‘The Tunnel’ into the future

By Steven G. Kellman

American literature is a history of delayed sanctification—major works such as Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, The Awakening, Call It Sleep, and Their Eyes Were Watching God languishing in obscurity for at least a generation before being rediscovered and canonized. When The Tunnel was published, in 1995, it was widely and prominently reviewed, but it has since slipped away from the cultural conversation.

The Modern Language Association Bibliography lists 44 items that discuss Gass’s novel, though 14 of those appeared in a single source—Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, a collection that Irving Malin and I edited in 1998. Moreover, the MLA Bibliography lists only three items published about The Tunnel since 2010. By contrast, 115 items in total are listed for Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, which appeared in the same year as The Tunnel; and 29 of those appeared within the past ten years. Another 1995 title, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, has 65 total items, and 21 of them were published since 2010. In addition, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, also published in 1995, has 53 total items, 24 since 2010. By the end of May, 2020, The Tunnel ranked #240,670 in Amazon sales, trailing The Moor’s Last Sigh at #171,197, Blindness at #15,903, and In the Time of the Butterflies at #4,534. Nor has The Tunnel made much impact abroad. It was translated, belatedly, into only French and German. After rejection by most Paris publishers (Renault), Le tunnel appeared, in a rendition by Christophe Claro, in 2007. Der Tunnel, a German translation by Nikolaus Stingl, followed in 2011.

Though it never seemed destined for bestsellerdom, The Tunnel demands to be studied, if not read.

Reviewing Gass’s novel for the New Republic, Robert Alter attacked it as “a bloated monster of a book.… The bloat is a consequence of sheer adipose verbosity and an unremitting condition of moral and intellectual flatulence” (29). By contrast, reviewing the book for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Michael Silverblatt called it “the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime” (1), and, in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Kelly dubbed it “the masterpiece, one must presume, of this 70-year-old American master” (17-18). In our edited collection, Malin announced that The Tunnel “… is, along with Pale Fire, a work Gass admires, the most significant novel written since World War II.… I predict that this novel will ‘last’—unless ‘literature’ dies” (11).

Alter’s negative assessment does not seem widely shared today, if only because the book is neglected rather than despised. But neither is Malin’s prediction of  its literary immortality assured, if only because, as he suggested, “literature”—forced to compete with new, more fashionable claims on public attention—has seemed increasingly archaic and quaint. As the Danish quip warns, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. And only a fool would bet on future shares in the literary stock market. There is no certainty that the reputation of The Tunnel will follow the same trajectory as that of Moby-Dick. However, as attention spans contract, so do the chances that many will wade through a volume of 652 pages.

Though it never seemed destined for bestsellerdom, The Tunnel demands to be studied, if not read. A problematic academic novel narrated by a professor of history at a large Indiana university who summarizes his existence as “Life in a schoolroom” (Gass 41), it is perhaps best encountered in a graduate seminar, where its multiple allusions and complexities can be unpacked and analyzed. Yet few instructors at a contemporary American university, including William Frederick Kohler’s, would want to risk student rebellion by assigning a text as lengthy as Gass’s. In the age of flash fiction, it has become as unteachable as William Gaddis’s J.R. (726 pages), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (760 pages), Joshua Cohen’s Witz (824 pages), William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central (832 pages), Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (898 pages), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1,079 pages), and the entirety of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (7,408 pages). In that company likely belongs Kohler’s own massive Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany.

Kohler might be describing the apotheosis of the 45th president in one of Trump’s grandiose, raucous political rallies.

And yet, The Tunnel is more in sync with the current  post-9/11 zeitgeist than the era of relatively good feelings in which it first appeared. It is true that in 1995 wars raged in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka and that the terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168. However, the Dow Jones for the first time surpassed 500, and, with the collapse of the Soviet Union four years earlier, the Cold War was over. The Shengen Agreement promised to erase the borders that divided Europe, and more than 170 countries agreed to extend the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Universal concord and prosperity seemed possible, even imminent. The semblance of consensus over liberal democracy even led Francis Fukuyama, in a 1992 book by that name, to posit “the end of history.”       

