The Tunnel by William H. Gass
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
WARNING: This review contains graphic content. I am not joking. If you are squeamish, please do not read this review!
Years ago, on my 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 had rolled, if the dents on the roof were any indication (the car was upright on its three remaining wheels), and one of the passengers had been thrown through the windshield. He was quite dead: a river of blood a foot wide, coming from his neck, had already flooded across two lanes of traffic. We drove right through it, no avoiding it. The body was not all in one piece, I'll leave it at that. Another person, the other passenger from the looks of it (the body might have been his brother, I don't know) was aimlessly wandering around the middle of the highway in obvious shock at what had just happened. Thankfully there were people trying to slow traffic and make way for the police, who arrived just as we passed the body.
The feeling I felt then was akin to the feelings this book gave me inside. As an experiment in literature, it's brilliant. The formatting is incredible and intellectually stimulating. The language is superb, as one would expect from William Gass. I am a huge fan of his shorter work and have been in awe of his facile use of the English language. Academically, this book is a hit. An existentialist experiment in sentence construction, word usage, and visual arrangement.
That said, the book made me sick. I couldn't put it down, once I had picked it up, but I loathed picking it up at each reading session. There was an internal battle raging within me during the time I read it: Intellectual curiosity vs emotional revulsion. Ultimately, I hated myself for reading this book. But in the back of my mind, I admire it.
The narrator, Frederick Kohler, is attempting to write his forward to his life's work, "Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany". He never finishes. Instead, the story follows Kohler's life, a failure in almost every sense, in a meandering, tedious narrative . . . well, tunnel. The sense of self-loathing in this work is powerful and depressing. Rather than making the book playful, the clever tinkering with formatting serves to disarm the reader into thinking she or he should be really excited about tackling this intellectual challenge, setting the reader up for a downward emotional plunge from which it is difficult to break free. I would not recommend this book for those who easily fall into depression. The Tunnel won't just let you fall into depression, it will forcefully push you there, face first. If you can distance yourself enough to enjoy the cleverness of it all, by all means, do so. But I couldn't distance myself enough. In the end, I found myself stuck in The Tunnel and it took a good few days to get out. Just like the feeling I had after witnessing the aftermath of that accident.
Four stars for intellectual bravado and inventiveness, two stars for internal yuck = 3 stars.
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