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The Tunnel

3.97  ·  Rating Details ·  954 Ratings  ·  126 Reviews
Thirty years in the making, William Gass's second novel first appeared on the literary scene in 1995, at which time it was promptly hailed as an indisputable masterpiece. The story of a middle aged professor who, upon completion of his massive historical study, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, finds himself writing a novel about his own life instead of the introduc ...more
Paperback, 652 pages
Published April 1st 1999 by Dalkey Archive Press (first published February 21st 1995)
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MJ Nicholls
The first 200 pages of this novel carry the reader aloft on flowing waves of sumptuous, musical prose: sentences so serpentine and silky, so alliteratively slinky, one’s only response is to ride these dreamy, masterful currents of polished perfection with near spiritual ecstasy. After the first 200 pages (or thereabouts) the novel takes muckier, knotty, horror-packed digressions and balances these with frequent flare-ups of the musical magical waves of Gass pleasure. The book alternates between ...more
Dec 21, 2014 Paul rated it it was amazing
Shelves: post-modern
It feels like I have been reading this for as long as Gass spent writing it; it’s a hefty tome and not easy to read. The primary character around whom all this revolves is William Frederick Kohler (I am reliably informed that in the US the word Kohler has plumbing connotations). He is a middle-aged history professor at a mid-western university who has just completed writing his magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He is struggling to write the introduction and reflecting on his ...more
May 21, 2012 B0nnie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to B0nnie by: MJ Nicholls
Shelves: favourite-books
Being William Kohler.

The Tunnel is a sort of portal through which we enter into the head of one William Frederick Kohler. We poke around in his memories and his thoughts, exploring all the little twists and turns of his mind. The question of how a child goes from innocence to becoming a monster is answered through Kohler's ramblings and flashbacks.

But monster is the wrong word here. He never achieves anything that grand. There is no murder or torture. No scheme to dominate the world. Nothing o
Mar 24, 2011 William1 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, us, 20-ce, do-not-own
When this book was published in 1995 by Alfred Knopf, I was in the middle of deep reading on the Holocaust. Many of the titles I still hold in my library. I felt at the time that an inundation in this subject matter kept me from enjoying The Tunnel. I was wrong about that, though I am deeply thankful to MJ for jogging me back into a reconsideration of the novel.

I stopped reading at page 55. The main reason: lack of narrative pleasure. Let me explain.

First, the premise: a US academic specializin
May 18, 2012 Geoff rated it it was amazing
Shelves: infinite-books
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame

This unhesitatingly gets the full fathom 5 star treatment, because without a doubt it is an amazing work; I was amazed, among a host of other emotions, and the 26 years of labor Gass put into The Tunnel are apparent in every carefully wrought sentence in this monster masterpiece. However, it is an extremely unpleasant read, perhaps the most unpleasant and disturbing read I’ve come across in my 35 years of intellectual intake. The fact that such heights of
What have you, my good friends, deserv'd at the hands of
Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Prison, my lord?
Denmark's a prison.
Then is the world one.
A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o' th' worst.

We think not so, my lord.
Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Don’t you
May 21, 2010 Szplug rated it it was amazing
For six hundred and fifty-one pages Gass invites the reader to wade through a lifetime of memories dredged—and at times perhaps cooked—up by a caustically disillusioned and despairing professor of history at a midwest American university, a reminiscence that functions as a delaying tactic against the completion of his life's work: a massive, exhaustively researched revisionist history of the Third Reich entitled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. Beginning his recollection with Anaxagoras' ...more
Ian "Marvin" Graye
The Tunnel Conceit

The tunnel is an authorial conceit on the part of William H Gass as well as his protagonist, William F. Kohler.

It's probably best to abandon any preconceptions of what it might mean when you enter either tunnel as a reader.

The metaphorical tunnel doesn't represent an escape route out of anywhere, nor does it represent a method of entry into somewhere else.

Instead, it constitutes a long strange trip or journey through the mind of the first person protagonist.

