By Tim Youd
The Tunnel, virginal, sat unspread on my shelf for over ten years, filed next to a manhandled Omensetter’s Luck. At some point, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife came, and I lingered over the body of the work. She begot In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and each joined the expanding Gass family of books on my shelf. But, except for an occasional fingering of the spine and a one-time furtive peek under the cover at the first few pages, The Tunnel remained immaculate, quite a trick for such a dirty book.
I should back up. I am a visual and performance artist engaged in the retyping of one hundred novels over a many year period. I have traveled across the US, and to Europe and Asia, to restage retypings in locations significant to the authors and novels I retype. My overriding precondition is that I retype only those novels that were typed on a typewriter by the author, and when I retype, I do so on the same make and model machine used in the original composition. I am not a particularly good typist. But that’s all right, because I retype each novel on a single sheet of paper, backed by a supporting sheet. When I get to the bottom of the page, I remove it and stuff my two-page sandwich right back in the top of the machine. After a few passes, the words become illegible. As I progress further, the rectangle of text becomes a solid black. And at some point, the paper degrades such that I have to repair it, and repair it again, in order to continue. When I have typed the entire novel, which typically occurs at a rate of 20 to 25 pages per day for a few weeks, I separate the top sheet from the bottom sheet, and present the two pages side by side. This diptych is then the finished piece of art. It is, if you will, a drawing of my close reading.
My project took me to St. Louis in 2018, where my work was the subject of an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. I retyped two novels and two volumes of poetry at locations in St. Louis while my work was on view at the museum. One of the novels I retyped was the great Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser, which I performed over a two week period in the English department faculty lounge in Duncker Hall at Washington University. While I was there and thanks to Allison Unruh, former contemporary curator at Wash U’s Kemper Art Museum, I was introduced to Joel Minor, director and curator of the Special Collections Library. He invited me to visit the special collection so that I might see Elkin’s papers and his actual typewriter, which is for me the ultimate object of fetishization.
I did start to see the quarantine as a gift of uninterrupted time. And time was, of course, what is needed to read The Tunnel.
It turns out that Joel has the motherlode of postmodern treasures. Elkin, Gaddis, Joy Williams and, of course, Gass. I did, in fact, know of Gass’s long affiliation with Washington University before my CAM St. Louis exhibition came together. So it’s fair to ask why I didn’t retype The Tunnel at that time, alongside my retyping of Elkin’s The Franchiser. The answer, I’m afraid, is that by that point I still hadn’t read the book. When I do a retyping, along with all my other preconditions, I must have read the book beforehand so that my retyping is in fact a rereading as well. At the heart of my 100 Novels Project is my attempt to become a better reader, and I think its safe to say that the work of being a better reader begins only when the reading of the book begins a second time. But getting a look at Gass’s actual typed manuscript of The Tunnel, witnessing his original experiments in typography and experimentation with various colored inks, confirmed for me that I was a schmuck for not taking care of the long overdue business of reading the novel.
Enter Covid. And what’s an itinerant typist to do without an itinerary? That was the nagging question, as those initial days of the quarantine turned into weeks, and my plans for upcoming retypings wobbled, and then toppled over. I should note that I have a studio in Los Angeles, where I live, and make drawings and paintings, with my current body of work focused on the abstraction of typewriter ribbon and spools. So I wasn’t just rolling around on the floor with nothing to do, but I did start to see the quarantine as a gift of uninterrupted time. And time was, of course, what is needed to read The Tunnel.
It was a singular experience. To read a book I had for so long circled, and not just once, but twice and back to back at that.
Ultimately, I was saved by a metaphor. As I was thinking about reading The Tunnel, I also started thinking about retyping it. Not at some point in the future, but right then, in the moment of the pandemic. What if I read the novel first, and then immediately retyped the novel, every day for a month, and in the end, I tunneled out of the quarantine?
My art is shown at the Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York City. On my behalf, Cristin contacted Lisa Melandri and Wassan Al-Khudhairi, respectively the director and chief curator of the CAM St. Louis. Because of my history with them and the CAM, it seemed like a good chance to try a virtual retyping, bringing me from my garage in Los Angeles to Gass’s St. Louis for a month-long performance of The Tunnel. And that’s exactly what happened. Every day for the month of May, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific, with a mid-morning coffee break and a half hour for lunch, I sat in my garage and retyped The Tunnel via a live video stream that was available to view through the combined efforts of the CAM St. Louis and the Cristin Tierney Gallery.
It was a singular experience. To read a book I had for so long circled, and not just once, but twice and back to back at that. And to retype it word for word, all 652 pages of it, during a global pandemic, alone in my garage, but also being watched by anyone with an interest and an internet connection. The compulsion and the effort and the circumstances certainly seemed to fit this particular novel.
As fate would have it, when I emerged from my retyping tunnel at the end of May, not only were we still in the early stages of the as-yet-unabated pandemic, our nation had once again come upon its ugliest self in the murder of George Floyd. My metaphor ended there. Gass knew, better than most, the limits of art in the face of real-time horror. Life and literature happen in different time signatures. Sometimes there is synthesis, and sometimes there is much less than that.
Now, months away from my retyping, I still find myself circling back. And in this retelling of my rereading and retyping of the novel, I’ve come across a review by Robert Alter of the New Republic, who complained, amongst a litany of other gripes, that “what emerges is a kind of inadvertent complicity between author and protagonist.” To that I would say, far from being a knock, it is a mark of the singularity of The Tunnel that Gass was willing to wrestle so closely with his inner ugliness, which is an ugliness all humans share. Alter was perceptive indeed, he just didn’t have the stomach for the truth.
Tim Youd (b. 1967, Worcester, MA) is a performance and visual artist working in painting, sculpture, and video. To date, he has retyped 66 novels at various locations in the United States and Europe. Residencies at historic writer’s homes have included William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak with the University of Mississippi Art Museum (Oxford, MS), Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia with SCAD (Milledgeville and Savannah, GA), and Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House (Rodmell, Sussex). His work has been the subject of numerous museum exhibitions, including CAMSTL, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, Hanes Art Gallery at Wake Forest University, The New Orleans Museum of Art, Monterey Museum of Art, Hemingway-Pfeffer Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, University of Mississippi Art Museum at Rowan Oak, and the Lancaster Museum of Art and History. He has presented and performed his 100 Novels project at the Ackland Art Museum, Weatherspoon Art Museum, Art Omi, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), and LAXART, and retyped Joe Orton’s Collected Plays at The Queen’s Theatre with MOCA London. He lives and works in Los Angeles.