Yet there is no end to historical commentary by a garrulous narrator who calls himself “the Hector Berlioz of history” (Gass 56). Proclaiming that: “History is the abyss of the doomed,” Kohler, a scholar of history, explains: “I aspire to the abyss” (185). The abyss into which his reader plunges anticipates our current state. On November 8, 2016, when what Kohler calls “the Party of Disappointed People,” lurking underground in 1995, emerged triumphant, the pennants Gass places at the outset of The Tunnel— representing Envy, Spite, Resentment, Bigotry, and Malice, among other emotions—were forcefully unfurled.  Donald Trump gained the presidency of the United States by tapping into the festering rancor of white men who blamed immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, Jews, journalists, gays, women, and others for their own undeserved misfortunes. His insistence on “America First” is consistent with Kohler’s xenophobic childhood lesson that “They were America, damn it, and Americans should come first” (528).

Kohler might be describing the apotheosis of the 45th president in one of Trump’s grandiose, raucous political rallies when he imagines:

Great undulating banners red as blood. And the brass bands. And the manly thud of uniformly set-down boots. And the rage inside the happy shouts. A hundred thousand spleens have found a mouth. Curtains of sperm are flung up the side of the sky. Hell has fertilized heaven. And now the hero comes – the trumpet of his people. And his voice is enlarged like a movie’s lion. He roars, he screams so well for everyone, his tantrums tame pharaoh for the disappointed people. (155)

A scholar—and aficionado—of Nazi Germany, Kohler is conjuring up the annual Nuremberg Rallies, orgiastic spectacles celebrating the triumph of Aryan will, but he is also anticipating the elevation of a blusterous American demagogue into a demigod, the champion of his disappointed people against the privileged “elites” he fulminates against.

Not all public discourse in 1995 exhibited the forbearance and beneficence of  Fred Rogers, whose palliative TV show ran until 2001. However, Kohler’s torrent of profanities (e.g., the vulgar limericks he scatters throughout his narrative) and the odious insults he directs toward his colleagues Charles Culp, Oscar Planmantee, Walter Herschel, and Tomasso Governali, his mentor Magus “Mad Meg” Tabor, his wife Martha, his father, even his students—“Poor pale dutiful donkeys” (547)—were outré for the era. He anticipates the collapse of civil discourse in the venomous daily tweets and yawps of the 45th president, who notoriously boasted: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” (Trump “I Could Shoot Somebody”) and retweeted a video proclaiming: “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” (Blake). Casual comments by athletes, actors, musicians, and other politicians now frequently attack others in vile and sometimes violent terms. In his own blatant amorality, Gass’s narrator, who admits: “I have a loathsome mind” (169) and callously strangles Martha’s cat, seems a contemporary of twenty-first-century malefactors such as  Jeffrey Epstein, Osama bin Laden, Bernie Madoff, Dylann Roof, Frank Underwood, and Walter White.

In 1995, 40 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, virtuous Americans might have believed anti-Semitism a quaint relic of other—troubled—times and places. Discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity had been outlawed, and hate crimes against Jews were relatively rare. Occasional vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries seemed the work of freakish sociopaths, like Gass’s Kohler, who savors recounting Nazi atrocities and slandering their victims. However, by 2020, anti-Semitism had migrated from the fringes of American society to very near its center, and Kohler no longer seems such an outlier. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,017 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year, when a shooting spree at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh left 11 dead (Anti-Defamation League). It was the highest annual number ever recorded by the ADL, which began its census of ignominy in 1979. Nazis and other Jew-haters were out of the closet and marching in Charlottesville and other American cities. Some were even praised as “very fine people” by the president of the United States (“Trump on Charlottesville”).

The Tunnel was published in the infancy of the internet, before the development of social media that made it possible to expatiate at tedious length in public.

