The Tunnel by William H. Gass

Photo by Michael Lionstar

About William H. Gass: “Gass (born July 30, 1924, Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.—died December 6, 2017, St. Louis, Missouri) was an American writer noted for his experimentation with stylistic devices. He wrote Omensetter’s Luck (1966), the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and worked for 30 years to complete his second novel, The Tunnel (1995). His critical writings Habitations of the Word (1985), Finding a Form (1996), and Tests of Time (2002) each won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Gass’s other works include In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), short stories; Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), collected critical essays; On Being Blue (1976), imaginative interpretations of the color blue; among others. Gass taught philosophy at the College of Wooster (Wooster, Ohio), Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana), and Washington University (St. Louis, Missouri).” – adapted from Britannica.

“Perfection is impossible. Utopias are foolish. All projects must be undertaken with the understanding that human flaws are likely to undo them. […] The only enemy of man is man.”

If the future belongs to crowds, as DeLillo wrote in Mao II, then the past belongs to those who live their lives in a chair, namely, the armchair historians, not because they participate in history but because they parse it, prod it, paper-cut it into whatever snowflake shape they did or didn’t desire. We spend all 652 suffocating and liberating pages of The Tunnel in the antagonistic mind of the protagonist, one William Frederick Kohler, a Midwestern university professor who has nearly finished his opus of academic research titled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, finished but for its introduction, that is. This introduction turns into a book-length digression, the pages of which are hidden from his wife and overall life between the leaves of his thickening and sickening manuscript, an introduction by way of thermal conduction that all but melts the distinction between Hitler’s Germany and Kohler’s University (or is it Kohler’s Germany and Hitler’s University?), and more than this: the introduction become spermary for the painful and pleasurable reminiscences of childhood, as well musings on his current neurotic condition and almost everything in between; we peer into what we normally never see: the history of the historian—his struggle.

As for the quite out-of-proportion melting, here are a couple of examples: “In the army too, they took our clothes and stood us up for hours in drafty lines like Jews or the newly received insane whose teeth they also took away—their jewelry and combs—and I survived by smothering every feeling in my chest….” In the same paragraph, he claims that “a little Führer’s been my father; and the house I knew my youth in was always dark, close, dirty, overcrowded, damp, and foul with sickness…,” evoking some of the conditions of being in a death camp. Especially in terms of the paterfamilias, one can’t help but think of Plath’s dear “Daddy”, “A man in black with a Meinkampf look.”

The more one reads, the more one can categorize The Tunnel as either the most beautiful ugly book or the ugliest beautiful book, this contradiction made possible by Kohler’s poetic verbosity, choleric Kohler, that coal-hearted character with a diamond in his center, although one can never quite tell whether it’s authentic or cubic zirconia, if it exists at all. The ‘pretty ugly’ duality makes for a worthwhile comparison between The Tunnel and Lolita, both Kohler and Humbert Humbert putting the gross in engrossing, the toxic in intoxicating, yet it’s the former who emphasizes the ugliness even with his gorgeous sentences, for H.H. is sincerely insincere while H. Gass’ WFK is insincerely sincere (giving us “The Complete Dishonest and Unwholesome Truth,” as one section is titled), but even these distinctions are liable to melt too, with the sizzle of a sin sear—Ho-lolita-caust! While Humbert Humbert is confessing to a crime that involves the lost innocence of a little girl, Kohler is confessing to the crimes of humanity that involve our worst devils, inner and outer, the better angels having been battered and left to bleed in their envenomed heaven. Kohler may not be trying to seduce the reader like Humbert Humbert, but if not, he seems to be trying to seduce himself, autoeroticism, emphasis on rot, and we are complicit with each turn of the page, each tug of the prick. Although Kohler is much more obsessed with the Führer’s rock-hard Reich than any nimble nymphet, he is still the type of professor who’s pro-molester, taking advantage of his female students in both subtle and all too obvious ways, including meeting one in the woods for illicit liaisons that elicit lofty grades.

