Review of The Tunnel by William H. Gass

What is this monstrous thing in the shape of a novel? this corpulent, unkind, savage, lexical anomaly? Maybe not a good gift for your grandmother for Hanukkah.

The first thing you might notice, if you’re paying attention, is Gass’s sentence architecture: most of his prose waterfalls are extended metaphors woven through elaborate sentence jazz sessions, hinging on portmanteau-ed verbs, vividly surrounding an image without precisely touching it, m-dashes prancing haphazardly, splashing interpolated questions at the reader, commas like ants, fluid, rhythmic, incantatory monologuing, mingled with short sentence fragments, snippets, wrapping around heady themes, and wildly weird moments peeking inappropriately from behind the curtain mid-sentence.

Many performances flabbily luxuriate across multipage beds. He constructs defensive bulwarks from brick-like metaphors, voyaging across time and perspective, acquiring layers of dense blubber and baroque barnacles along the way, manacled by the belligerent narrator, who is buried in deep piles of suspicion and guilt. The narrator sees himself in his work, becoming a work of fiction in turn. His body of work is propelled corpseward, a body already corpselike, like his own physical body, and yet his mind keeps his corpseworthy self in the self-composed loop of renewable decay.

It continues on at great length, fractally expanding from its origin. Language is the vehicle with which the narrator travels, while chairbound, hidebound, within his tenement of uncomfortably moist clay, his thoughts shimmer, elegiac, uncontainable, craggy, scintillating with love, but much more hate, and all related crenelations of despair, cruelty, obsession, strained analysis, and terror, partaking of spite in form & style, inflicting the mental acrobatics of referential mania upon the reader. Subsiding over this accumulating mess is a dense shadow, crystallizing the experiences of his youth and professional mistakes, his humiliations and family trouble. The descending darkness takes on abyssal depths, dawning, breaking, frothing, molting, assuming wing-like protuberances, hovering, sucking in with maw-like apertures all hope and joy from front and center, the here and now, and that vain contemplation of the future. He relates the grievous chronicle of his growing up, the heinous history of disdain which ploughs over sympathy and modesty and good sense, leaving pummeled and flattened any shriveled shred of innocence, while the ripe, musty, and brackish stench of his tainted presence stains the pages. The weight of the book increases as the reader proceeds, taking on teetering bastions and ramparts of lingual innovation, slime-castles, gluttonous rage, ruthless, grim, determined, sustained, abstract loathing, and many poetic, sublime and pasty comparisons, all transmogrified into indictments, glued together with bubble gum and band-aids, threatening to collapse from a stray breath.

Kohler’s life is not without tragedy. With each baroque sentence, he fingerpaints himself into a gilded cage. His bawdy, infantile ramblings are textbook Freudian diarrhea. Listening to him creates a lack of envy toward any psychoanalyst currently on the beat. It makes for nerve-fraying reading, comparable to letting a donkey bray in your ear for hours on end. It is an endless barrage of apt metaphors and carousing similes, which always and forever hesitate to shamble meaningward, but limp toward nirvana in their protracted, spasmodic swagger. The vagaries of pantomiming dilly-dallying are distracting, like the quasi-experimental breakdance of his typographical schizophrenia.

Pervading the entirety of the novel is the humid presence of the main characters’ engorged personality, percolating sweat and salacious innuendoes into every line, adding racy description into every profound passing thought.

Our narrator does not believe in the inner goodness of human beings, does not believe in beauty as an internal thing. His thesis would seem to be: Unhappy people like to blame others for their unhappiness. As such, he would like to list off all of the people who make him unhappy.

And he goes on furious 15-page bigoted rants, skewering other cultures for humor and laughs and giggles, following up the long paragraphs of vituperation with “my father said,” and thereby absolving himself. Bigotry may be a symptom of unhappiness, he posits, and he distinguishes it from racism. (The whole theory is wack if you ask me.)

This book is a monstrosity. A monolith of self-indulgence. Gass has his cake and eats it too. He regurgitates it and masticates anew. He does things with the cake which will make you blush.

This book is a vomitorium of mundane human details. Much of it is unnecessary. The intimate details of baking, driving, shitting, bathing, and that traumatizing doctor scene. The obsession with chocolate and poop – the main and central subjects of the book – the quirky pages about cake, lathering textures into skyscrapers of imagery, investing meaningless drivel with inherent significance. For the benefit of whom? Toward what end? Just why?

Is there an upward limit to introspection? This novel exemplifies why so many mega-novels are not written in the 1st person. I’m reminded of Auster’s similar literary debacle – they are merely a thick gruel of mental effluence.

The sad, nauseating bathroom rituals, obscene details, intensely self-focused categorization. The tunnel-vision of this novel is astounding. Kohler almost never mentions his children, as if they are off limits. But he decimates his wife with diatribes, jibes, cruel, sick, and horrifying descriptions. Gass never bothers to explain how a character so physically and mentally repulsive could seduce young students into twisted relationships – are they all in his head?

Thankfully, he provides a few astute observations on the ruinous effects of history resonating through modern culture.

In the end, there was far too much navel-gazing. If you’re a fan of all the goofing off in Philip Roth’s less relevant novels, you’ll have plenty to chew on here. Gass records enough aberration to fill every confession box in the Vatican. The frank and libidinous memories will wear and tear your peace of mind, but some of the nostalgic childhood woes may touch you in a special place, which you may have to indicate on a chart later for the law enforcement professional. The self-pity, the verbal virtuosity, the ranting, raving, and savage gallivanting toward aesthetic interpretation is a stylized descent into Hell, a reminder that we decorate our own prisons in life, and that the search for peace or culpability will often lead to cobbling together meaning out of the junkyard baubles of the past, discerning glorious veracity in reflective pools of toilet water. We frame the world in words, only so we can gaze at the incomprehensible artistry of it.

Passing comets of ideas illuminate an otherwise bleak and unendurable novel, happy accidents abound beneath the pun-piles. All in all, you have a punhill to look forward to, Gass is a pun-beetle, equipped with an inward-diving plumb-bob for the universe. He does a bang up job bounding a loathsome man in a nutshell. Flashes of erudition occur like intermittent lightning. The literary creation of history offers food for thought, and Gass bears out his ideas in exhaustive ways – does writing absolve or incriminate, and what better way to focus these concerns than through a writer narrator?

Besides the swarming ranthills, the gross meditation, the jingles and limericks galore, the illustrations, digressions, double coding, the bad breath, the propaganda, quips and unfortunate stereotypes, this rantfarm abounds with echoes of Homer, Oedipus, Joycean mumble jumble, and frequently channels Whitman’s Song of Myself, in a “sordid sado mado” catalog of maximinimalism.

Everything from the: “eggplant, marveling at the beauty of the soft glossy fruit, at its obvious inedibility, its incomprehensible name,” to the terror and inconvenience within the sphere of marriage. Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience might come to mind. If you are not bothered by the mist of a prolapsed soul jettisoning out of the pages when you crack the book open, feel free to freefall into this book, go ahead and contemplate the abyss. Maybe this cathedral in a snowglobe will ring your bell. It is an elaborate building indeed, tenanted and fully reticulated, etched into white soapstone, with microscopic precision, with the fidelity of a St. Peter’s or Notre Dame, but constantly battered with fake snow, concealed by that artifice, making a mound out of motes, blinding in its simplicity, muddled by the never-invisible pudgy hands of the author, smudging any obscure definitions of self-perpetuating chaos you might read between the flurries. This is dredged pond scum, silt and sputum of the mind,

Despite all of the jokes, it is not funny at all. It is quite deeply sad.

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