At this level, the
Nov 17, 2014 Mala rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Literature lovers
Recommended to Mala by: Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
Ten stars.

“And what is the ultimate element in history but human life—human coupling, human pain?” (P.130)

Rage, or rather, impotent rage, is the dominant emotion of this book, sustained by the side notes of contempt, bitterness, and an all pervasive melancholy. At its barest bones, The Tunnel is an attempt at understanding one of the darkest chapters in History— the Holocaust. That it becomes a subterranean exploration into a person's history and time & by extrapolation an exposition on the
11/22/14, 6:54pm — A GR friend of mine is currently reading this novel. Upon noticing his status update on the book, I started to think about my own feelings of the book, and of my original slightly confused review, which is below. I started to think, again, about what went wrong here, why my reaction to this book seemed to go against the majority of my GR friends who have read it previous. And why my original three-star rating was not an accurate reflection of how I felt about The Tunnel, thoug ...more
Sep 21, 2012 Forrest rated it liked it
WARNING: This review contains graphic content. I am not joking. If you are squeamish, please do not read this review!

Years ago, on our way home from Disney World, of all places, my wife and I came on the scene of a wreck on a rural California highway. The accident couldn't have happened but a few minutes before we arrived. The police had not yet made it to the scene, though some good citizens were directing traffic and approaching the victims. It appeared to be a single-vehicle accident. The car
Dec 02, 2014 Tony rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: u-s-lit, top-10-2015
William Frederick Kohler, professor of history, has almost finished his major work: Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. He postulates that it takes more than one madman. He postulates that it takes more than one madman and one thousand of rabid kindred spirits. It takes more than self-interest. His work remains undone.

William Frederick Kohler, husband and father of two, unloved and unlovable, starts to build a tunnel in his basement. There are metaphorical reasons aplenty to start digging a
Nick Craske
Oct 12, 2012 Nick Craske rated it it was amazing
William H. Gass's The Tunnel is a paradox. A celebration of literature and an anti-novel.

From a simple narrative idea Gass creates a complicated internal odyssey; both life affirming and despair inducing. A classic David Foster Wallace double bind if you will.

To quote Gass's own description:

William Frederick Kohler "teaches history at a major mid-western university. He has studied in Germany during the thirties, returned with the 1st Army during the invasion as a debriefer, then as a consultant
Erik F.
Jan 26, 2012 Erik F. rated it it was amazing

Gass's second novel seethes with rage, horror, sorrow, and contempt, yet, paradoxically, is a joy to read simply because his writing is so mellifluous, so inventive, so alive with an intoxicating love for the powers and possibilities of the English language. Indeed, it seems as though words and the talent to arrange/distill/reinvigorate them are the only things keeping Tunnel’s narrator, middle-aged history professor William Kohler, from totally succumbing to the dungeon of despair that his life

Justin Evans
Mar 14, 2014 Justin Evans rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Some attempts to explain William Gass:

i) I put him in the same category as Burton, Shakespeare and Joyce. If you disagree now, wait until I'm done, when you'll disagree even more: these four men, extraordinary geniuses in their own way, are the ultimate specialists. None of them have any imagination whatsoever. Their books either lack or steal plot and their ideas are predominantly dull or second-hand. Burton got around this problem by writing a medical treatise. Shakespeare stole almost everyt
Vit Babenco
May 19, 2016 Vit Babenco rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“We have not lived the right life…” But is there the right life to be lived?
The Tunnel is one of those books one drowns in like in the ocean.
“The man of action has a destiny, a star he follows, and it draws him on like the Magi, or so it’s said; the taillight of a car, it’s said; the flag of a deer. The creator courts the muse, pays tribute and pursues: sucks, sips, sniffs, puffs, pops, screws – for the favor of his Fancy. The visionary sees the future like a dream-draped dressmaker’s dummy, as
Liam Howley
Oct 16, 2013 Liam Howley rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: no-one
Darkness is made of disgraced light, and the deepest fell on the first day, even as the sound of Lu-ci-fer—the first word—faded.