As we continue to compare these 20th-century masterpieces, let’s not forget one of the most unspokenly potent moments in all of Lolita, the nightmare of guilt and disappearance in Humbert’s urgency:

…she did haunt my sleep but she appeared there in strange and ludicrous disguises as Valeria or Charlotte, or a cross between them. That complex ghost would come to me, shedding shift after shift, in an atmosphere of great melancholy and disgust, and would recline in dull invitation on some narrow board or hard settee, with flesh ajar like the rubber valve of a soccer ball’s bladder. I would bind myself, dentures fractured or hopelessly mislaid, in horrible chambres garnies where I would be entertained at tedious vivisecting parties that generally ended with Charlotte or Valeria weeping in my bleeding arms and being tenderly kissed by my brotherly lips in a dream disorder of auctioneered Viennese bric-à-brac, pity, impotence and the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed.

The final image in that final sentence evoking the Final Solution (made all the more painful knowing that Vladimir Nabokov’s brother Sergey was murdered in a concentration camp and he only ever alluded to this tragedy among tragedies twice, the other instance in Pnin). Of course, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Lolita could be seen as a metaphor of authoritarianism, Humbert Humbert being the Big Brother who with his boot stamps the face of Lolita, forever. It’s almost as though Gass had gripped that final image and blew more gas, more Zyklon B, to expand it into the daydreaming nightmare, the monstrous imago, of The Tunnel.

Gass claimed the novel’s first 100 or so pages are a test, with multiple false and misleading passageways, much like those encountered in an escape tunnel, until finally you’ve found your way into the tunnel proper, the hole of the sleeve, the worm in its dirt, the hallway to the womb, the vortex of the tornado, the constricting digestive system, the thoughts that burrow into the brain like rodents, even the author’s surname, when affixed with an e—gasse—means alleyway or passage in German, plus the gas that travels through our inner tubes to play its unwanted toot, and let’s not forget The Tunnel as the title of a 1915 film highly influential to Hitler, a title that was resurrected in the German translation of the novel: Der Tunnel. And but so it even takes Kohler himself that many pages to finally start digging a literal tunnel in his basement, an escape from the responsibilities of adulthood by someone who yearns for a “peekaboo, treetop life” like Calvino’s arboreal baron? a Jonah urge to return to some dank womb, be it that of Mother Earth (“I have my own hole now, your cunt is not the only cave,” he imagines telling his miserable wife)? a devolution into a cramped and quadrupedal animality? or is it yet another task without purpose in a life without purpose, as Kohler seems to think so (“With my tunnel I have committed the ultimate inactive act.”)? Although we get a clear view of the treasureless map on the title page, the illustrated tunnel tapers off and downward in the bottom right corner like a dysfunctional penis, which is perhaps the inevitable end of such an abnormal endeavor, hiding the dirt by packing it in his wife’s multitudinous pieces of useless furniture that clutter the home, turning them into catacombs sans corpses, except for the casualty of the pet cat, that is. Simply put, the metaphor of the tunnel has more layers than an onion, a cake, a jawbreaker: “…that’s what we really don’t know and maybe motivates my burrowing—if there’s a bottom nature, and just what’s what where the well ends, when we pass beneath its water, when we actually enter ‘in’ and find ourselves in front of n and on the other side of i.”

Still from Der Tunnel (1915)

Kohler spawned two paternally-neglected sons, one who was named by his wife Martha out of spite, the name that isn’t even named but only hinted at is the same as that Führer of the furry philtrum: darling Adolf. As it happens, the novel treats the historical Adolf and his Reich in a manner similar to Kohler’s treatment of his son. It’s almost never at the forefront but colors the whole novel like a guilty (sub)conscious. This is compounded by the fact that we don’t have the pages of his academic work (although we get some rare snippets, including the first sentence and a thesis via a conclusion: “…neither guilt nor innocence are ontological elements in history; they are merely ideological factors to which a skillful propaganda can seem to lend a causal force […], for it is the chronicle of the cause which causes, not the cause….” [italics Kohler’s]), so in this published novel the Reich’s history exists as invisible leaves between the leaves.

