Splendor in the Gass,?

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Author: John Leonard
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2000
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,839 words

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[(review date 20 March 1995) In the following review, Leonard offers favorable evaluation of The Tunnel, concluding that is "a splendid, daunting, loathsome novel."]

Your wife is fat. Your penis is tiny. Your children are sallow-faced louts. Your mistress dumped you because you have "a loathsome mind." Your colleagues in the history department at a Midwestern university are charlatans and poltroons. Your "post-Bomb pre-Boom" students on the banks of the Wabash are either boring pests or sexual prey. The preface you are writing to your magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany--"This is to introduce a work on death by one who's spent his life in a chair"--has turned into a night-shriek. And you are also digging a tunnel in your cellar. To escape from what? From marriage, mind and matter, as if they were concentration camps: "There is no final safety from oneself. It is something we often say, but only the mad believe it, the consequences are so awesome, and so infinite. In that sense Hitler's been the only God. But must I always live in Germany?"

In the noisome 1960s, contemplating "first love, first nights, last stands," at age 50 and the end of his rope, William Frederick Kohler bares his teeth to tear at everything that tethers him: childhood, ego, landscape, language, narratology, Western Civ. It goes without saying that he is also trapped in this panopticon of a postmodern novel that William Gass has been torturing for three decades, as Giacometti tortured metals. Alice down a rabbit hole, Dostoyevsky underground, Orpheus descending: "I am distance itself," says K. "I stand alone on an empty page like a period put down in a snowfall." As his introduction turns into a howl (Henry Adams does Mein Kampf), a dozen fonts change points and riot in bolds and italics, outlines and shadows, sub- and super-scripts. Type shifts shape to form cellar steps, male genitalia, a Star of David. The book tunnels itself, "as long as a chimney," carting up dirt, wading through bile, digging out from under cave-ins, excavating emptiness: Holes, Wombs. Archeologies. For such a transgressive text, there are also a surprising number of limericks, many about nuns, most obscene. Not that we can trust a word of it, but this is what we're told. ...

About K's childhood: Silence, exile, punning. He was born in Iowa and raised in Ohio. His arthritic father, a failed architect (Albert Speer? Ayn Rand?), hated him. His alcoholic mother, who forgot to invite any of his friends to his birthday party, went mad in a cyclone and died in an asylum, smelling of juniper like a shrub, combing glass out of her hair. Besides cyclones and a plague of locusts, there was also "The Sunday Drive"...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100033592