One for the Angry White Male

A Joycean novel anticipated for decades

by Sven Birkerts
by William H. Gass. Knopf, 653 pages, $30.00.
ONCE upon a time—and I mean not mythic time but real time —there were writers who pursued the fata morgana of the Great American Novel. Authors dreamed of scope and synthesis, of snagging “it,”the elusive drama of life in our times, and readers and reviewers all seemed to play the game. Books like Gravity’s Rainbow, The Adventures of Augie March, The Recognitions, and even Ancient Evenings were understood and scored in terms of this ambition—they were seen as leaps taken at the ring. And then—quite suddenly, it seems—we heard no more about it. The marbles were gathered and the boys went home. The idea of writing “big" lost its Melvillean prestige. Except for that deliberately contrary young upstart William Vollmann and that legendary narcissist Harold Brodkey, there has been little action over where the boys used to congregate (I’ve never heard a woman writer speak in terms of the Great American Novel). Even Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, veteran authors of latecentury epics, have eased off, giving us in recent years the relatively accessible and reined-in prose of Vineland and A Frolic of His Own.
I keep wondering what pained reflection William Gass has been enduring these past few years. Having begun the long, patient burrowing that is The Tunnel back in the era of the typewriter, he has finally covered his intended distance—and has poked his head up past all perimeter wires in what is now our late-postmodern culture. He has, that is, delivered his offering to a reading public that scarcely has the leisure, the focus, or the will to read even a moderately challenging novel, never mind a 600-plus-page interiorization that often approaches Joycean density. What could the man have been thinking as he worked? Or could it be that—heroically, hearteningly—he simply refused to try to play to the fickle mood swings of his potential audience? Certainly a writer bent on going against every trend and tendency in our times could not have mounted a more aggressively defiant attack than Gass has here.
Gass is, of course, one of our most distinguished senior men of letters. Novelist (Omensetter’s Luck), short-story writer (In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), and author of three collections of extraordinary literary essays (Fiction and the Figures of Life, The World Within the Word, and Habitations of the Word), he has created enormous expectations since he first let it he known that he was working on a grand summa novel. That was decades ago, and every so often some beguilingly dense fragment has appeared in a journal—never enough to allow anyone to guess the shape of the whole. Now it is out, in hand, and one can only ask, What can Gass have been thinking?
Or, if one is a reviewer, one might reframe the question, directing it not at the footlights but at oneself: How am I going to save what needs saving and still say what needs saying? To put it more personally and more bluntly, this is the most vexing reviewing assignment I’ve ever undertaken. Here is a novel that I truly gnashed over and cursed my way through.
A dozen times—more—I pushed it aside (it’s too big to fling aside) and rose from my seat to address its author aloud, saying, “Give me a break, Bill,” or “Don’t do this to yourself!” But far more often, surely at least once per page, I leaned back in my chair and felt that opiated dilation of the senses, that vicarious surplus, that glowworm flash of being that I can get only from language affixed to the page, and then only when a master has affixed it there. The Tunnel is sui generis, and is to be likened only to other works that are sui generis—the novels of Céline, Genet, Thomas Bernhard, and, yes, Harold Brodkey. It is a vast bog of uneven surface and unmeasured depth in which lie embedded, fully preserved, perceptions, memories, breathtaking cadenzas of longing, and stunning detailings that have been rendered with the precision of a Nabokov. The Tunnel is at the same time a dyspeptic slugfest, a den of vituperation, a vast catalogue of hatreds, a place where innocence is defeated and turned upon itself. There are many reasons why one should read it, yet surely most will deem it unreadable. How to proceed?
This reviewer takes his cue from the temper of the times, and splits himself neatly into prosecution and defense. On the one side the damning indictments— line them up! On the other side the mitigating factors—whatever can be found to soften the heart of the judge and jurors. The prosecution begins.
Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I direct your attention to Exhibit A, The Tunnel, an alleged novel by one William Gass. I say “alleged" because the only thing that tells me that this is a novel and not something altogether else is the publisher’s assertion to that effect on the dust jacket. A novel? I won’t waste your time splitting definitional hairs, but I will say that I have read it, and by my lights it’s not much of a story. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned. When I read a novel, I look for characters and a plot. Something should happen. Is that too much to ask? With this book I can summarize what needs summarizing in a few paragraphs. Decide for yourselves.
William Frederick Kohler is a middle-aged historian teaching at an unidentified midwestern university in the late 1960s. He has almost finished what he thinks will be his great work. Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany (the effrontery of that second noun!); he needs only to tidy it up and write the introduction. But he can’t seem to get to it. Instead he finds himself erratically inditing pages of tortured self-reflection—pages in which he flays his parents, his wife and children, his colleagues, and anything else that comes his way; pages in which he dwells obsessively on certain details of bygone days while excluding whole decades. He is a monster of skewed recollection: there are endless paragraphs on the stray anxieties of his childhood, on his debauched adultery with a student, on his years of study in 1930s Germany with a raving Nietzschean he has dubbed “Mad Meg.” Have we got a plot yet?
Kohler cannot possibly let his accumulating pages be found by his now obese and much despised wife, Martha, his Xanthippe, so he conceals them by inserting them willy-nilly among the pages of his historical opus, an inadvertent symbol of what he has come to believe: that the discipline of historiography is compromised at every turn by the blind subjectivity of its practitioners. But who is Kohler to pronounce on anything? Though he is one who would write to expose the truth, he lives by concealment. His secret writings are only part of it. Suddenly, with no great fanfare, certainly with no explanation to the reader, he embarks on the project figured in Gass’s title. He descends to the basement of his house and begins digging a tunnel. To where? He cannot say, but the grand absurdity of his deed seems to soothe him: he toils away, invoking tor himself the heroic exploits of those myriad diggers in Second World War POW films. Of course, they had cause and destination. Kohler is doubly in the dark.
So we find our maniacal “hero,”and so, too, we leave him, having become as bleary-eyed and hand-weary as he is. The pages, scrambling a hundred threads and divagations, have slowly accumulated on the left side of the book. When we finally finish whatever remains on the right, we are not a good deal wiser as to where we have been, or why. The tunnel is, of course, discovered by the shrewish Martha, and is then, presumably, abandoned (after all, the secrecy was the whole point, no?); the magnum opus remains incomplete; the marriage looks to be done with—but then again, it has looked done with all along. No, ladies and gentlemen, this is not a work that coheres, not even when the idea of coherence is outfitted with elastic. The Tunnel does not guide its reader from a place of dark to a place of light, according to every time-honored tradition. It does not instruct or enlighten, unless the instruction is that life is what we have always feared in our worst moments.
As for the content, the actual stuff of these myriad flights? Well, anything and everything, in that order. Let me rifle about at near random. Here, do you have an interest in a man brushing his teeth? Listen:
My toothbrush is blue, its bristles frizzed. It leans, head up, in a cracked and cruddy glass alongside Martha’s favorite yellow-stemmed dental scrubber and her longer spare. Her spare is the one with the pointed rubber nub on the end of its violet handle—to pick your teeth with, I suppose, massage your gums. I stop to wonder, while I watch the water swirl in the basin, if this paste-caked tumbler is the only thing we share. Terrible temptation to turn it into a symbol. I say to me. Let be. Okay. I squeeze some chalky peppermint on my weary bristles, wet both brush and mouth before rubbing. . . .
Need I tell you that Mr. Kohler is nowhere near to being done? Let me flip some more pages. Ah. . .do you like chocolate?
Candy bars were often double-dressed, and placed upon a slick dark cardboard sled, as the mounds of chocolate-covered coconut were in Almond Joy: first the bright dress, then the dark slip, finally the slab. These layers were like the round world unpeeled as a map, or the shed skin of a snake displayed on some suitably weathered board.
Oh, yes, Gass can write up a storm, like that “round world unpeeled as a map.”He can do style and get you thinking that the whorls in your fingerprint enclose a universe. And maybe they do; but if you ask me, this is style all dressed up with no place to go, style aerated to the point of fizz.