No, The Tunnel is not about fascism as such, but “fascism of the heart,” which, although related, is more of the organ-seed that can give rise to Reichs ruled by Rumps and the like. The novel even has an essay on bigotry that would be like looking into a mirror for many Americans, and yet it’s more universal than that. In Alexander Theroux’s baggy monster Laura Warholic, there’s a chapter/essay titled “Bored on the Fourth of July” which illustrates the problem at large: “The people are a party and in a democracy form not a population but a government that can be as fist-faced and as arbitrary and as cruel as Richard the Third’s…. […] The people as a body is often a dunce without a hat, staring into space. We who live in democracies are almost always pulled powerlessly in the direction of the big dumb dopey herd! Weevils on the march! […] Who when he is part of the many being evil is better than a single tyrant being good?” (In fact, while we’re having this moment of crossover, the character Discknickers and some of the other scoundrels in Laura Warholic would be right at home in The Tunnel.)

Gass unpacks this pulsing phrase in an interview with Heide Ziegler: “The fascism of the heart is a corrupt state of feeling, a realm of impotent resentment. In political fascism, the petty is perfected […]. In the fascism of the heart we hear the music of the aggrieved, the peevish, the spiteful—the concert of the coward.” Why not echo DeLillo here and say the concert of the crowd or the crowd of cowards?

Kohler even goes on to mentally form the Party of the Disappointed People (PdP), going so far as to dabble in doodles of pennants and logos, including the bisected rectum that bands the hardcover like the bicep of a Nazi officer. The PdP is a prescient picture of the people, Herr Trump’s basket of deplorables, who would later unite around their disappointment and point at the Other as the scapegoat for their empty lives, empty insomuch as they’re filled with the passive attitudes and emotions diagrammed in the pennants at the beginning of the book, including malice, hypocrisy, self-pity, envy, spite, and resentment. Going further still with his prediction of modern American fascism via democracy, Kohler writes, “I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called Coach.” And from there, we have forced upon us an accident president who engages in pussy-grabbing ‘locker room talk.’ Heil!

Kohler sums up the zeitgeist, if you will, as “…more lives and less life….” Kohler is, of course, implicated in this and yet he repeats the phrase “there is nothing genuinely German about me” like a mantra, which in this context is akin to middle-class moms and dads and grannies and grandaddies who say, “I’m not racist, but….” Another mantra Kohler writes is “we have not lived the right life”—not I, we.

Although Kohler didn’t cast the first stone, he cast two nonetheless, on Kristallnacht no less. The first was through the window of a Jewish shop, which he tries to rationalize by saying the window was already broken, the brick flying through the hole in the glass like an impotent spermatozoon. The second establishment was targeted for its stirring of “obscurely favorable memories,” a candy shop whose importance will become more obvious as time reverses itself in the novel, although not like Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, rather a retreat into nostalgia and more. But so the second shop, after its virgin windows are broken and its candy raided, brought relief to Kohler when he realized it was the “shop of a goy. You see, I said to my cold soul. For my part, it wasn’t just Jews.” By suggesting some heroism on his part, the reader witnesses mental gymnastics worthy of Berlin 1936. When it comes to guilt and innocence, in terms of crowds and individuals, that section is the (broken) window through which we see the entirety of the novel. Among other aspects, it surely informs his obsession with blackboards, those reflectionless windows at night, as it were, which get their own section of homage. Overall, Kohler’s participation during Kristallnacht is an irony of the strongest iron: the historian playing a role in history (and aside from serving in the War as part of the American Army, he was also present at the Nuremberg Trials, which was the impetus of his first book).