“O ponder the fascism of the heart,” Kohler exclaims (53). In a chapter titled “Being a Bigot” (pp. 521-33), he offers what is in effect a 12-page rhapsody on the theme of brotherly malevolence. “The bigot,” he writes, “ is a person who has suffered an unmerited injustice, one which hasn’t been put right, and woe to others if he ever has a chance to get his own back, and take what has long been his—his property, power, and honor—from those who have traduced his principles and scorned his manner of existence” (528). It is a perpetual rancor directed at others who seem to be prospering at one’s own expense. It is widely observed that during the past three decades social and economic inequality in the United States has increased to a point unmatched since the Gilded Age and that recent political divisions result from the resentment of those who feel they have been left behind while others prospered. Such rancor was evident in the ascension of the churlish Newt Gingrich, a disruptive force even within his own Republican Party, to the speakership of the House of Representatives in 1995. But when that party chose Robert Dole and Jack Kemp, traditional Republicans, as national standard-bearers in 1996, it was clear that the GOP has not yet morphed—as it would in 2016—into the Party of Disappointed People.

Several recent books—including Arle Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Jonathan M. Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis—attempt to explain the revenge of the white underclass in ways that would make sense to Kohler, who, speaking for the disappointed people, offers his own account as “propaganda for the PdP” (652). In contrast to Iago as interpreted by Coleridge, Kohler and his disappointed people exhibit highly motivated malignity. He diagnoses the mounting resentments of embittered nativists who believe that immigrants, women, and minorities have been advancing at their expense. If, as he claims, “The bigot is a boiler building a head of spleen” (530), it was only in 2016 that that boiler exploded. According to Kohler, “God is resentment” (155), but America had to wait two decades for the full manifestation of the divinity.

“I have resentment to spare for a flood,” writes Kohler (43), and to find a comparable cascade of verbal bile, you have to turn to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground or the collected tweets of Donald Trump. The president, like the professor, is a blatherskate whose crude, blustery monologue is delivered in high dudgeon with low blows; see the savage insults Trump tosses daily at those he perceives as political foes. Yet, though both suffer from severe logorrhea, and fascism of the heart, and both are descended from German immigrants, Kohler and Trump are polar opposites in respect to intellectual curiosity. The former is obsessively erudite, the latter obdurately uninformed.

While Trump would almost certainly draw a blank on Anaxagoras, who provides the epigraph to The Tunnel, Kohler drops the names of hundreds of other authors—Herodotus, Dante, Milton, Voltaire, Hegel, Tolstoy, Rilke…, a veritable pantheon of Western thinkers—throughout his screed. He has spent his life studying history, in contrast to the president who, while visiting the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, allegedly asked John Kelly, his chief of staff: “Hey, John, what’s this all about? What’s this a tour of?” (Rucker and Leonnig 169). He was apparently ignorant of the 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor. Trump’s favorite president is Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act that led to the Trail of Tears, but, oblivious to the fact that the seventh president died 16 years before the assault on Fort Sumter, the 45th one claimed: “He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this’” (McCarthy).

Kohler embodies the contradiction that George Steiner, puzzling over the fact that many of those who perpetrated the Holocaust were connoisseurs of poetry, philosophy, and music, identified as “the paradox that modern barbarism sprang in some intimate, perhaps necessary way, from the very core and locale of humanistic civilization” (149). Nevertheless, resentful yahoos who have never heard of Goethe have also proven capable of inhumanity. According to Anaxagoras in the novel’s epigraph, “The descent to hell is the same from every place.” Though they arrive from different directions, Kohler and Trump both wave the rancorous banner of the Party of the Disappointed People, a movement that had not yet absorbed the Republican Party when The Tunnel was published. However, by 2016, claiming that they constituted half of Trump’s supporters, Hillary Clinton would call them “a basket of deplorables” and identify them as bigots —“The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up” (Reilly).

