John Hus; or Dec. 7, 43 B.C., a day on which Anthony’s thugs murdered Cicero … or Jan. 29,1938, when the elevator took my mother to the floor reserved for the crazy ladies.” Dates, with something as monumental as a mother’s descent into madness slipped in, matched with burnings and hangings—such a collage stops the reader up short because there is no cajoling line following a pointed personal judgment in a sea of distant history—the picture of these conjunctions is disturbance enough. But there is rhyme to Gass’s reason, though we see the effects of being a Kohler before we understand them. As the first 150 pages proceed, more details appear and sputter away, only to be returned to again later, a process Gass defined as a

standard technique of modernism…. The notion, of course, that as you proceed through a book, just as you proceed through a sentence from its subject to its conclusion, what you arrive at alters the meaning that you began with. So the whole text is constantly reverberating back on its beginning. And altering the original. And then starting out over and over again, in a circular Joyceian fashion, these alternations, these oppositions, begin to get cozier and cozier, the way you get in a good stew. There’s a flavor coming out of the interaction of the ingredients.

The Tunnel is a memory book—a book of life with the text as body, a correlation which plays throughout, as well as being the main storied metaphor for what a book is.

The scatterings of the first movement lessen in the second, and fall off even more in the third, where two tremendous sections, like the mosaics of a long Marianne Moore poem, start to gird the book’s architecture with the humanness of Kohler. They center on lost love and then dreary childhood scenes, the former maybe the only love he enjoyed—these sections are further solidified by the “Uncle Balt” section, giving a Faulkneresque portrait of an old man from the time of Faulkner’s most indelible novels. Both are also anchored by a Gass-favorite: an insect (recall his story “Order of Insects”). It is here that the reader mayfall deeper into the text, accepting it (and Kohler) in all its animism or abjuring the pique of daring to remind us the monster is human—the first one-hundred pages, piled with countless cunts, Jews, and Hitlers, being too hard to overcome. In the beginning of the philippic, Kohler starts to talk of the town he is from, Grand, and all the dust he remembers, even prior to Dust Bowl days, then details the plague of grasshoppers, “And so they came in wide flat covering clouds, in enormous flooding sheets—millions and millions of swallowing mouths.” As the book will filter in and out of time, there comes a key section where Kohler has returned home from living in Germany, and he goes into a field where he gets caught in “a stifling funnel” of grasshoppers, who

do not spiral like flies or bees, but leap in a gale, so the feeling of whirlwind I had, of their coming straight from my feet and circling round me, was hopelessly unfactual, and even that sensation was one I had afterward, when I tried to save a little of my sanity by sorting my impressions and systematically swallowing them, draining my sickness from my head and putting my past in my belly.

Memories aren’t exactly true and the hometowns we hate have a tendency to rise up against us even if we only happened to twist an ankle while revisiting. “Putting my past in my belly” is a Rilkean nod—in Malte (the most important precursor to The Tunnel), the narrator describes Christoph Detlev’s death (not the person but the “death”) that screams so loud people throughout the country hear it—as if something starts growing, like in the new-age term called the “pain body,” a place where people store painful life experiences not fully faced—numerous parts of his body are “tunnels” into and out of Kohler’s pain.

The Tunnel is a memory book—a book of life with the text as body, a correlation which plays throughout, as well as being the main storied metaphor for what a book is, one as old as the physical book itself. And a few pages after the above scenes, Kohler begins to ask the questions at the crux of the text (his body): “When I write about the Third Reich, or now, when I write about myself, is it truly the truth I want? What do I want? to find out who I am? What is the good of that? I want to feel a little less uneasy. We drag out acts behind us like a string of monsters.” So there is conscience to Kohler, no matter the monster, this is the examined life. Immediately after is the “August Bees” section, where he blends his lover, Lou, with those bees of Rilke’s work and real ones, in describing their month of a summer affair (“We were happy because we had no history.”) while he wrote his book. A tussle ensues. The heights of love and the horror of the Holocaust nestle in his memory like a freakish frieze by Picasso:

Oh. No. I’m not your second-story man anymore. Another story has intervened. The beauty which I had from you            Tents. Tired men. Smoke. Still air. Stacked arms. The pale pattern of your bra, like something which has lain too long across grass, as that scarf lay across its dresser, is one I watch a former self observe, a self which could have returned through the screen to spread itself like a brown glaze over your breasts, not this body which is all mine now—and a mind which is pure bleach.

