12 Winters Blog

Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2017

This paper, “Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 on 23 Feb. 2017 as part of the panel titled “Imagining Space: Experiments in Narrative Form.” The paper veered from its original intent and perhaps a suitable secondary title may be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.” The panel was chaired by Liana Babayan, Augusta University. Other papers presented were “Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Architectural Liminality” by Adam McKee, Queensborough Community College, CUNY; “Haunted Houses from House of Leaves to House of Fiction” by Amanda Davis, University of Chicago; and “Contrasting Spaces in Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose” by Maria Slocum, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Other papers on William H. Gass’s work can be found at this site by searching “gass.”

“For me a book tends to exist in a metaphorical relationship to a building. For me architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists, say, metaphorically or philosophically” (Janssens 66). Thus spake William H. Gass in a 1979 interview, about midway through the composition process of his magnum opus The Tunnel, which was published in 1995 after a nearly thirty-year gestation. Sections began appearing in print as early as 1969 and continued off and on for almost two decades, garnering numerous accolades (for example, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1980), and in two instances being released as stand-alone, limited-edition books by art presses. In 1996 Gass’s massive book (over 650 pages of dense prose, riddled with myriad experimental techniques, a host of fonts, amateurish doodles, and other graphic representations) won the American Book Award. Meanwhile, it spawned copious reviews which ranged from fawning to furious. Even some of the novel’s harshest critics, however, acknowledged that it would take decades of scholarly work to fully come to terms with Gass’s achievement—no matter whether one believes he achieved a masterpiece or a monstrosity. Sadly, that work remains largely undone.


This is at least the third paper I’ve presented at this conference chiefly focused on Gass’s The Tunnel. When his next novel appeared in 2013, Middle C, that much more manageable book led me away from The Tunnel for a paper or two; and I also did some work on Gass’s earlier publications: his first piece of published fiction, the novella The Pedersen Kid, and then a paper focused mainly on Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and On Being Blue. Pondering possibilities for this year’s conference, I decided it was time to return to the excavation site and say something further about The Tunnel. I’ve been coming here for more than a decade, and I can only recall one other Gass paper being presented in that time (a Willie Masters’ paper). (When I first started attending the conference I was a William Gaddis guy; I hadn’t yet fallen under the Master’s spell.) My hope has been that by keeping the spark of scholarly interest alive others will join the conversation—and that hope has rested mainly on the book’s artistic merits. However, between the time that I proposed this particular paper topic and now, something historically monumental happened which makes The Tunnel vitally relevant: the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States (and the rise of the alt-right in general). That is to say, the overarching theme of The Tunnel—which Gass has described as “the fascism of the heart”—makes the book amazingly and unfortunately up-to-date. Perhaps an appropriate secondary title for my paper would be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.”


Our times have led to a rekindled interest in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian books. For the same reasons it is worthwhile to descend into William Gass’s tunnel, a place whose squalidness has turned away many readers—but these, my friends, are squalid times. So, in the interest of truth in advertising, I am going to discuss (to some degree) the structure of The Tunnel and its relationship to architecture; but I’m also going to talk about the fascism of the heart and what the book has to say about the Trump phenomenon.

The basic plot of the novel is fairly straightforward (although plot doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Gass’s world as it does in most fiction writer’s): The first-person narrator, William Kohler, is a middle-aged history professor at a Midwestern university who has finally completed his magnum opus, prophetically thirty years in the writing, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He has sat down in his basement office to write the book’s preface (the final nail in this towering edifice, so to speak) when he finds himself blocked and therefore begins writing, instead, a very personal memoir about his unhappy childhood, lackluster career, loveless marriage, lost loves, disappointing children, and irritating colleagues. He slips the pages of this tell-all autobiography in between the manuscript pages of Guilt and Innocence so that his wife won’t see them (having no interest whatsoever in his life’s work), and, meanwhile, he begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement—or at least so we’re told. Gass himself has written in the liner notes of the audiobook edition of The Tunnel (45 hours of listening pleasure) that his narrator is “wholly unreliable”: “That does not mean he never tells the truth. He may always tell the truth. He may never. But he can’t be trusted. So he may not be digging a tunnel out of his basement” (emphasis added). Either way, writes Gass, “[t]he pointlessness of this activity has to be stressed.”


