|Chuck Close, Alex, 1987. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio|
When I think of William Gass's The Tunnel, I'm reminded of the gigantic portrait heads painted by Chuck Close, photo-realistic faces magnified far beyond human scale and composed of a grid of hundreds or thousands of miniature squares, each of which Close considers a separate abstract painting. At a distance these painted cells fuse to a recognizable likeness (as in his portrait of Alex Katz, above), but as we move closer to the canvas the image pixelates, becomes staticky, begins to melt into its materials (the exact opposite of Impressionist painting's 'mixing of the brushstrokes in the eye'). Close up, a Close isn't representational at all; it's a flat grid of colorful miniature De Kooningesque abstractions. At their best these tiny paintings can be as fascinating and labyrinthine as the illuminations in the Book of Kells.
The sentences in The Tunnel work in a similar way: beautiful and elaborate in themselves, they sum to a portrait of the repulsive William Frederick Kohler and his unfortunate chairy-flavored life. And just as I prefer the close view of Close, to stand a foot away from the enormous canvas and craze-out on the candy-colored components, when I tunnel into Gass's Tunnel, I dig it for those blood diamond sentences. For this Tunnel is less a novel than an old South African mine: dark, dangerous and bad to know. If we spend too much time there, Gass will breathe blackness into our lungs, pelt us with gemstone sentences, growl at us to get our asses off his fucking lawn unless we want to meet his fat evil buddy Kohler, the Man in the Basement--and we surer than shit don't want that, do we now?
The sentences are the thing. Enter the Tunnel anywhere and dig for its diamonds; you'll find some soon enough. The Tunnel seems at times a programmatic justification of the sentence-privileging theory of fiction adumbrated in many of Gass's essays, the idea that vividly realized characters, gripping stories, complex plots, are less important than the material textures and sonic structure of the sentences that con them into being. (That sentence verbed on a seems because reality comes contra: Gass's essays might more likely have been attempts to clarify his artistic practice during the long dark decades of (de)composition; the ideas might have been inspired by Tunneltripping rather than the Tunnel dug to justify them: it's a chicken-and-egg, dick-and-pussy kind of problem.) Like most critical theorizing that bears directly on a writer's own work, this is excellent description (of that work) but poor prescription for anyone else's. As critical doctrine it's fine as long as you spend your career writing only about Omensetter's Luck, The Tunnel and Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife; when you branch out to Dog Soldiers or Dhalgren you might encounter difficulties. For the duration of this post, though, I'm writing about The Tunnel and taking Gass's sentences seriously. I want to climb inside one and have a butcher's around.
I won't be entering this lovely little number
I let the spoon sink slowly through my soup until I saw it shimmering beneath the surface of the broth like the dappled shadow of a swimmer. (p.13)
although its lyricism is positively Proustian; it's four or five bars of wordy music; listen to those s's and oo's sinking slowly down the side of this bowl-shaped sentence to touch bottom where we see it shimmering for a second until it fishtails back up into Cheever-y life. Lovely. Luscious. It epiphanizes the ordinary like a detail from Vermeer. It's a sentence like a Chardin.
Nor will I be passing through the portal of this miniature prose poem
Did he secrete his role in reality like a shell, and later become the snail, as one imagines Rilke did it, going from pose to poet, or did he begin as a sound and then exude some sweet pink conch to lie in like the sea's ear? (p.20)
even though it compresses an entire ontological theory of artistic subjectivity between its capital D from Rilke's Picasso elegy and its question mark curling like the ear's soft shell. The he here is ostensibly Andre Gide, but because Kohler always and only writes about himself (that's his prison and disease) the fatso fascist is me-mirroring once again, reflecting on the role of writing in the creation of his shabby self. The dead giveaway is the final image of that "sweet pink" cunt of a conch, an object of desire more operative for Kohler than for way-gay Andre.
