[(review date 12 March 1995) In the following review, Dirda offers positive assessment of The Tunnel.]
Long awaited. Eagerly anticipated. Thirty years in the making. Such siren calls have sounded before--most recently luring us to Harold Brodkey's Runaway Soul and Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost. Each time we wonder, could this be it? Our age's Ulysses? Our Magic Mountain? So we plunk down our cash, lug our shiny purchase home, swiftly read up to page 47 or 99--and then sigh. The great book, the masterpiece is, well, okay. No great shakes. Not bad really. But hardly the work of a god.
Doubtless we'd be less disillusioned if we didn't keep getting our hopes up so high. Because William H. Gass has been working on The Tunnel nearly half his life, I wanted the novel to be a transfiguring experience, the kind of book that blows readers away, creates acolytes and strolls into the canon like a boulevardier into a cafe.
Sometimes, it would seem, hopes are fulfilled instead of dashed.
The Tunnel strikes me as an extraordinary achievement, a literary treat with more than a few shocking tricks inside it. For 650 pages one of the consummate magicians of English prose pulls rabbits out of sentences and creates shimmering metaphors before your very eyes. He dazzles and amazes. But be warned: He does so on his own terms and some readers may be confused, bored or repulsed.
First some background.
William H. Gass began work on The Tunnel back in 1966. He once told an interviewer: "Who knows, perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it. I live on that hope." Over the years a dozen sections of the novel appeared in little, arty or even glossy magazines. During the same time, Gass established himself as a major essayist (the racy On Being Blue, 1976), a playful experimentalist (the even racier Willie Master's Lonesome Wife, 1968), and a leading philosopher of fiction (three collections, most recently Habitations of the Word, 1985). All these built upon the reputation of a legendary debut novel, Omensetter's Luck (1966), and a collection of short stories with a catchy title that has passed into the language: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968). In his spare time Gass taught, mainly at Washington University in St. Louis, and read as intently as a Cistercian: He carefully parsed the prose of Gertrude Stein, aspired to the easy philosophical address of Paul Valéry, worshipped before the achievement and example of Rilke.
And took his sweet time with The Tunnel: "I hope that it will be really original in form and effect, although mere originality is not what I'm after." No speedy Updike he. "I write slowly." he once confessed, "because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many many times just to achieve mediocrity." Yet in his essays and fiction, Gass's patient effort never shows,...