Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Tunnel

Hey, ya notice that amazon posts positive reviews almost instantaneously, but drags their feet on ambivalent reviews if it gets around to them all? What a co-in-ci-dence! I wrote a few notes on this novel, but I don't really think they're that enlightening, so here's the director's cut of my as yet unpublished review.

Loopy work of genius, or insane self-indulgence? I went back and forth in my opinion whilst reading this book, but ultimately, I think the only reasonable answer is "why not both?" Unfortunately, I think we can also add "artistic failure" to the list. An interesting, sometimes fascinating failure--but a failure nonetheless.

On a sentence-by-sentence level, Gass's writing is absolutely dazzling, it's true. That should not be understated, because it's what redeems the book, if you think it's redeemable. One might politely question whether it was actually worth spending thirty years to write, but it's obvious where all that time went. See, for instance:

A father speaks earnestly to his son and points at the heavens where surely there is an explanation; it is doubtless their true destination. The color of the sky cannot be colored in. So the son is lied to right up to the last. Father does not cup his boy's wet cheeks and say, You shall die, my son, and never be remembered. The little salamander you were frightened of at first, and grew to love and buried in the garden, the long walk to school your legs learned, what shape our daily life, our short love, gave you, the meaning of your noisy harmless games, every small sensation that went to make your eager and persistent gazing will be gone; not simply the butterflies you fancied, or the bodies you yearned to see uncovered--look, there they are: the inner thighs, the nipples, the pubes--or what we all might have finally gained from the toys you treasured, the dreams you peopled, but especially your scarcely budded eyes, and that rich and gentle quality of consciousness which I hoped one day would have been uniquely yours like the most subtle of flavors--the skin, the juice, the sweet pulp of a fine fruit--well, son, your possibilities, as unrealized as the erections of your penis--in a moment--soon--will be ground out like a burnt wet butt beneath a callous boot and disappear in the dirt. Only our numbers will be remembered--not that you or I died, but that there were so many of us. And that we were

Horrible, but the fact remains: that is writing that demands you sit up and take notice.

The frequent tyographical tricks are perhaps less groundbreaking than Gass thinks they are, but they're amusing enough, and they certainly don't detract from the work. For a pure aesthete, therefore, this novel--or, perhaps, "novel"--may be just the thing. Furthermore, some of the vignettes, particularly those concerning Kohler's childhood, are fairly arresting. In particular, the section towards the end which tells of his mother's alcohol-related institutionalization is repellant but quite arresting. So while I don't want to understate the things that The Tunnel does well, I cannot help but feel that when examined holistically, things fall apart a bit. A big bit.

Kohler, the narrator, is a repulsive figure. I think few would attempt to argue otherwise. His endless, resentful self-pity--I hate my colleagues; I hate my wife; I hate my parents; I hate my children; I don't get the respect I deserve just because I'm a Nazi sympathizer and possibly also because I abuse my power to seduce my students--is enough, truly, to wear a man down. Even if some of his complaints (not the last one) may have some legitimacy (and given what a wildly unreliable narrator he is, this is by no means certain) his inability to let ANYTHING go, EVER, is not itself a particularly attractive trait. Occasionally a tiny sliver of humanity may slip through, but it is quite overwhelmed by the ever-present darkness.

So why, one might ask, are we subjected to six hundred fifty pages of EVERY SINGLE DAMN THING that goes through this man's head? Is this not a deeply perverse exercise? Gass has stated that the book is meant to serve as "a progessive indictment of the reader;" that he "want[s] to get the reader to say yes to Kohler, although Kohler is a monster. That means that every reader in that moment has admitted to monstrousness." Very well: but does he actually achieve this effect? I'm not trying to sound self-righteous, but I think that I personally must remain unindicted here. The only times it's possible not to object to Kohler is on those uncommon occasions when he's not being objectionable--and that doesn't seem like much of a feat on the author's part. As for Kohler's bitterness, his hated of everything around him, his self-identification with the Nazis: no. No, not at all. His explanations of bigotry and his rationale for the Party of Disappointed People (which is to consist primarily of bigots) are unconvincing. The point that people behave as monsters because of comprehensible socioeconomic disappointments is so obvious as to go unsaid; that doesn't mean that one has to identify with them or accept what they do. It's not a matter of not wanting to be the kind of person to whom this stuff appeals; it's a matter of it simply NOT APPEALING, and I would be a little nervous to meet someone to whom it did. You know what novel succeeded in implicating the reader--or this reader, at any rate--by making him say yes to a monster? Lolita. So it can be done. Gass just hasn't done it.

So what's left? All we really have is pages and pages of an unpleasant individual expounding upon his unpleasant life and his unpleasant philosophy. Yes, there are dirty limericks aplenty--always a plus--but most of them scan quite poorly and/or try to use the same words twice for the rhymes, so even that's a letdown. The book is impressive as a character portrait, granted, but is it really useful or informative or edifying or ANYTHING to force readers to spend so much time with this guy? Yes, I feel, to the extent that such a thing is possible, that I understand Kohler, for whatever that's worth, but I'm not sure it's worth much. Is it a cautionary tale? Perhaps, but at a certain point his evil becomes so cartoonish that it's difficult to see what application it has to real life: we may all have the potential for evil in us, but I kind of doubt that any of us equate our own petty disappointments with the Holocaust. Please tell me this is not the reason why people love the book so. Seriously, someone kindly tell me: if not that, then what purpose does all of this serve? It's not a rhetorical question; I would be much obliged if somebody would enlighten me. Most of the glowing reviews seem extremely vague on exactly what, in their view, makes this a great book.

Again, I want to emphasize: the writing on display here is amazing, and it's enough to render the book at least somewhat readable. For that reason, and because there's really nothing else like it, it might be worth a go. It's certainly memorable; I hope, however, that, if completed (write faster! You're eighty-four years old!), the legendary Middle C has more to offer the reader than occasional bleak aestheticism.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

To be fair, they sometimes drag their feet on positive reviews also. However, they will keep negative reviews out of the "spotlight" section, even if they have more of those helpful vote things than any other review. Oh amazon, your petty manipulations are so endearing.

- SK

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Not only that, but when you scroll down the reviews and click that you want to see all of them and they give you all of them but they also highlight the "most helpful positive review" and "most helpful critical review," what they really mean is "most helpful three star review." Every time. Disgusting.

-Jeremy

11:17 PM  
Blogger Marcus pontificated to the effect that...

...well whatever, your review of Gass conjures the gag reflex so I don't think I'll waste my time reading 'The Tunnel'. Well done.

11:10 AM  

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