Nor, unfortunately, will I be barging into the brutality of this dark dirge
These days the darkness that lies under the mind like the cool shade of a stream bottom yields our only safety, for to rush to the light is to Gloucester-out the eyes, bedazzled by death, to go over the top at someone else's whistle and war shout, to fume up and fizz fast, die dirty, die young. (p.69)
though I'm attracted to its contrarian anti-Platonism and love the verbing of Gloucester, where Gass pulls a trope on the old fool better than the trick Edgar played at Dover. And I must forgo, for now, pointing out the unbroken line this sentence draws from Plato's cave to the trenches of World War One to suggest that idealism is always eager to slaughter itself and that the Romantic coolness under the mind surely 'lies' in both senses of the word. For if The Tunnel argues anything, it's that there is no safety in the mind. Consciousness is our torment and torturer. To borrow a phrase from a great early essay by Gass, it's "the price we pay for being brained instead of finned." (A fishy image there too, dontcha know...)
No, none of those. Instead, I've chosen to enter this little labyrinth and pray I don't become meat for a minotaur as I thread my way through:
If we were leaves, Herschel, I sort of said, and there were only one wind, why then we might predict the path of our blowing; but we live in a world of whirling air just as Anaximenes concluded, a world of whiffs, puffs, breaths, zephyrs, breezes, hurricanes, monsoons, and mistrals; and if they all died away suddenly, and we were Sargasso'd in a sea of circumstance, then one small draft through a winter window might drive us at our destiny like a nail. (p.37)
We enter this sentence on the tiptoes of a two-letter conditional and ride two smooth, alliterative w's into the subjunctive tense where we immediately metamorphose into counterfactual leaves. So many leaves: leaves of paper (the fertile white earth of Kohler's barren world, so the noun puns the subjunctive into a counter-counterfactual (we are leaves, of course) until we get dizzy and fall onto leaves of grass:), Whitman's multiply meaningful leaves, Milton's leaves at Vallombrosa, Homer's soldiers falling like leaves... oh yes, Big Bad Bill has uncondomed the Western Canon and now with one word he's blowing its balls all over our faces. Gass here partakes of the classic image of leaves that Harold Bloom traced through the length of Western literature in A Map of Misreading and The Breaking of the Vessels, and although the image retains the elegiac force of its canonical usages (this sentence comes hard upon a shockingly pornographic depiction of a Nazi mass grave), Kohler self-protectively twists the trope away from its funereal implications (leaves like fallen bodies) and turns it into an image of life. If he could similarly Lazarus those six million Jews back to life, at least some of his pathetic problems would be solved--but that's the tragic difference between rhetoric and reality. To Herschel, his Jewish colleague and imaginary interlocutor, he sibilantly sort of speaks in a snaky, Miltonic hiss and sends us leaves flying along an arrow-straight breeze of long o's and w's (hear that one wind in the vowels?) until we blow against the semicoloned wall of our own 'blowing.' A small and decidedly unerotic but clunks like a bad transmission as the sentence shifts us into another world, a world of whirling that begins with our familiar alliterative w's then nearly chokes us on the chicken bone of an obscure pre-Socratic philosopher's disruptively Greek name (Gass the prof here goosing Gass the pomo as both peep from under Kohler's pasteboard mask and the levels of textual illusion threaten for a split second to fall away and show us Fat Willie at his desk), but not to worry: all is well, and all manner of thing will be well here in Happy Kohlerland. Canonical Kohler comes rushing to his own rescue with Ulysses' Aeolian bag in his arms and a Homeric, Virgilian, Dantean, Rabelaisian, Burtonian, Miltonic, Whitmanic, Joyceanly ironic miniature musical catalogue of winds. O the Gassman gases wonderfully well for the length of a line, from that first tentative whiff until the mistral slams somewhat abruptly into that second semicolonic wall. A repetition of and before and after the final wind carries us smoothly over the semicolon (transforming it silently from wall to hurdle) and into a looking glass world where the the winds Kohler so professionally whistled up now die suddenly, leaving us stuck like the albatrossed mariner on a deathly, dropless sea. The only possible deliverance from here is a destiny indistinguishable from death that announces itself with the small, deadly d of a draft that chills and kills. The w's of our first wind return through a winter window, but they're quickly drowned out by the steady, staccato hammering of those closing words, every single syllable and clicking consonant hitting us like the hammer that magically transforms us from female leaf to phallic coffin nail at the full stop that can only mean death.
Yes. That may be the only way to read The Tunnel, if you really want to read it. Grab at a sentence that dazzles you and inflate it like an Oldenburg, paint it like a Pollock, tease out its meanings until you make it your own.