Who wants to DIG into The Tunnel? Who wants to let loose some Gass? Huh? Anybody?

I have recently been on something of a “contemporary novel kick.” While I typically incline toward novels by dead white men, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by white men who are in fact still quite young. Books like Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which I started reading this afternoon over lunch). (Oh wait, there has been one living white woman, too — Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.) There are things one could say about all of these. Indeed, I know of many a blog and/or magazine dedicated to doing as much. But for our purposes here, I feel like they perhaps need a little more time — or, to be honest, perhaps it is merely I who need more time to know what to say about them. But for the sake of a self-indulgent gravitas, we’ll condemn these works to their present youth and insist for now that they “grow up a little” before we include them at this table peopled (mostly) by those under 35. There is heady stuff afoot here, as you know, and the church must first be thought out of its imperial impasse and Milbank put in his place.

In the meantime, I am inclined to begin a rather long novel by another living (though really quite old now) white man: William GassThe Tunnel. Neither quite old or new, it was published in 1995 Gass’ novel is perhaps ready for its close-up. Indeed. the only thing that could make the novel better, and I say this without reading a page, is if Gass had spent thirty years on the novel (which he did), finished it (which he also did), but actually finished multiple versions and died before he could settle on the definitive one (as far as I know, this is not the case). The premise of the novel itself, though, is hard to beat — esp. for you lot. So says the book jacket:

The narrator of The Tunnel is a distinguished man in his fifties. William Frederik Kohler, a professor at a Midwestern university. His principal subject, the Third Reich. He has just completed his massive magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s German.

All that remains to write is an introduction. Kohler sits down to write a self-congratulatory text and finds himself unaccountably blocked. He begins instead to write an entirely other book, another history — that of the historian himself. What he writes is the complete opposite of his clearly argued, causally determined history of the Reich. It is as subjective and private as history is objective and public, as apparently shapeless and stagnant as history is ordered and directive. It is chaotic, obscure, full of lies and disguises, gaps and repetitions.

Indeed, his Introduction is so personal that he fears his wife will find it, and he slides the manuscript between pages of his book, where he knows it will not be found. At the same time, Kohler begins digging a tunnel out from the basement of his house.

The tunnel comes to mirror Kohler digging into his life — his feelings, his past, his own few loves and many hatreds. The writing, the digging, the reader’s reading, continues together, creating a hole driven into both language and the past, getting closer to and fleeing from the secrets of the novel’s fundamental theme — the fascism of the heart.

A profound meditation on history, on evil, on the living and the dead. A monumental and monumentally original work of fiction.

Don’t trust the book’s publisher? Well, no less a reader than Michael Silverblatt has deemed the novel,“the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime.” Well, that’s something anyway. If nothing else, it certainly piques my curiosity. (Not to mention a friend of AUFS, Ryan Krahn, has repeatedly recommended the book, and I have repeatedly put off taking him up on it.)

Anyway . . . the reason I bring this up is to see if any of you are interested in reading along with me. I cannot promise we will say much about it on the blog, but I ‘m very much interested in talking about the thing via email and such. If something blog-worthy comes out of the conversation, sure, maybe then. But all you read the blog expressly for my Book Discussion posts (hey, Mom!), you probably shouldn’t hold your breath. So, if you’re not looking for a shot at AUFS fame and mostly just want a casual place to read a few pages and fire off an emails like, “This book blows, man,” or, “If I could set aside all my philosophy and theology books and read nothing but literature like this,” and commiserating responses like “Yeah, I totally hear you, man — I’ll write more after dinner,” let me know if you’re interested in the comments.

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18 Responses to “Who wants to DIG into The Tunnel? Who wants to let loose some Gass? Huh? Anybody?”

  1. Dave Mesing Says:

    I’m interested, with emphasis on the casual email nature you outline in the last paragraph. With three courses and a part-time job, I’ll be reading slowly and sporadically, but I’ve been searching for something non-philosophy to have my nose in, and I trust your (and by extension, Ryan’s) recommendation.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t know if I can do it — I have very important internets to hover over.

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    I would suggest you not participate, Adam. We cannot risk the Anti-Milbank Front suffering your inattention.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The struggle against nuance rages on!

  5. Alex Says:

    Brilliant exchange.

  6. ben Says:

    Wir schachten den Tunnel von Gass!

    I’ve wanted to read this for a while but I have very important research statements to hover over.

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    Yeah, I know I picked the absolute perfect time for a big, complicated novel, what w/ school starting for everybody. Alas.

  8. Robert Minto Says:

    I would really like to do this. Though I’m also hovering (over grad school apps). I like the idea of email discussion as — I’m sure you noticed — I got rather intimidated for some reason, and silent, partway through the Kleinzeit event. So despite its being a bad time, I’d like to participate if this goes down — primarily because I’m starved for good discussion where I live.

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    I wondered what happened to you during the last discussion. Assumed you just got overwhelmed with beginning-of-term stuff. No reason to feel intimidated at all. Adam will, I think, confirm my sheer joy at your enthusiasm and insight into my same literary interests.

    We’ll take things as they come with the email thing. I’ll create a list, and will add/delete as necessary & requested. Very casual affair, this.

  10. Felix Says:

    I would like join. (fsarver@gmail.com)

  11. Dan Says:

    I’m in.

    And I also wish Robert wrote more in the Hoban series. I thoroughly enjoyed everything he wrote.

  12. Dan Says:

    Also, I’m curious… what did you make of Absurdistan? I’ve only read Shteyngart’s latest offering, and very much agree with this reviewer: — http://www.theawl.com/2010/09/future-fatigue-gary-shteyngarts-attack-on-the-young .

  13. Brad Johnson Says:

    I felt basically the same way. It certainly wasn’t an awful book. I laughed a great deal, which is largely what I expected and why I picked it up. I’d happened to be in a Santa Cruz bookstore where Shteyngart was doing a reading, and had found him at the time very engaging and funny — otherwise I likely would not have paid his work any attention at all. Nevertheless, even at the reading, I got a sense that he could very likely become a little exhausting if he maintained that same level of “schtick,” which Absurdistan definitely did, and thus also did become. It is a fine “I need a break from heavy reading, but Stieg Laarsen’s stuff is all still on hold at the library” kind of book. In truth, though, for this purpose I probably should’ve read Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke instead, as it’s been gathering dust for much longer than it likely deserves.

    Also … for any who might be interested, I have begun tweeting quotes from Gass’ novel, using the tag #thetunnel. I fully expect this to become a full-blown meme by Monday.

  14. micah Says:

    I’m in (mjsergey@gmail.com)

  15. Robert Minto Says:

    I interlibrary loaned The Tunnel and decided, while I was waiting for it, to read some of Gass’s essays. Our library had Finding a Form. I have to say: wow. Everyone interested in American literature should read his essay lambasting American literary awards. Also, the titular essay “Finding a Form” is a superb familiar essay and “The Music of Prose” that was one of the best things I’ve ever read on prose style. Gass seems to be a proponent of the anti-ciceronian, labyrinthine style modeled by Browne and De Quincey. I like it.

  16. Brad Johnson Says:

    Good call re: the essay collection. I may track that down this weekend as well.

  17. Robert Minto Says:

    He actually makes several remarks regarding The Tunnel in the particular collection I read. I got the impression it was the next thing he published after the big novel. Actually, the title essay suggests that The Tunnel has a deeply autobiographical element.

  18. Brad Johnson Says:

    Re: the autobiographical element — based on the thirty or so pages I’ve read so far, this isn’t so surprising.


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