Returning to my opening quote, Gass has said that “architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists.” He has had a long-standing interest in architecture. It is difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg, as Gass married Mary Henderson in 1968. Mary Henderson Gass has had a distinguished career as an architect in St. Louis since moving there with her husband in 1979 when he accepted a professorship at Washington University. (He retired from the university in 2000.) Gass has found the experimental designs of architect Peter Eisenman especially akin to his own literary aesthetic. “He does crazy things in one sense,” said Gass, “but he is really a serious artist, first rank, I think. He is not just doing things to shock people, or surprise them or be different” (Janssens 68). Gass’s statement about Eisenman and his work sounds a lot like what defenders of Gass and especially The Tunnel have been saying for years.

In explaining how The Tunnel functions architecturally, Gass has contrasted his work to James Joyce’s, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Gass said,

Now, the idea of a book as fundamentally or conceptually a structure in which you are being taken on a tour by the author—I think a lot of modern works are constructed this way, Joyce, for instance, makes Ulysses in such a way that it is not possible for you to conceive the book and hold it in your head at the same time, you have to go back and forth in it. He takes you through the first time; you may jump around in it later as you wish—and Finnegans Wake is certainly constructed that way. (Janssens 66)

Gass continued,

Joyce demands total recall, an ideal total recall. […] I am like I would be when I went through a building: I am putting the pieces together to compose the building which exists ontologically all at the same time, and which I can only know experientially one at the time, and therefore I can only conceive or conceptualize the way it actually exists; I can have an idea of how this house exists. (67)

In other words, when one reads Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, both of which are structurally linear (a second by second account of a single day in Dublin, Ireland, or the unconscious mind’s progression through a single night of sleep [perhaps]), one is at a different point on the overall timeline with each passing word, and one has to be mindful of that progression to make sense of the experience. In other words, how have we gotten from point A to point B . . . to point Z? Metaphorical connections must be made by recalling earlier parts of the text.

The brutally nonlinear construction of The Tunnel operates differently. To illustrate that difference, Gass referenced Eisenman:

Now in Peter Eisenman’s work, what he wants to do often is to make one experientially aware of other parts of the house at the same time [emphasis added]. So in one of his houses, called House Six, there is, for instance, in the second-floor bedroom a strip of glass that goes across the floor, from which you can perceive the living-room below, and vice versa. Similarly, there are holes in various parts, openings which allow you […] to look through the house. So I am always aware in that house of other parts. (67)

In the execution of this theory, Gass constructed The Tunnel in twelve parts (which he describes as phillipics, or bitter denunciations), and each consists of twelve “fundamental themes and a lot of minor ones would be sounded in different arrangements so that a central aspect or meaning of the text would emerge at the beginning; then sink down and be relatively innocuous or weak at a certain point”—all of which would be “superimposed on a completely different structure: the tunnel itself” (“William Gass”). Gass, incidentally, is simultaneously using a mimetic musical structure—Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system—but we don’t have time to go there too. Thus, while Gass’s narrator Kohler pinballs between his childhood, his career in the army, his grad school days in Germany, his various love affairs, his current life, etc., the author returns again and again to these major and minor motifs. In an artfully designed building each room, each hallway, each alcove, each stairway, and even outdoor spaces reflect certain colors, shapes, themes, and moods that tie them together as being parts of a consistently constructed whole. There are variations of course. A dominant color in the entryway may return as complementary accent color in the master bath, for example. A sailboat model in the library may be echoed by a nautically themed kitchen. So forth and so on. Thus it is with The Tunnel.