Despite the consistent solipsism of the first person, there’s an almost Joycean number of registers within this voice and the voices that influence it, including Kohler’s colleagues, from the learned references and analyses of academia to cunts and cocks and the body’s basest functions, not to mention two brief instances in which Gass pays homage to his guiding star Gertrude Stein by mimicking her repetitive prose style. During a 1987 interview in The Missouri Review, Gass is asked about, well, all the gas and ass and other dirty words, responding thus: “They are both the most overused, worthless and dead, and also the most powerful words. […] There’s a desire on my part to write honestly about certain things. I don’t want to back off and use euphemisms. I found an enormous range in Plato, who uses the high-flown literary word, the ordinary Greek word, and the gutter word together for terrific impact.” After all, Kohler is the name of a plumbing manufacturer, a name you could find staring up at you while pissing in a privy.

While surprisingly various in its tone, the prose can often be heavy with similes, occasionally relying on the same imagery in one form or another, such as like a flag or pennant, like a lesson, and like steam when referring to voices and emotions. Don’t forget the Rilkean bees. And then there’s the alliteration, the assonance. It was in a fawning letter to Don DeLillo after reading his magnum opus Underworld that David Foster Wallace explained how subtly successful his use of alliteration and assonance was, contrasting the way other indulgent writers seem to be “pawing at the reader’s ear like a sophomore at some poor girl’s bra.” Despite this, and aside from the fact that such an image is quite appropriate to this novel, the overuse is much more welcome over underuse, and over time the reader can adapt to this poetic rhythm (“…the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable,” as Paul West put it in his essay “In Defense of Purple Prose”), and in that sense, Kohler didn’t give up poetry for history in his youth, as he claims more than once. There are also regular although seemingly random limericks attributed to the colleague Culp or his influence, Culp being culpable for other rhymes, puns, alliterations, and more, making a Foerster’s syndrome patient out of Kohler, but it’s often a delight to behold more than anything else. Yes, there’s evocative Nabokovian imagery galore, such as this singular example: “I enter my clothes by ducking my head and pushing at whatever flaps open the way Arabs enter tents.”

Because the pages of The Tunnel are something of an antithesis to the academic rigor of his ambitious opus, the structure is closer to anti-narrative, anti-novel even (one of the few examples that’s thoroughly successful, helped by its simple yet genius frame tale). Being closer in spirit to a dirty diary, a collage of curious and furioso mementos, and more, the book has moments of colored cartoons, an empty column of crosswords, plenty of lists in the grand literary tradition (the list of transported items in Omensetter’s Luck being a sort of prelude), and even the keepsake of a sack which was one of the things Kohler kept after being sacked by an old love of his, the Lou who flushed him like a loo. As Gass put it in that interview with Ziegler, “I wanted to convince the reader that the text he or she is reading is an entirely private one; that it has no ultimate or public aim. How better to do that than crumple a page? Draw faces? Muck about?” (If there’s not enough of this within the text itself, then that’s due to budgetary concerns, among other practicalities, as Gass admits to, including the pipedream conception of publishing the book as unbound pages.) The critic Michael Silverblatt takes the personal and the bodily even further by confessing that he, rather than cry and laugh over the book (although those accepted reactions are entirely possible too), he “sneezed over this book, and farted, and there are bits of food stain on it. So the book, in a way, becomes a record for each reader of his passage through the tunnel. It seems like a book meant to be lived in….” I concur that this is indeed a book to live in, like a loam womb, and whether it births you or aborts you is of no importance, just curl up like Schrödinger’s pussycat. (Speaking of that, rather than Lana Del Rey’s Pepsi-Cola-flavored pussy, Kohler’s lost Lou tastes “like the Third Reich, I said, bloodsalt on my lips,” but perhaps this is a connection that should forever be severed.)