Time versus history and time taken out of history—it’s easy enough to remove it from distant events, but hardly plausible to subtract it from raw experience, especially when those cherished hours are but a small window of desire. “The beauty which I had from you …” Kohler begins, but can’t go on and five short sentences stencil in the horror of history—but then back to Lou, her bra—though the old observer is at a remove from the present Kohler. The body at the end, which is all his, is his wife’s, and her mind is “pure bleach.” But his wife’s mind cannot neutralize his vivid physical memories. The interplay and repulsion between the bodies of Kohler, his wife, and his lovers, (their discourse—his self “glaz[ing] over [Lou’s] breasts”), is the most conspicuois part of the phillipic’s discourse (the physicality of Gass’s words in making a text or a body)—one of his essays, “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses,” describes the process of fiction as building a snowman, and elsewhere he adds, “I always wanted the words to be in the mouth. Not just in the eye, but in the mouth. To be chewed. I think always the great writers, at least the ones I admire most, are the ones that put things in your mouth.”

It might take an imperious Freudian or Jungian to fully deconstruct the psychological layering (or terrorizing) that stains the first three movements of The Tunnel like a badly aimed pail of blood, but those answers would probably be too simplistic and carping to stand for something as unconscious as the well-crafted poetry (Kohler’s self-help gives only Gass-infused poetic responses) and there are  many lines that I would put against T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (“Only / There is shadow under this red rock, / Come in under the shadow of this red rock”), as worthy of being pressed into some New York City sidewalk as a molten plaque:

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 structure melts, 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.

In returning to the body passage, it is safe to say Lou is who he wants to remember, but his family is what he needs to recall. Behind the desire for Lou, and that mothering, there is the mother who became the abandoner, not by never leaving but by dying of drink before everyone’s eyes. In the “Uncle Balt” section:

My mother, my father, Uncle Balt: first I must understand them, before I can understand them; and the difficulty is that I only want to understand myself, which is what I do when I interpose the poet like a napkin between you—that is, them—their lives—you, yes—and my mind’s ruminating mouth.

That difficulty is possibly too much to overcome, because the tantalizing and zen (“first I must understand them, before I can understand them …”) seems to signal the impossible. One can’t understand oneself without considering one’s parents. The interposing of “the poet like a napkin” is The Tunnel’s formula for exploring how the styling and sagacious and sewer-like words of Kohler propel and falsify his ideas of not only himself and history, but the mysterious and imbricated sides of humanity itself, exemplified by many of the passive pennants listed on the opening pages—he will live and die by the poet within, which is the text (the “body” of Kohler). The poet makes a text (the physical manifestation of the poet) and transforms it into something that is not beholden to anyone or any idea or ideologue no matter how they might cavil it can. André Bleikasten, a French Faulkner scholar, wrote of literature and its great workings, especially challenging ambiguous works like The Tunnel (the following is a perfect encapsulation of it):

Literature is that which silences the deafening noise of common speech and unsettles common codings and categories. Literature is the side where the relation to reference, meaning, and truth is vertiginously suspended. As such, in its refusal to affirm or deny, in its mute dispersal or emptying-out of meaning, it is an uncanny force of provocation and destabilization, a force that resists assimilation to what we know and how we think, and hence capable of repelling ideology as well as theory.

What we know and think is upended by works like Gass’s because we don’t know how to think about them. If we accept Kohler, we may fear endorsing any of his ugly thoughts, but if we don’t grapple with the worst of our world (especially their thought-processes) we may continually contribute to the current fashion of erasing the people we all have to live with and wiping them from our “preferences” no matter the fact that they remain as living matter in the world. The chorus of complaints against Kohler or Gass, the implied narrator, or Gass, the artist, does go beyond the servile twenty-first century “not wanting to read something that people would judge us for reading” stance—even if it is accomplished, like Ezra Pound or Foster Wallace—but only to cry that The Tunnel shouldn’t be so long or not so despairing, again returning the overriding quibble, Why write about this person? We don’t have to agree with everything Kohler says and we certainly won’t, and as Lionel Trilling once said, “We can take pleasure in literature where we do not agree, responding to the power or grace of a mind without admitting the rightness of its intention or conclusion—we can take our pleasure from an intellect’s cogency, without making a final judgment on the correctness or adaptability of what it says.”

Are we afraid to do this today?

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, were both published by Splice. Zerogram Press will release a new and expanded version of See What I See in April 2021.