The roof of the bandstand looks like the thorny crown for a nuns corpse.

Meet William Kohler, the founding and sole member of the Party of Disappointed People. A historian, he has completed his magnum opus, a monumental study on Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, and has but the introduction to write. Instead, from the basement of his home, he digs a tunnel, and tu
David Lentz
Jun 20, 2011 David Lentz rated it it was amazing
Consider that William Gass created this masterpiece over roughly the same time frame it takes to pay off the average mortgage -- 652 pages in 30 years. One has to respect such care in crafting The Tunnel. How many times was this draft edited to create in essence a final draft written at the plodding, prodding pace of 22 pages per annum? Gass took more time crafting The Tunnel than Joyce did Ulysses. And it shows. The syntax is not of this world. His use of metaphor is off the charts in its creat ...more
Mar 24, 2015 Jeremy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-fiction
Jesus. Christ. This a nightmare. A gorgeous, linguistically breath-taking masterwork 26 years in the making, but a nightmare none the less. William Frederich Kohler, who might or might not be a proxy for Gass himself, just vomits hate at EVERYTHING. His placid academic life, his miserable midwestern childhood, his straight-out-of-hell parents, his feckless colleagues, his wife, his kids, his students, his culture, his age and above all, himself.

And yet the whole thing is told in a crazed first p
Sentimental Surrealist
I have now, over the course of a snail's two months, finished what has got to stand as one of the roughest, toughest, meanest books on my shelf. What took me so long? A 671-page novel is nothing to sneeze at, but I'd read longer over shorter periods. So what the hell took me so long? I'll get to that, but let's get to the good stuff first: the Tunnel is a brilliant novel, deserving of five stars on any sort of reasonably objective scale. The prose is out of this world, full of beautifully realiz ...more
Aug 03, 2010 Zach rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
there are a lot of themes at work in the tunnel that require a sustained drag thru the muck to understand why they're important. the reader will fight with the book because it's utterly unpalatable; the reader will pick it back up because the words are put together pretty, or possibly because a sense of schadenfreude compels him. the reader will slowly realize that his own base tendencies and disappointments, as minute as they seem to be, might just resemble those of the "repugnant" narrator, ho ...more
James Murphy
Sep 09, 2009 James Murphy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A reread, first read about 20 years ago. I gave it more stars and wish there were more I could add because I think Gass is a brilliant writer. The Tunnel is almost what I call a language book kinda like Beckett or Joyce. He writes that well. It's an extended, encyclopedic meditation, a novel of 651 pages with no plot. It's a tunnel through the mind of William Kohler, a university professor who's written a huge history entitled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. He sits in his basement tryi ...more
Jeremiah Carlson
A book like this... no no good. THE TUNNEL commands a masterful review I think because I would like to show my appreciation for it and it's author. Can I deliver that review? Not right now I don't think. I can review it though because it deserves my time to praise it even though I've poured myself into it like overthinking a crazy metaphor such as "watersliding" through a "waterfall" of cement mix but knowing the mix will shine like marble.

I don't know what I'm doing or if it works but I must do
Jan 08, 2009 Bruce rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
William H. Gass’s novel, The Tunnel, stretches the very definition of a novel, it being a vast and introspective interior monologue narrated by one William Frederick Kohler, a history professor at a midwestern university (the plot, if plot there be, consists of Kohler’s digging a secret tunnel out of his basement). Kohler begins his writing intending it to be a brief introduction to his just-completed immense history of the Holocaust, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, but it quickly becom ...more
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis

Gass's notes and instructions, "Designing The Tunnel," regarding typesetting for the novel:

The Tunnel, A Casebook, from Dalkey Archive's Context:
which includes the following:
The Tunnel: A Topical Overview by H. L. Hix
Sentenced to Sentences: Poetry and The Tunnel. by Jonathan Barron
Confronting The Tunnel: History, Authority, Reference. by Melanie Eckford-Prossor
Götterdämmerung in the West: William Gass’s Little Big No
Leo Robertson
Dec 02, 2012 Leo Robertson rated it liked it
Shelves: in2013
This is the kind of idea that enters dangerous territory, but I’d love to create “fan edits” of some great novels whose excellent content was outweighed by its chaff.