The Tunnel was published in the infancy of the internet, before the development of social media that made it possible to expatiate at tedious length in public on grouting the bathroom tile. Observing no distinction in level of importance, Kohler offers detailed accounts of Kristallnacht, his bowel movement, and learning how to drive. Within a couple of decades, his digressive style would become a fashionable feature in fiction by Lucia Berlin, Rachel Cusk, Lauren Groff, and Jenny Offill. Kohler’s insistence on laying out the full details of a mundane life would find fruition between 2009-2011 in the publication of the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle. Echoes of Adolf Hitler’s notorious book in Min Kamp, the original, Norwegian title of  Knausgård’s project, would not have displeased the author of Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany who, early in his own narrative, asks: “Are these sheets to be MEIN KAMPF?” (43; typography in original). Kohler’s struggle becomes the poetry of banality—parsing three kinds of dust (87), taking a Sunday family drive (219-36),  baking a cake (602-15). Knausgård’s accounts of making a sandwich, changing diapers, and washing dishes are similarly numbingly prosaic. Kohler’s extended meditation on his own penis (379-85) confirms his assessment that: “I have a loathsome mind” (169). But the same could be said of  Knausgård when he ruminates about defecating al fresco and watching flies consume the turd.

Digging himself more deeply into a hole suitable to self-isolation from a pandemic that was yet to arrive, Kohler imagines no way out. The final page of Gass’s novel is given over entirely to the enlarged logo “PdP” (653), suggesting the hegemony of the attitudes and emotions listed at the beginning of the book, among them malice, spite, resentment, and bigotry. “Take care,” warns Kohler. “Everyone will soon belong to the PdP – the Party of the Disappointed People” (552). Twenty-five years later, Kohler’s bleak, appalling prophecy seems less shocking but closer to fulfillment. There is no light at the end of The Tunnel.

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. “The Leveling Wind.” New Republic 22:13 (27 March 1995), pp. 29-32.

Anti-Defamation League. “Audit of Antisemitic Incidents 2019.” https://www.adl.org/audit2019. Accessed 22 July 2020.

Blake, Aaron. “The Only Good Democrat Is a Dead Democrat.” Washington Post. 29 May 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/05/28/trump-retweets-video-saying-only-good-democrat-is-dead-democrat/. Accessed 22 July 2020.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press, 1992.

Gass, William. The Tunnel. Knopf, 1995.

—. Le Tunnel. Trans. Christophe Claro. Paris: Editions du Cherche Midi, 2007.

—. Der Tunnel. Translated by Nikolaus Stingl, Reinbek, Rowohlt, 2011.

Hochschild, Arle Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The New Press, 2016.

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Viking, 2016.

Kellman, Steven G. and Irving Malin, ed. Into the Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel. University of Delaware Press 1998.

Kelly, Robert. “A Repulsively Lonely Man.” New York Times Book Review (26 Feb. 1995), pp. 17-18.

Knausgård, Karl Ove. My Struggle. 6 vols. Translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken, New York, Archipelago, 2009-2011. 

Malin, Irving. “Anti-Introduction.” Into the Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel. Ed. Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin. University of Delaware Press, 1998, p. 11.

McCarthy, Tom. “Trump Voices Confusion Over US History: ‘Why Was There a Civil War?’” The Guardian. 2 May 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/01/donald-trump-civil-war-cause-andrew-jackson. Accessed 22 July 2020.

Metzl, Jonathan M. Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland. Basic Books, 2019.

Reilly, Katie. “Read Hillary Clinton’s ‘Basket of Deplorables’ Remarks About Donald Trump Supporters.” Time. 10 Sep. 2016, https://time.com/4486502/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables-transcript/. Accessed 22 July 2020.

Renault, Olivier. “William Gass: le tunnel.” Art Press, vol. 334, no. 64 (May 2007).

Rucker, Philip and Carol Leonnig. A Very Stable Genius: Donald Trump’s Testing of America. Penguin, 2020.

Silverblatt, Michael. “A Small Apartment in Hell: William Gass’ Magnum Opus Shoehorns Us into a Most Claustrophic Space.” Los Angeles Times Book Review 1 (19 March 1995), p. 30.

Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman. Atheneum, 1979.

Trump, Donald J. “I Could Shoot Somebody and Not Lose Voters.” YouTube. 23 Jan. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTACH1eVIaA. Accessed 22 July 2020.

—. “President Donald Trump on Charlottesville: You Had Very Fine People, On Both Sides.” YouTube. 15 Aug. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmaZR8E12bs. Accessed 22 July 2020.

Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Harper, 2016.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His books include The Self-Begetting Novel (Columbia), The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska), Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton), and Nimble Tongues: Studies in Literary Translingualism (Purdue).