25 Points: The Tunnel

The_Tunnel(pic)The Tunnel
by William Gass
Dalkey Archive Press, 2007
652 pages / $15.95 buy from Dalkey Archive Press or Amazon








1. It took the man 26 years to write this thing. Let’s just get that out of the way now.

2. Semi-autobiographical, with an ornate use of language, penis obsessed, full of stupid limericks about horny nuns. It’s in the vein of Joyce and Pynchon but maybe not as annoying, not as smug–though maybe I’m wrong about that.

3. I did find the book unusually satisfying. Just sitting down and reading Gass’s prose out loud is really enjoyable: rhyming and alliteration are present at all points but Gass weaves the sounds into the thought and plot without being gratuitous. He does it joyously, gallopingly. He moves things along at a decent pace and lets you feel every increment.

4. The narrator William Kohler is a terrible person who you learn to love. He’s a fascist, misogynist, grumpy fat old fuck and you get to see inside his head and understand why he is all of these things. If you are the sort of person whose life can be changed by books this may change you so you can appreciate the shittiest people on this planet.

5. Plot is minimal. If anything “happens” it is the digging of the eponymous tunnel though that whole part is really pretty minor anyways. The majority of the book follows Kohler examining his childhood, his education, his marriage, family, coworkers and anger. Always the anger, the disappointment.

6. Kohler has two kids. Throughout the book he can only remember one of their names. Genius.

7. The descriptions are, without a doubt, beautiful. Candy, flowers, interiors, and people especially. Gass builds the characters up from thousands of scraps, always describing over and over, adding and sticking on and plugging holes. The characters come off as straddling an incredibly thin line between being fully developed and total caricatures. It works because we are inside Kohler’s head the whole time, and don’t you always caricature those you are forced to be around?

8. Degenerative sickness strikes a number of those around Kohler. Those he loves and hates. These depictions are gut wrenching and we get to see the characters before and during, before and during, before and during their declines. Seeing Kohler’s brilliant mentor go through sickness then back to health is particularly rough for we know that soon enough he will be back on the sick bed twitching and jerking. It’s like Gass gives them a reprieve just so he can suck them back through their crumbling one more time.

9. There is this depiction of academic life toward the beginning of the book which (though never having lived it myself) seems entirely appropriate: “Life in a Chair.” Kohler looks back and realizes he’s spent his entire life just sitting, reading, sometimes looking out a window. He never succumbs to sadness or regret, just puts it out as a solid fact and meditates on it to great length. This section should be read by anyone who wants to go into academia I think.

10. There are few people in Kohler’s life who are not totally insane.

11. Gass makes uses of unusual typographies. He does this primarily toward the beginning then  tapers it off to some extent. I couldn’t help but wonder if he got bored with it or what. I found it hard a lot of the time to parse exactly what effect he was going for though later in the book he uses this more sparingly and to greater effect.

12. You learn a little about the holocaust and Nazi Germany. He never pushes the history on the reader, and external resources are never necessary. Kohler’s view is unique and rare and counter to most mainstream reports. It isn’t holocaust denial or pro-nazi. Just different. A view of the slaughter of a race from a neutral party. Emotionless, dry and academic. Quiet.

13. Kohler creates the “Party of Disappointed People.” It is exactly what it sounds like and I’m voting a straight PdP ticket at every election from here on out.

14. The lull? That lull books over 500 pages tend to get around page 500? It’s here. It’s minor though and Gass wraps things up before it gets too bad.

15. The Tunnel is the kind of book I loved and I could talk endlessly about how much I loved it and still know that I may not be able to recommend it in good faith to a friend. Ever. It’s a personal book I think. I also wouldn’t hold it against someone if they said they hated it.

16. I guess to be into it one needs a deep interest in the sounds of a book, disdain or disinterest for plot, a tolerance for descriptions of major tedium and childhood angst, and a tolerance for history.

17. The book’s gestalt reminded me in a way of an Alex Grey painting or Bosch’s Triptych, in how there is this overarching scene but then you look closer and there are little intricate things, flourishes and pictures and games, going on everywhere you look. An attention to detail.

18. This was one of those books where you see a name from the book in real life and it pops out at you in an eerie way. I saw a toilet made by a company called Kohler. I had seen that toilet a thousand times and never noticed the manufacturer until I was inside Kohler’s head every day.

19. Other strange things too, match ups: I went on a trip into the country as I read a section about Kohler going into the country as a kid. There were one or two more. It is coincidences like thess that I assume cause people to become religious.

20. You never have to root for Kohler. It’s nice to not have to root for the main character.

21. The strange thing is that Gass’ essays are written in the same musical language as The Tunnel. It’s kind of weird seeing someone try and get a point across why compulsively playing with language like he does.

22. For the most part The Tunnel takes place in the Midwest. The descriptions have made me never want to go to the Midwest.

23. Toward the end Kohler spends a long time describing in great detail his mother’s copious alcohol induced vaginal bleeding. This passage is definitely up there with the more brutal writing I’ve come across.

24. There is no redemption or salvation. Ever.

25. The end of the book is a beginning, a laying out of possible courses of action, it leaves the reader to guess, from the construction of Kohler, where he may go, and what may happen next.


Sam Moss lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently working on a novel called Basic Analysis. He is a writer and editor at NADA ( and blogs at

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  1. lorian long


  2. A D Jameson

      I was just thinking about The Tunnel and wondering whether Gass might’ve taken some inspiration from , in particular the scene where Guido escapes the press conference by diving under the table.

  3. bemightee

      this was an excellent 25pts. i’ve had this book on my shelf for a while looks like it’s time to dig in. thanks.

  4. Sam Moss

      A D:Gonna have to rewatch 81/2 with that in mind
      bemightee: thanks! it is an excellent read