By Alec Nevala-Lee
Last year, I published an essay in the New York Times Book Review titled “The Party of the Disappointed People.” After checking it again just now, I can confirm that it has the highest ranking on Google of any critical work related to The Tunnel, which means that it may well be the first introduction for many prospective readers to William H. Gass’s novel. I have mixed feelings about this. It’s a good piece—I’m as happy with it as I am about anything that I’ve written at that length—and it did the job for which it was intended. All the same, it offers a highly incomplete picture of the book, and I suspect that it led more than a few buyers to expect something other than what they found when they finally opened it for themselves.
It was also very different from the sort of essay that I usually write. I did it simply because I felt that there needed to be a discussion of how Gass anticipated the current political climate in America, and after waiting for someone else to do it, I decided that it might as well be me. Since the closing seconds of the last presidential election, opinion pieces on Donald Trump have hardly been lacking, and I rarely feel that I have anything unique to contribute, but a close reading of a famously difficult novel that first appeared nearly a quarter of a century ago seemed just narrow, peculiar, and obsessive enough to add something worthwhile to the conversation.
When the idea initially occurred to me, I was operating under the considerable obstacle of having never actually read The Tunnel in its entirety. I was familiar enough with it to know that the angle was worth pursuing, but for most of my life, it stood as one of the great unread titles on my bookshelf, alongside Life: A User’s Manual and The Recognitions. It first came to my attention through a review on its original release by Paul Skenazy of the San Francisco Chronicle, which in those days ran its book coverage in a bulky tabloid supplement on pink paper that was delivered to my family’s house every Sunday. (Some of these reviews have stuck in my head forever, including the one for Infinite Jest, another huge novel that I have yet to finish, although it seems less in need of rescue by someone like me.)
My knowledge of Gass himself was also less than adequate. I had encountered him as a spectral presence in the work of John Gardner … but I knew him best as an essayist.
Skenazy’s review was ambivalent. “Poems and limericks in boldface type, on everything from carnal nuns to history, pop up at odd moments to keep us in a mental dance, reeling between plot and parody,” Skenazy wrote. “There are flags and pendants, crossword puzzles and illustrations, calling cards and typographical jokes—all reproduced on the page, all more a confirmation of Gass’s ingenuity than Kohler’s.” In the end, his ruling fell on the negative side: “Too fascinating in its separate parts to dismiss, too mean-spirited 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.” Many readers might agree, but for a certain type of aspiring writer—I was fourteen—it was the kind of divided verdict that was more memorable than any rave.
For years afterward, I browsed through The Tunnel at libraries and bookstores without buying it, until I came across a used copy for eight dollars at the Strand in New York in my twenties. It accompanied me on moves to Chicago and Oak Park without my managing to get past the opening chapter, and over time, the pages of my edition—the paperback reprint by Harper Perennial—grew prematurely yellowed. Every year or so, I would take it down and leaf through it with fascination and dread, and I came closest to reading it for real after discovering Gass’s wonderful memo to his publisher on his design specifications for the book, which he envisioned as “a heavy really richly textured lump of darkness.”
When I found myself obliged to tackle it seriously in the fall of 2018, Gass had died the year before, we had just survived the midterm elections, and I was keenly aware that I had a limited amount of time before external events and obligations made the project impossible. My knowledge of Gass himself was also less than adequate. I had encountered him as a spectral presence in the work of John Gardner, especially The Art of Fiction, but I knew him best as an essayist. Otherwise, he was an unknown, and to fill in the gaps, I bought The William H. Gass Reader, which had recently been released with minimal fanfare by Knopf, and Conversations with William H. Gass from the University Press of Mississippi.
The reaction to it was everything that I could have wanted. It was widely shared on social media.
Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I burrowed into The Tunnel, underlining passages for later consideration and folding down the upper corner of every useful page. As I plowed through a hundred pages a day, the shape of my essay became clear. I would keep my voice out of it as much as possible—which partially explains why I’ve done the opposite here—and structure it as a series of quotations, the longer the better, with the bare amount of context and commentary required to sustain it. I would also refrain from editorializing, trusting that readers would see the point without my help. In the final version, I don’t even mention its true subject by name, except in an oblique reference to the sunsets “displayed in the deepest colors of catastrophe, the dark discordant tones of the Last Trump.”
It took me about ten days to finish reading The Tunnel and related works by Gass, and by early December, I had a rough draft of the piece that was around three thousand words long. As usual, I put it aside for a few weeks before embarking on the revision, which brought it down to 2,500 words, and I emailed it to an editor at the Times. I had written it without a guaranteed market, but fortunately, she accepted it later that month with the stipulation that it be trimmed by another eight hundred words, which I agreed to cut. Because of staff turnover, it took half a year for it to be scheduled, but it finally ran on July 12, 2019, first online and then in print. Despite the long delay, it felt—to put it mildly—as relevant as ever.
From conception to publication took about eight months, and another two hundred words were cut by the Times, although I restored a few key passages—most notably the one about “all of those who weren’t twerps who willed what Hitler wished”—late in the editorial process. The reaction to it was everything that I could have wanted. It was widely shared on social media, and Gass’s daughter, Catherine, told me that her father would have been surprised and gratified by it. The book even saw a spike in sales on Amazon, although I expect that the number of readers who made it all the way through as a result can be counted on two hands.