But never mind. The style problem is as nothing when you set it beside the problem that is the character of this Kohler. Fat, pusillanimous, the man is also a racist, a sexist, and an anti-Semitic vulgarian of the worst sort. Not only does he speculate on the possible innocence of Hitler, but he admits to having hurled a brick through a shop window on the shameful night that has gone down in memory as Kristallnacht. He kills his wife’s poor kitty and cold-bloodedly stashes the corpse in a drawer full of dirt. And—get this—he dreams at exorbitant length about founding what he calls the “PdP” (Party of the Disappointed People), an organization that sounds suspiciously like a revitalized National Socialist Party. Tuning in on Kohler mid-rant, we are apt to hear
. . .because I never used life because life used me, low down where you wipe, so now I’m soiled, flung away, and will be flushed without a look. That’s what I feel when I feel, when I smell; that’s what we all smell, we all feel—this shit on our cheeks from those other cheeks—we members of the Party of the Disappointed People. And were fortune’s crooked wheel to luck us the opportunity; if even a little power should come our way like a windfall from a distant relative’s will. . . then what damage we would do, what revenge we would take; just like that bleeding balcony, there, you’re looking at. Must be in Vilnius. In what is left of Jew town. Good bet.
I don’t think any of us needs to hear any more of this. Thank you.
THE defense? Oh, I quite agree with my esteemed colleague. Gass’s Kohler is a nasty piece of business. I wouldn’t share a taxi with him, even if he promised to pay the fare. But, ladies and gentlemen, he is a fictional creation. We are being asked not to like him—Gass would be horrified if we did—but to know him. We are drawn, thought by thought and memory by memory, into his inner recesses, so that we may behold the world from a new place. William Kohler is a schooling in defeat. Get to know him and you will get to know the secret of our times. You will understand the last invisible, voiceless constituency in our great land: middle-aged men who have lost all purchase on their dreams, who no longer have the love of their wives or the respect of their children, who wait for death and the bodily indignities that announce it, who have never learned to speak their hearts and can only spit out angry gibes, and who are forced to greet in what should be their fondest memories the mockery of all they’ve become. Kohler represents these last invisible Americans—he is their avatar. Look for him in waiting rooms and luncheonettes, in parked cars on quiet streets. Listen to what is going on in his head and you will be astonished.
He is reprehensible, sure—as are the criminals whose stories we are all so avid to understand and empathize with. And it we do not let ourselves be put off, if we read with openness and care, we will discover just how this walking tragedy came about. Over many pages, if we patiently put together the stray memories, the scenes released from repression’s vise, we will come to see Kohler as he once was —a frightened, isolated, inward-looking boy who grew up watching his father collapse from an indecipherable ailment while his poor, beloved mother grew blowsy and remote in her gin addiction. You want mitigating circumstances? Why don’t you read with an available heart about a boy taking his mother to a mental hospital in a taxi?
I signed things though I couldn’t buy a beer. I attested to the squiggle that was my father’s scrawl, and did her in in duplicate and then accompanied her in a cab to the hospital as if she were going just for a test or two, an office visit, sitting in the backseat with her fist in her mouth so as not to throw up, and beseeching me silently the entire trip to assure her everything would be all right, she wouldn’t be left alone (although loneliness was what was wrong with her, we all thought), begging not to be cast adrift, not to be abandoned for long; whereupon I stood before the elevator which had a folding fence for a door, to place a last kiss on her forehead. . . .
Let us call to mind the well-known maxim To comprehend all is to forgive all. Yes, Kohler grew bitter and swinish —who wouldn’t? He saw his most delicate fancies pulped by some unseen hand —history? fate?—and his most loving initiatives scorned and ignored. He heard the Germans piping a music that sounded like justice recouped, and he lobbed a brick. He did nothing more than that. He wrote a book to try to understand the failure of so persuasive a dream. He did this and he did that—the point is that he has dared to tell all. He has plucked out his heart and exposed for us its inky root. And what might we not find if we had the courage to thus examine our own?