While Kohler may or may not be an everyman, and I would hope not, some of his thoughts in one form or another, to one degree or another, have sped through the heads of most of us, whether we dare to admit it or not. Without having even read Kohler’s larger academic work and the confessions that manuscript hides, a reviewer of his first book wrote, “…what intolerable effrontery: to ask us to take Herr Kohler—this lone Germanized American—as a satisfactory sample of mankind!” This is a sense of offense that some if not many general readers reacted with, the kind of reader who must not only ‘like’ the protagonist but ‘identify’ with them, yet never would they want to come across their darkest thoughts, as though entering the Zone’s ominous Room in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Going further still, the careless and sanctimonious reader may moan about misogyny or racism, but as Kohler says himself, and it’s clear enough in the text, “No, there are no superiorities in my system. […] So I’m the human-racist. I play no favorites. I leave no one out.” Yet the reasons for hating Kohler and the book as a whole are perhaps more complicated than the obvious. In a kind of meta-commentary the reader comes across this later passage:

If we had the true and complete history of one man—which would be the history of his head—we would sign the warrants and end ourselves forever, not because of the wickedness we would find within that man, no, but because of the meagerness of feeling, the miniaturization of meaning, the pettiness of ambition, the vulgarities, the vanities, the diminution of intelligence, the endless trivia we’d encounter, the ever present dust.

Somehow, for all the dust and dirt and other debris, The Tunnel is more than the sum of its parts, and that is probably helped quite a bit by some of the parts of light, however darkened at times by stained glass (and I’m not talking about the churchy kind of stains…or am I?). Lo, the childhood pages of nostalgia are some of the most beautiful and felt. It would even be germane (pun unintended) to use the overused word poignant, sometimes cutting to the heart like a poignard. Enhancing the fact of the goy candy store of Kristallnacht, there’s a 20-page section on candy that would make Willy Wonka’s willy stand at attention, but the digression is justified by the ending if nothing else, the ultimate disappointment of the father in a son who had been consistently stealing from the savings jar to pay for his candy, hoping to win it back like an addicted and ever-losing gambler. Even if that is the most potent disappointment, it’s far from the only one, and we also read about the disappointment when Kohler revisited the novels, the lies, that had first enchanted him as a child, and, closer to the end, the disappointment of a birthday party in which an alcoholic mother forgot to send the invitations then forgot to tell the rest of the family that she had forgotten.

Aside from this inebriated mater, we get wonderfully-detailed character sketches of his Uncle Balt, his toxically-masculine father, his busybody auntie who obsesses over putting boxes within boxes within boxes only to reveal the disappointment of more boxes, among others. Outside of the bloodline, there’s a section of sketches on Kohler’s colleagues, including the mad Magus Tabor who is indeed something of a magus in the eyes of Kohler, the insubstantial Herschel, the whimsical Culp, et al. Other standout moments that I must mention—and there are many in this, one of the best novels of the 20th-century—include the few times in which the holocaust is directly addressed (both fairly early on, such as the chapter titled “The Red-Skinned Corpse of Sincerity”), the too-real horror of child abuse, and the biblical horror of a plague of grasshoppers during the dustbowl, each so masterfully wrought. The voracious nature of the grasshoppers, in particular, could be seen as a metaphor of democracy at its worst: “the swarm was nevertheless a monster of chaos, Führerless.”

By the time the reader digs to the book’s conclusion, you can almost answer this question: “Why must one bring the world into the tunnel when the tunnel is supposed to be the way out?” If not the world entire, there’s a world of tunnel in The Tunnel, maximizing the novel as form, as a container of consciousness, and whether there’s light at the end will depend on how well-lit your own eyes are:

…so if they, those explorers of the dirt, were to dig me up one day while searching for a city, they’d find a jaw, some teeth, and a well inside its grin, my ill humor like an atmosphere, a final fart of feeling.

       But every dark is different. Some darks may be boundless, stratospherical, pure, but I prefer mine circumscribed as a corset, and where, if I had a soul, it would be squoozen, and where, when I’m found, I’ll be identified as the remains of a child, doubled over, waiting to be born.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media. For early access to literary content like this and other awesome benefits, consider supporting The Collidescope on Patreon.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at

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