As illustration of this technique, I will focus on one of the novel’s major motifs and its juxtaposed doppelgänger: windows and mirrors. Gass seems to want us to pay special attention to windows as he titled the sixth phillipic “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” and it takes up the literal center of his book, pages 282 to 333 out of 652. Also, windows have been metaphorically important throughout Gass’s career. As H. L. Hix points out, “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s previous fiction” (124).  Hix’s observation is a valid one, but I think Gass takes the metaphor further in The Tunnel by pairing it with almost equally numerous references to mirrors. More regarding that in a moment. What follows are only a few examples of window references in the text. The first comes just a few pages into the book when Kohler recalls a car ride with his lost love, Lou: “The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved” (7). This car ride, only briefly mentioned here, foreshadows an episode titled “A Sunday Drive,” which describes in detail a family outing from Kohler’s childhood that is referenced repeatedly in the novel and also prefigures the narrator’s own family outings when he becomes husband and father (always with Gass, repetition, variation, point, counterpoint).

In the central section of the novel, Gass compares a blackboard to a window, writing, “The board is at once the surface of a pit-black sea and a bleak opening onto all our inner spaces. It is the brink of what we are, and hence a horror. […] unlike a window which is always full of the flitter of images […]” (311). Discussing the blackboard’s “opening onto all our inner spaces” (in that professors, like Kohler, use the blackboard to broadcast their beliefs to their students), Gass also connects blackboards to mirrors—both being framed objects antithetical to windows in their own ways. The book’s final reference to windows is about as far from the end as the first reference is from the start, and it’s in an imagined scene with Kohler’s hated wife Martha wherein “[I] lead her to the window [hand in hand … and] put our gazes on together” (650). Kohler imagines trying to get Martha to see the world as profoundly as he does, “but she would interrupt me with a snort from her derision because she despises oratory, wants to slap cheeks when they puff.” We notice the mirror opposites of the first window reference being a recollection of Kohler’s lost true love, Lou, and the final reference being an imagined scene with Kohler’s despised wife. Further linking the two scenes are references to face slapping, one metaphorical, the other imagined but likely. These examples constitute just a tiny taste of the repetitions, echoes, foreshadowings, and prismatic reflections, complications and contradictions that appear in some form or another on every page of the novel.

heide-ziegler-and-william-gassWhat then of the mirrors? Again, there are a plethora of references, the first being on page 10 and it is immediately paired with a window (via negation), as Kohler describes his dingy basement work space: “I’ve no mirror, cockeyed or otherwise. One wrinkled window. Above: a worn lace curtain like a rusted screen.” I believe that the pairing of windows with mirrors (and Kohler’s professorial blackboard) is related to the overarching theme of the book as delineated by one of Gass’s most adept readers, Heide Ziegler, a long-time friend and collaborator of William Gass (next to Gass in the photo from a 1991 symposium on postmodernism in Stuttgart, Germany). In response to reviews of the The Tunnel that ran from lukewarm to hostile, Ziegler wrote, in essence, a defense of the book which appeared in Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel (1998). In the interest of my waning time, I shall cut to the chase of Ziegler’s reading, which unknowingly anticipated the novel’s connections to our own desperate times. The key to understanding the book is in the phrase that Gass identified as its “fundamental subject”: the fascism of the heart. Ziegler writes, “[G]iven the pervasiveness of his message […] it is dangerous to miss the point. His message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists” (80). She suggests that the nostalgically tender (and rare) recollections from Kohler’s boyhood contribute to the idea that anyone is capable of being lured into the dark tunnel of fascism. That same boy—who relished dime-store candy and wanted nothing more in this world than a dog of his own to play with—became the young man who succumbed to the mob mentality of Kristallnacht in 1938 and threw a stone through a Jewish storekeeper’s window. I’ll supplement Ziegler’s fine reading by asserting that Gass’s frequent references to mirrors also emphasize Kohler’s (and everyone’s) potential for becoming the same sort of people he spent his academic life studying (gazing upon, if you will, as if through a window): the innocent German citizens who were transformed into the Nazis who were guilty of exterminating six million Jews. Ziegler writes further,