But don’t misunderstand me—I don’t want you to let Kohler off the hook. We are not judging his guilt or his innocence. We are assessing what the author has achieved through his creation of Kohler. And now I would direct your glance away from all of this psychological portraiture and ask you to consider again the matter of style, which was earlier addressed by my illustrious colleague. Indeed, we can even look back at those toothbrushes and candy bars—for the very prose he held aloft for ridicule happens to be prose I would garland with praise. Do you think that Gass is even for an instant unaware of what he is doing? He is not painting toothbrush, painting candy bar, so that you can see how nicely he wields the brush. He is, by describing these things as he does, taking us in as close as it is possible to get to the perceptions and thoughts of another person. That toothbrush is Kohler in the act of perceiving; that candy bar is the anatomy of Kohler’s memory, and it tells us more about his raw love for pleasure, his sad fetishizing of sweets, than fifty pages of narrative could. Throw out those passages, ladies and gentlemen, and we might as well throw out Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Marcel Proust. . . I say pick up the book again and look, listen. I, too, will rifle about in this armful of pages; see if you don’t find in what I read a linguistic pressure that is like almost nothing else in our literature today. How’s this?
I do not remember the occasion, and perhaps I wasn’t there, but once upon a time a light came and clothed my cousins in its regard, only to flee instantly into the camera where it hid its real designs. Now that same light, released, yet indentured to its form, returns itself to me, in muddy photographs, puddles to the past. Knickered, frocked, my cousins stand in front of a painted trellis strewn with grossly petaled roses and coarse green leaves. They stand as stiffly as their image will become, as if to aid it in the course of its congealing.
Or this?
In this part of the country autumn is the only season one can celebrate; and it is not simply that the land becomes violet and mauve and pink and gold, as if sunsets were its new cash crop and sprang freely from the earth; or because the trees turn, overcoming the eye with color and the soul with misgivings; or that the pumpkins and gourds are gathered, potatoes forked into unrinsed heaps; or even because the densely enclosing stands of com have been cut, unshuttering space along the roads like a sudden shout. These things count, of course, as does the limpid blue we’re drenched by. This blue is what “azure" means to a French poet: a palpable infinity, something in front of which one puts a rapturous O, and after which a point of exclamation.
And let’s give time to the nonpoetic, to the merely expressive.
Everywhere nothing now but a revocation of the muse. Cancel Clio, cross out sweet Calliope, for history’s been buggered by ideology, and farts its facts in an odorous cloud, while poets have no breath whatever, are in another business presently, where Parnassus is a pastry, and produce their poems promptly on request like short-order cooks shake forth a batch of fries. Mark out Melpomene. The lines of the anonymous are nothing like the lives of the saints; a celebrity is but a draft from his fans; crooks establish dynasties on stolen dimes, and slips of policy feed greasy Sicilian Caesars who are all, one hopes, predamned the way our postage is prepaid. . . .
Let us recall, as we read and listen to this language, that Gass is the author of books with titles like The World Within the Word and Habitations of the Word. When we read these works, we are persuaded, through example as much as argument, that style is not some kind of adorning curtain hung in front of the window of meaning. No, style is the complex manifestation of an authorial sensibility by way of diction, syntax, rhythm, and whatever other, less tangible elements go into the production of sentences and paragraphs. Gass himself coined an arresting phrase, and used it as the title of one of his essays: “The Soul Inside the Sentence.” Clearly, in his case style serves an essential function. If there is a soul inside the sentence, then style must be its material envelope. No, more precisely, style conjures that soul, creates it. Gass is a stylist, yes, but don’t ever make the mistake of calling him a “mere” stylist. I leave you with this thought: Fashions come and go, and readerships wax and wane, but it a writer has been able to stir syllables to life, he or she has done something permanent, something that goes beyond our judging. Within the confines of these covers, say what you will, there is life. I rest my case.
BOOKS, it appears, are not like criminal defendants—they are never simply guilty or innocent. Nor are critics without their crippling ambivalences. Reconstituting myself in order to pass judgment, I discover that I am paralyzed. I find much in The Tunnel that I deplore, and much that I celebrate, and I cannot see that either cancels the other.