Like all major novels, though, it contains multitudes, and it continues to evolve in my mind.
As published, the essay is about a thousand words shorter than the draft that I hoped to see in the paper, and although the final edit is probably superior, there are many sections that I miss. One is a line from an interview in which Gass explicitly set forth my case for me: “Kohlers make up much of what mankind is. […] Conservatives hate the book because it is a portrait of them. In the family of man there they sit.” I also removed many quotations solely for length, and I can think of no better use of this space now than to reprint them here. When I look at them today, they read like a manual for what the Republican Party became:
Seriousness of every kind would be canceled so the real show could go on: the Celebrity Roast. (167)
Our national pride has been dragged through the dust like dogs with a dead rat….
Our party shall have planks, by god, planks we shall walk our enemies out on. Let them teeter on the brink.
And they shall be surprised—ah—look at the look of surprise in their eyes when they witness the turn of the worm; when at last we lowly trodden meekish people put on boots to put our foot down. (287)
We’ll need to nail down some sort of platform, too, some seven-point program put in terms of Chinese stages, Prussian periods, Soviet steps, forward leaps. Thoughts compressed and polished and sharp as placard staples. Stressing broken promises, punctured hopes, and empty dreams….We will have to invent a single enemy to be our bull’s-eye, spouse for our spleen. That’s essential. (300)
If even a little power should come our way like a windfall from a distant relative’s will…then what damage we would do, what revenge we would take…if for the briefest bit of blessed time, I—my habitually helpless hand—once—once—just once—held the whip. (367)
Their banners spoke of the public weal while their boots settled private scores. (411)
[Hitler] was in fact a petty little twerp….What I wonder about are all of those who weren’t twerps who willed what Hitler wished, who pondered and planned and organized and sacrificed in order to establish the thousand-year Reich, who donned uniforms and fired guns and made planes and prepared food and forged those famous chains of command, who invented and connived and lied and stole and killed, because they willed what the little twerp wished; they, who idolized a loud doll, who loved the twerps-truths, who carried out the wishes of a murderous fool, an ignoble nobody, a failure so unimportant that failure seems a fulsome description of him.
Revisionists will try to make Hitler out to be a cunning fellow. […]They will end by calling him a sagely able leader. This will remove some of the guilt from the German people and place more of it on the head goat. Doers of deeds of darkness will blame their unfavorable reputation on the slow arrival of dawn, sinners guilty of any actual execution will say the seeds lay in someone else’s thought. (455)
The dearly beloved German leader “did” damn little. His hands posed; he postured; he preached; he sulked; he charmed; he threw tantrums. Hitler went about wishing like a will-o’-the-wisp, as though he had Aladdin’s lamp, as if he were the prince of beggars, and left it to others to find a fulfillment for each cup of hope he held out. (457)
I would have followed him just to get even. […] Desperate because I would live on empty otherwise, because all of us were pointlessly going to die anyway; so what would I be risking, really? what would I lose that I had not already lost? and for a while I would ride high, for a while I would be a winner, for a time I would belong. […] clichés would rise like blinds to greet the morning, and I would have a place in line, I would have a certain superiority, I would have backed a winning team, I would be wearing a damn fine uniform, I would be a little finger, sure, but in a big fist … and like most clerics, most politicians, most professional liars to the mind, we would have known what we were doing, and taken the trade-off, taken our chances—bitter with sweet for sweet’s sake—taken everything we could get, why not? (462)
It’s true that only a generation ago, my father’s parents were immigrants, too, but they were good Europeans, came from its noblest, if almost newest, country, and were never a drag on the national economy. (527)
In order to understand a bigot from the inside, you need to know what it is like to have a set of feelings you prize beyond price, and of which you are at the same time ashamed. You prize them because they are all that sustain you: the record of the crimes against you, the history of your years of endurance, the broken promises you have replaced with the one you’ve now made to yourself: a kingdom to come, with revenge as reward. (530)
Gass’s systematic dissection of “a slightly hidden fascist mentality” in the United States strikes me as the most valuable undertaking in a career of extraordinary ambition, even if it reflects only part of The Tunnel itself. Like all major novels, though, it contains multitudes, and it continues to evolve in my mind. My essay opened with Gass’s lines on how “Coach” might become the title of America’s first dictator, which I paired at the end with a passage from “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” on political partisans: “They have a fanatical desire to win; yelling is their forte; and if things go badly, they are inclined to sack the coach.” When I quoted that sentence, I wanted to believe it, and I wasn’t sure that I did. But now I think that I might.
Gass, William H. The Tunnel, Knopf, 1995.
Alec Nevala-Lee was a 2019 Hugo and Locus Award finalist for Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street Books / HarperCollins), which was named one of the best nonfiction books of the year by The Economist. His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Rumpus, Lit Hub, Public Books, Longreads, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Uncanny Magazine, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He is currently at work on a biography of the architectural designer Buckminster Fuller, which is scheduled to be published by HarperCollins in 2021.