The American experimental writing that began in the 1960’s and 1970’s was driven by the violence and upheaval of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. For Gass and others such as Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, John Barth, and Gilbert Sorrentino, realistic fiction seemed no longer adequate. Just as protests and demonstrations sought to overturn the conventions of society, these writers aggressively attacked literary conventions such as linear plot line, “lifelike” characters, and language used merely to convey the story. Instead, they wrote stories and novels about writing stories and novels, parodied standard forms, and used language in truly innovative ways. Some of the devices of the modernist writers are allusion, puzzle, fragmented chronology, circular plots, and style as subject. In addition to this arsenal, Gass, who did graduate study at Cornell University in philosophy and became interested in aesthetic theory, also uses drawings, slogans, banners, different font styles, and cartoons to embellish The Tunnel.
Gass taught for fifteen years at Purdue University, where he completed his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck. Published in 1966, it was acclaimed as the most important work of fiction by an American of that generation and placed Gass as the undisputed leader of his literary contemporaries. His second novel, Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife (1968), exhibited even stronger influences of modernist tendencies in its narration. The Tunnel, a compelling example of modernist literature, is a direct descendent of these books and proceeds still further in its use of modernist devices. The language of the novel takes on a meaning of its own. It is full of puns, alliteration, concrete arrangements, and wordplay and leads the narrator toward digressions and dead ends. Gass’s novel, while brilliant, makes heavy demands upon the reader.