Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

The Tunnel: A Small Apartment in Hell

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

The Tunnel: A Small Apartment in Hell

Article excerpt

Prefatory Note:

"The most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime--Michael Silverblatt, Los Angeles Times." These words appear on the cover of every edition of The Tunnel after the first one. I was told that I would come to regret the passionate extremity of my original review. You can only make this kind of statement once in a lifetime, even if your life is subsequently graced by masterpiece after masterpiece. I am committed to The Tunnel, I'm pleased to have my original review reprinted.

Most difficult books gradually come to be familiar. Time and adroit scholarship unknots knots; most difficulties turn out to be local. Even the most abstruse references show up in one lexicon or another.

It seems to me that The Tunnel is not so much a difficult book as an unbearable one. Culture should aspire to understand and be worthy of the greatest literature. But in the years since the publication of The Tunnel, our culture has descended to the level of its narrator William Kohler. Wherever you look you see the fascism of the heart, ingrained racism perpetuated by childhood habits; everywhere the consequences of the activities of the Party of Disappointed People.

We have not learned to understand The Tunnel, instead we live in the horrible nightmare of its implications. It is one of our nation's greatest novels and the hardest to accept. To the extent that we have seen the world of The Tunnel take daily shape around us, we have become a vicious, unbearable nation. Surely it was the thirty year project of our greatest writer of prose to capture with such beauty the ugliness of our decline.

William Gass's shoulder, reading sections as they appeared in literary magazines beginning in 1969 when a chapter called "We Have Not Lived the Right Life" appeared in the New American Review.

That piece took my breath away. The narrator, William Kohler, a professor of modern German history and specialist in the Third Reich, told us about the Midwestern town where he was born, called Grand ("simply Grand"). The beleaguered town is visited by dust storms and swarms of grasshoppers, tornadoes, and blizzards, no plague more devastating than the invasion of relatives come to celebrate a cousin's wedding:

   Ponderous aunts and uncles, uncles lean as withered beans, aunts
   pale as piecrust, grandmapas with rheum and gout, cousins
   through the house like warnings of death from the air (later in
   London, I heard them often), cousins who scratched you under the
   table, all agloat cousins who told on other cousins, cousins who
   scooped up fistfuls of mashed potato and let it slime over their
   wrists; aunts who wore hats in the house, aunts who starched and
   ironed linens, aunts who stirred pots, flagellated rugs, opened
   doors for dogs, swatted flies, and reminisced fondly of death and
   diseases as if they were high school dances, former flames;
   uncles and great uncles who, like the hoppers, spat long brown
   jets of chewing tobacco across the railings while they rocked;
   nieces and nephews, a few of those too, who peed in their pants,
   threw up, bawled, and beat you on the shins and ankles with
   alphabet blocks; relatives at every conceivable remove, but not
   removed, each noisily present ...

The sentence swelled and flooded over three pages, a vast paragraph wave of nausea written so beautifully, so lovingly that it reads like a celebration, sweeping to such a crescendo that I couldn't stop to savor its phrase-by-phrase marvels of sound, of metaphor, of placement, of compact description. I read it aloud to friends, to teachers, to whoever would listen. Its rhythms entered my conversational speech. As the years passed and The Tunnel continued to appear in the literary magazines, I came to recognize that the material was dark and difficult and that the prose was designed to render the intractability of the themes at their different levels of difficulty. …

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