Tunnel visions

My original idea to make this a blog about the books I’m reading has fallen by the wayside somewhat since my rediscovery of GoodReads. As you can see, in a rampage of obscene vanity, I added over 300 books to my profile in a few days, rating and reviewing those I had a good handle (or deliberately cheeky and provocative opinion) on. (During a pub visit last week, I was challenged on my less than glowing review of George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.) Since then, this has just been a place for me to frustratedly fiddle about with formating whilst posting the Guide to Poetry I wrote last year.

Nevertheless, I would like to just reflect, with a little less formality, upon some of the books I have read since my post last month about Poul Anderson’s brilliant The Broken Sword. The first was Everything’s Fine, Socrates Adams’ debut novel.

I only actually read it because I was going to submit my own novel to its publisher, Transmission Press. And despite being an extraordinarily petty person (my book was rejected, though politely and constructively so), I can’t give Adams’ a bad write-up. A hypnagogic deadpan that wittily satirises everyday banality, Everything’s Fine is somewhere between The Office and Naked Lunch (though more the lighter David Cronenberg film than the William S. Burroughs novel). It’s the funniest book I’ve read since I found William Sutcliffe’s Are You Experienced? in a charity shop a few years ago, maybe even since I discovered Joe Orton. As such, I didn’t so much read it as devoured it, finishing it over the course of 6 hours.

Here’s an excerpt from the first few pages:

“My boss enters the room. My boss is a little stocky moustachioed man. He is a little stocky athlete and would look great hurling bowling balls around. He would love to throw the bowling balls at human beings. He would love to play rugby with the heads of human beings. He would kick the human heads so far over the goal posts they would never be seen again. He is wearing a little ribbon on his chest that means he is committed to stopping cancer in its tracks. If he threw the heavy bowling ball at your head you would think before it hit you: great technique.”

If you can’t laugh at that, you’ve obviously either had far better jobs than I have in the past, or you have no soul. This kind of staccato, telegrammatic prose permeates the novel with a taste of pathos to add to the bitter sarcastic loathing Adams seemingly has for 21st century 9-to-5 culture (you get the feeling this is a book about the post-industrialisation of the soul, as the mechanisation of human experience goes digital).

Meanwhile, I’m about 120 pages into William H. Gass’ controversial 1995 opus, The Tunnel. I read Gass’s essay collection A Temple of Texts earlier this year, which I can fully recommend: they’re some of the most erudite, refreshing, heartfelt and funny pieces of criticism I’ve ever come across, never mind from a contemporary writer; simultaneously incisive in their analysis of other works and marvelous stylistic exercises in their own right. So it was with no small degree of optimism that I approached The Tunnel.

Gass painted by Philip Guston

Some of the same interests of Gass’s from his essays, such as his obsession with Rilke, find their way into The Tunnel which, unlike Omensetter’s Luck or In The Heart of the Heart of the Country, has not been universally lauded. In fact, it is considered by some everything from an overdone souffle to an offensive against democracy and decency themselves. That Gass can motivate such bile in an acholic literary age, where one would have supposed there aren’t so many puritans to protest the sort of pruriency that pervades this piece and those of his post/modernist predecessors like Pynchon or Joyce, is a testament to just how preeminent a writer and thinker he is. (I apologise for the alliteration – an attempted homage to Gass’s own, which I find one of the more endearing qualities of his prose). Sex, mental dilapidation… these things are commonplace in art now. And yet the remonstrations against Gass, and the events in the novel that cause them, feel fresh.

Perhaps it’s because William Kohler, the protagonist, the historian of the Nazis and to some extent Nazi historian, is quite obviously Gass himself. He is Gass’s fears, his darkness, his degradation made manifest. Thus the hideous things that lurk in Kohler’s mind and soul have an authenticity that would be absent from a less honest writer, one less capable of excavating inwardly. I am in no way implying that Gass is a chauvinist, a fascist or holds fascist sympathies, but rather that he is in this book portraying bluntly, in his own phrase, the fascism of the heart.

It’s a difficult book for the first 100 pages. I feel as though Gass is testing the reader early like a drill sergeant, probing into how much you really want to read this book. So far, I really really do.

Gass is 88 years old this year and The Tunnel took him 26 years to write. When I see him or listen to him speak, he seems too robust to die. He lives for his literature, for his allegiances and for his opposition, and all three are in excellent health. I hope that he will finish Middle C, what will surely be his final work. In the meantime, though, we have more than enough to be getting on with.

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