Delivering The Dirt

Four Years After It Saw The Light Of Day, Readers Again Have The Opportunity To Burrow Through William Gass' Magnum Opus, 'The Tunnel.'

The Tunnel, by William H. Gass (Dalkey Archive Press). Paper, $15.95.

HIS MAGNUM OPUS is complete but for the introduction, which will not come. William Frederick Kohler, a middling historian at an obscure Midwestern university, is rarely at a loss for words; but now he sits, bloated with interior monologue, straining to finish his book with a beginning. The subject is ostensibly guilt and innocence in Hitler's Germany, yet as he forces words through his pen, Kohler takes up a new subject: himself, or, more specifically, the fascism of the heart.

For most of his 50 years, Kohler has maintained a belligerent self-centeredness and a stringent, dictatorial control of his feelings -- at least, his more generous feelings. What is this if not an internal fascism? Now Kohler begins to spew page after page of personal history, analyzing with a deliberate lack of coherence how he got so screwed up. And Kohler is a seriously disturbed man.

Surveying the present, he finds that his wife is unloved and unloving; his children are nuisance objects with which he maintains no connection (in the end, children inevitably turn on you); and his eccentric and bizarrely named colleagues in the history department are splintering. The ever-intrusive past nags him with memories of a verbally abusive father and an alcoholic mother; a mad mentor who introduced him to the idea that historians, not Great Men, create history; a grand love affair gone to hell; a string of meaningless dalliances with his students; and his one political act, a shameful and empty little adventure in 1938 Berlin (the story is narrated from the late 1960s).

Clawing through the dirt of his life, Kohler sees little way or motivation to scrape his way out -- except that, for obscure reasons, he feels compelled to sneak into his basement at night and dig a secret tunnel to nowhere, hiding the soil in the despised antique bureaus with which his wife has cluttered their home.

That's the situation of William H. Gass' rich, revolting novel The Tunnel. It's surely Gass' own magnum opus, fat as its narrator, completed after nearly 30 years of mining the bitterness of the soul. Published in 1995 and soon allowed to go out of print, The Tunnel has recently burrowed back into bookstores as a paperback. Grievously flawed, boring, infuriating, this may be one of the century's great novels.

A typical Gass sentence trips along alliteratively, ultimately bumping up against an arresting image: "The icy marble floor was flopped with Oriental rugs and steadily enlarging spills of people" is one of the finer, more concise examples. But many of the novel's overstuffed pages display more virtuosity than virtue.

Gass has produced what Kohler would describe as a fortress made of language, the "castle of what comes between commas." Every page is a thick wall of words, many of them built up into actual ideas, but the wall is chinked by volleys of font changes and smears of design graffiti. Lascivious limericks leer in boldface; on one page the type is arranged in the shape of a penis and testicles; on another, a blank crossword puzzle underlies and threatens to obscure the text. Gass was doing this way back in the coffee-stained pages of Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife; here, the technique is even more lavish, distracting and ultimately annoying, although Gass loses interest in his games with graphic design toward the novel's end.

Kohler longs for "the days when a book was not just a signal like a whiff of smoke from a movie Indian or a carton of cold crumb-covered carryout chicken, but a blood-filled body in the world, a mind in motion like a cannonball." That's precisely the sort of book Gass has shot from his howitzer of a head, a 672-page projectile hurtling through society, its progress sometimes suspended in midair, likely to hit the ground disastrously any minute now.

History is the fiction of historians, Kohler learns from his half-lunatic mentor, Magus Tabor. (Given Gass' love of wordplay, "Magus Tabor" must be an anagram -- but for what? "A bogus mart"? "Art as gumbo"? "Tabu orgasm"? All could apply.) The gift of this Magus is the lesson that the past is open to revision, and that one can wreak delightful havoc simply by uttering a few unpleasant truths.

Kohler devotes himself to expressing the blunt truth not because he cares so much about veracity but because it's a good way to offend people: "No one wants balance, truth or fairness from history. No one. Everyone wants a consoling myth." Kohler is unconsoled; so should everyone else be. And yet much of The Tunnel is Kohler's fabrication of his own personal myths, stories that feed his bitterness rather than comfort him. Deep truth, it seems, can be expressed best through inconsistency and deceit. How much of Kohler's shredded narrative can be trusted? Is his European mistress Susu, a singer of mournful songs who wound up gnawing the thumbs of Jews, a figment of his imagination? How, exactly, did he fit into or around his marriage his summer-long beachfront affair with Lou, the great love of his life whose loss -- she dumped him -- he still laments decades later? And did Kohler's family move from house to house during his childhood, as he states in one chapter, or did they hold fast to one dingy home, which seems the case in the rest of the book?

Gass is a longstanding enemy of realism in the contemporary novel, and he has written many essays extolling the virtues of ingenious form and well-crafted words over the dull custom of character and plot. While conventional novelists want us to believe in the little worlds they create, Gass wants to stimulate our disbelief. Yet despite the author's best efforts, Kohler turns out to be a superbly drawn character who elicits our understanding if not our sympathy. And although Joycean stream-of-consciousness techniques flood through The Tunnel, we can discern, despite the lack of linear narrative, a series of traditional stories, some of them quite lyrical, buried deep within the novel. Gass cleaves to certain conventions despite his protestations, so we're left to wonder if the discrepancies are really intentional, or just the result of bad editing. Avant-garde theory is useful mainly as a carpet under which the artist sweeps his mistakes.

Kohler brings to mind Walter Benjamin's image of the angel of history: "His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. "...The storm (blowing in from Paradise) irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward."

Except that Kohler is digging the debris out from under his own house, his very being. "From the first," Kohler says of himself in the third person, "he learned to protect himself, to settle himself against the blows of Fate, to harden his heart with a little glaze of hate." And, a bit later: "Loss in life: that's what I mourn for; that's what we all mourn for, all of us who have been touched by the fascism of the heart. It's not having held what was in our hands to hold; not having felt the feelings we were promised by our parents, friends, and lovers; not having got the simple goods we were assured we had honestly earned and rightfully had coming."

That's what's so frightening about The Tunnel. Even if we are not determined bigots and sexual predators like Kohler, we must recognize in ourselves many of his grudges and grievances. There but for the barrage of bons mots go I.

Disgusting, heartbreaking, compelling, appalling, haunting, depressing, nonsensical, profound, loathsome, prurient, poetic: The Tunnel delves into the heart's darkness and history's ambiguity, and the reader emerges from the dim passage feeling liberated, if a bit soiled.