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: cut out the digessions, lengthy scene transitions, the subplot about plastic surgery and the fact-dumping through dialogue that was jarring and, it turned out, unnecessary. Keep the masterful alive scenes, the “she went there?” dark humour and in so doing, get more fans rooting for the novel’s he
Lee Foust
Oct 08, 2013 Lee Foust rated it really liked it
The white text box invites me to type in some words in response to William Gass’s The Tunnel and the first ones that rise to the surface are those of Prufrock: “And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?” perhaps that’s because I don’t necessarily feel worthy to the task or perhaps also a bit because the The Tunnel’s narrator, William Frederick Kohler, reminds me of one of Eliot’s “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows...” Or perhaps the sheer immensity of the thing, to a ...more
Mar 31, 2016 Sunny rated it liked it
Wow. Incredible book. 651 pages of beautifully crafted literature. So three stars because I just couldn’t keep up intellectually with the story or what the heck Gass was going on about. He’s clearly way too much of a genius for me to understand what’s going on in that noggin of his. It’s as though he has grabbed a dictionary and thrown in lots of words that make pseudo-sense. It took Gass about 30 years to write this when he started it as a 40 year old in the mid-60s. The book is about a German ...more
Dec 28, 2016 Nick rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excluding the gods (Shakespeare, Joyce, etc.) this is my read of the year.

Essential reading. A masterpiece in every sense of the word.
This is the major work of Gass's long life, thirty years in the writing. It's an intensely depressing overview of the negative side of the human condition, told using the disturbing emotions of a single man, helped occasionally by the brutality of the mob. In the end, it surprises as being "only" a memoir/autobiography of the narrator William Kohler's life, a self-proclaimed failed historian, who abandoned poetry in adolescence and seems to have paid for this decision the rest of his life.

Gass w
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William Howard Gass (born July 30, 1924) is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and former philosophy professor.

Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Warren, Ohio, where he attended local schools. He has described his childhood as an unhappy one, with an abusive, racist father and a passive, alcoholic mother; critics would later cit
More about William H. Gass...

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“it is discouraging to leave the past behind only to see it coming toward you like the thunderstorm which drenched you yesterday.” 19 likes
“Wild eyes were another sign. It is something I have seldom seen — the expression of an ecstatic state — though much is foolishly written of them, as if they grew like Jerusalem artichokes along the road. The eyes are black, right enough, whatever their normal color is; they are black because their perception is condensed to a coal, because the touch and taste and perfume of the lover, the outcry of a dirty word, a welcome river, have been reduced in the heat of passion to a black ash, and this unburnt residue of oxidation, this calyx, replaces the pupil so it no longer receives but sends, and every hair is on end, though perhaps only outspread on a pillow, and the nostrils are flared, mouth agape, cheeks sucked so the whole face seems as squeezed as a juiced fruit; I know, for once Lou went into that wildness while we were absorbing one another, trying to kiss, not merely forcefully, not the skull of our skeleton, but the skull and all the bones on which the essential self is hung, kiss so the shape of the soul is stirred too, that's what is called the ultimate French, the furtherest fuck, when a cock makes a concept cry out and climax; I know, for more than once, though not often, I shuddered into that other region, when a mouth drew me through its generosity into the realm of unravel, and every sensation lay extended as a lake, every tie was loosed, and the glue of things dissolved. I knew I wore the wild look then. The greatest gift you can give another human being is to let them warm you till, in passing beyond pleasure, your defenses fall, your ego surrenders, its structure melts, its towers topple, lies, fancies, vanities, blow away in no wind, and you return, not to the clay you came from — the unfired vessel — but to the original moment of inspiration, when you were the unabbreviated breath of God.” 8 likes
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