The central figure and nonstop voice of The Tunnel is William Frederick Kohler, a history professor at a major Midwestern university. Of distant German ancestry, Kohler studied in Germany during the 1930’s and was later a consultant during the famous Nuremberg Trials, after which he wrote a book that made many critics think that he was not completely unsympathetic to the Nazis. Yet William Gass has said that the subject of The Tunnel is not political fascism but that it uses Adolf Hitler’s grand demonic plan for Germany and the world as a metaphoric backdrop for domestic life in America. The real subject of his long-awaited novel, says Gass, is the “fascism of the heart.”
At the beginning of The Tunnel, Kohler has just completed a magnum opus entitled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. When he tries to write a simple self- congratulatory preface, however, he finds himself blocked and begins to doodle idly and to write about his own life. Instead of the carefully controlled, highly structured historical writing for which he has an academic reputation, he writes a sprawling, seemingly shapeless personal exploration filled with bitterness, hatred, lies, self-pity, and self-indulgence. As Kohler “tunnels” metaphorically into his own psyche, he begins to tunnel literally in his basement, concealing both his personal manuscript and his earthly burrowing from his wife (whom he professes to despise), hiding the pages of his journal within the manuscript of his historical study (which he knows that his wife will never want to see), and hiding the dirt from the tunnel in his wife’s bureau drawers (which, curiously, she does not discover until they are filled).
There is no physical action as such in this novel and no dramatized dialogue encounters. The entire book consists of Kohler’s psychic digging into his past. In The Tunnel, everything that has happened to Kohler, everyone that he has encountered, is converted into the stuff of his mind. Kohler’s mind is not one that many will find hospitable, for it is the closed-in, claustrophobic world of the narrow-minded bigot. Kohler does not seem to like anyone or to be happy about much of anything. Long passages reveal his resentment toward his unforgiving, hard-fisted father and his self-pitying, alcoholic mother, his loathing of his fat and slothful wife, his contempt for his nondescript adolescent sons (one whose name he refuses even to utter in the book), and his scorn for his pedantic colleagues and his superficial lovers.
Yet it is not this rambling, referential subject that makes The Tunnel Gass’s most ambitious effort thus far; rather, it is the highly polished prose, wonderfully sustained for more than six hundred pages, and the philosophic exploration of the relationship between historical fascism and domestic solipsism that makes those who know and love Gass’s work highly enthusiastic about the novel. Gass, a philosophy professor at a Midwestern university, has produced three previous works of fiction as well as three collections of theoretical literary criticism and a philosophical study of the color blue.
The Tunnel is most like Gass’s last work of fiction, a relatively brief novella titled Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife (1971), which, like the more ambitious The Tunnel, is a first-person autobiographical and philosophic exploration featuring a number of graphic inserts and typographical variations that serve to draw attention to the texture of the book as book, not simply the book as a depiction of the so-called real world. Gass has always been one of the best-known spokesmen of postmodernist self- reflexivity, having coined the term “metafiction” decades ago to refer to that brand of fiction that more frequently refers to its own fiction-making processes than to some “as if” reality outside itself. Gass has said that the primary tension taken on in The Tunnel is the tension between a work of fiction that is intensely referential and a work of fiction that does not depend on that reference. Gass’s view has always been that the quality of a novel does not depend on its subject but on its linguistic style.
Indeed, the first thing one notices about The Tunnel is that Gass continually breaks up the naïve realist illusion that the subject of a novel—the territory it depicts—is identical to its maplike pattern or language. A professor through and through, Kohler produces a first-person text filled with references to previous texts, the great works of history, philosophy, and literature that he both honors and debunks in what seems like a rambling stream-of-consciousness free association but is really a carefully controlled aesthetic pattern so heavily loaded toward the metaphoric that readers cannot for a moment lose sight of the fact that it is language they are reading, not everyday physical life they are vicariously...
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