Given the right historical circumstances—economic insecurity, a time of depression—and given the right seducer […] your Everyman will follow that leader simply in order to flee his own loneliness, as well as what he believes to be undeserved misfortune. […] Since […] political agitators possess no true authority, they need to create scapegoats—the Jews in Germany, minorities all over the world. What Gass attempts, and obviously achieves, judging by the emotional responses to his book, is to change the Holocaust from a horrifying, unforgivable, yet singular European spectacle into a general historical possibility. That is the reason that The Tunnel is not about Germany or about Hitler. It is—potentially—about all of us. (80-81)

Referring specifically to the sort of finely tuned brainwashing the military is able to achieve but meaning more broadly the way anyone can be manipulated, Gass writes, “Eventually they compel you to act against your conscience, contrary to your nature, in defiance of every precept of morality and religion, until all that remains of you is your past, your prehensile tale [spelled t-a-l-e], your history. Then they begin on that” (242-43).

I hardly need to point out the parallels between Gass’s description of the Holocaust and our own time, with the rise of Trump and the rhetoric of the alt-right, especially their scapegoating of Muslims, immigrants, liberals, the press, and even the judiciary as reasons for our alleged decreased safety and floundering economy. What is more, on a personal note I’ll say how surprising and discouraging it’s been over the past year to view friends, neighbors and family via the window of Facebook and other social media and discover the fascism of their hearts—their willingness to believe Trump’s lies and to support his undemocratic, unpatriotic and unconstitutional schemes. How best to resist, other than simply by putting a hashtag in front of the word, is a question that millions have been wrestling with. Obviously political action is a necessary part of resistance to this wave of fascism. William Gass dealt with this question, too, in a powerful essay, “The Artist and Society” (first published in The New Republic, July 17, 1968). In it Gass suggests that the artist shouldn’t become involved in a revolution in the typical sorts of ways, but rather he must become involved through his art. He writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inaction is only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). Artists must resist, then, through their art. It is via their art that they can have a greater impact than a mere bomb’s momentary blast.

My original concept of this paper was to discuss how Gass’s techniques align his book with the intentions of aesthetically minded architects—how their conceived ideas, drafted as blueprints and 3D models, are transformed into lived physical spaces, and, similarly, how Gass attempts to make William Kohler’s surreptitiously written memoir materialize in the hands of the reader via the book known as The Tunnel. I planned to make good use of an interesting article coauthored by Gass and his wife, Mary, about the artistic principles of architectural design and their analogues in other forms of art, like writing. And I planned to talk about Gass’s hopes for the publication of his novel, what the publisher and printer were able and willing to execute, and what they weren’t. I also meant to explain my paper’s title regarding “modernism’s last gasp,” comparing, say, Joyce’s efforts to mimic a conscious or unconscious mind versus Gass’s efforts to create a consciousness. But alas those discussions will have to wait for another paper and another day. I encourage you, meanwhile, to risk a visit to The Tunnel, a book suddenly very much for our time.

Works Referenced

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88.

—-. The Tunnel. 1995. Dalkey Archive, 2007.

—-. William H. Gass Reads The Tunnel. [liner notes for the audio book written by the author] Clayton Studios, 2005.

Gass, William H., and Mary Gass. “The Architecture of the Sentence.” Conjunctions, 1999, pp. 93-108. [Available online]

Hix, H. L. “Twenty Questions on The Tunnel.” Understanding William H. Gass, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 76-139.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 56-70.

“William Gass with Michael Silverblatt” (5 Nov. 1998). Vimeo, uploaded by Lannan Foundation, 2011, https://vimeo.com/12812717.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass: Is There Light at the End of The Tunnel?Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 71-83.