There is an old philosophical problem, a logical paradox, which is popularly called Theseus’ ship. In short, it is this: imagine a ship, an old ship. Some of the parts need replacing. If you were to remove one part, or plank, from the ship and replace with it with another, is it still the same ship? Most would say yes. However, what if you were to replace 15 parts, or 50? Indeed, what if you were to replace every constituent part of the ship? Is what you have after this wholesale exchange of materials still the same ship? Or is it another? It certainly still looks like the same ship, and yet is no longer made up of any of the original parts. And so on.
Theseus’ ship is meant to highlight the problems surrounding personal identity; the intention is to make you think about what it is that makes you you. Think back to what you were like, who you were, ten years ago. Most of us would maintain that this person, although ten years younger, is still the same person, it is still I, and yet what exactly does this person from ten years ago have in common with you now? Physically you are not the same, nor, I imagine, or I would hope, are you intellectually the same as you were then. If I use myself as an example, ten years ago I was a mere pup. I have retained certain personality traits, my [often brutal] honesty, my irritability, my ability to switch in seconds between engaging and outgoing and insular and disinterested, etc, but those traits are now smoother around the edges, my happier periods last longer, I am calmer and less erratic; likewise, although there is a physical resemblance between me then and me now I do look very different, not only my glasses, my hair and facial hair, but also things like one or two new scars, a thinner more mature face, etc; my relationship with the world has changed too, my ideas and ethics are not what they once were.
All of this is on my mind at the moment because I have recently re-read The Tunnel by William H. Gass. I first read the novel about 6 years ago, and at that time I was convinced that it was an unmatched marvel. That previous me felt that although the book had some flaws it was still the most ambitious, most carefully constructed, most beautifully written and experimental book in my collection. Not only that, but The Tunnel, I gleefully believed, was the most long-suffering, relentlessly hateful, tome in the world and, as happiness in literature, or love or contentment, or any positivity whatsoever, was anathema to the teenage me, that was a pretty big endorsement.
Ah, but I’m a different me now. Not only am I a far less bitter person, but my reading is wider, my tastes are more sophisticated. What I felt was unique about The Tunnel seems less daring, less inventive now that I have a deeper understanding of literature and more to compare this novel with. The limericks, the hate, the wordplay, the complete absence of plot, or narrative structure, all of these things were exciting to me, mostly because I had never encountered anything like it in a book before. The Tunnel, i believed back then, was a rule-breaker and that accounted for a lot of the allure and earned it my good-will in terms of the aspects of the novel I enjoyed the least. However, i now know that The Tunnel isn’t a rule-breaker, that it is part of a lineage, that it has a place in line with specific movements and writers, such as Thomas Bernhard, François Rabelais, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Flann O’Brien, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Arno Schmidt, Laurence Sterne, Ouilpo, etc. But [but, goddamn it!] even this wasn’t so much of a problem for me during this reread; that I can see the strings doesn’t ruin the puppet show if the puppet show is top-notch.
So, what was it, exactly, that flopped my cock? It was, in part, the realisation that whatever enjoyment resides within this book, for the reader, can be extracted by opening it at random and reading 5-10 pages. Much like The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa I feel as though there is little to be gained, other than a feeling of frustration and irritation, from reading it from start to finish, because where we are on page 15 is pretty much where we are on page 250. Not only that but, as with poetry, this enjoyment, what is most striking about The Tunnel [the beautiful, inventive, seemingly endless similes] is not best served by prolonged exposure over a long[ish] period of time. Every time I picked up the book I would begin with enthusiasm, my gob all smacked, but after those 5-10 pages I would be feeling as burdened and hopeless as Kohler himself.
“We were late among the living, and by the time God got to us ice was already slipping from the poles as if from an imperfectly decorated cake.”
Perhaps even more of a problem is that The Tunnel simply screams Gass! Gass! Gass! There is no sense of carefully delineated characters, the plot [such as it is] is sacrificed to The Great Gass, to the author. That an ageing historian would have such a poetic sensibility is suspicious enough [Kohler mentions once having dabbled in poetry, but come on! If there was ever an afterthought to justify one’s style and authorial choices then that is it], but that Gass, and by extension Kohler, would put his own words into the mouths of the rest of the characters in the book, that they would speak in a style that is identical to Kohler’s written style, is infuriating. So, the wife Martha, Culp, Mad Meg, all make use of alliteration, wordplay, puns etc, when they speak; that one is a housewife, one a university professor, and one German, for God’s sake, seems to matter not a jot. None of these people have any individual characteristics [Culp, mmmmmmmaybe, at a pinch, at a push. But, you know, has he really any personality to speak of? He’s interested in and entertained by limericks? Oh, really? Like Gass, you mean? You. Don’t. Say]. And, yeah, I know, it is Kohler who is writing the novel and so one can, perhaps, convince oneself that it is he, and not Gass, who is to blame for the one-dimensional nature of the supporting cast, that it is evidence of his self-obsession. But, pshaw, having read a number of Gass’ writings, I just don’t buy it.
Let me re-iterate before I go any further: Gass’ similes are wonderful, peerless; some of his writing, in small doses, is knee-trembling, spine-tingling, but, taken as a whole, as a novel to read from cover to cover, The Tunnel is a failure [albeit an impressive one]. The overriding impression I have been left with is that this novel works best as a kind of writers How To… manual. If anyone was ever to ask me for advice [why would they? Why wouldn’t they?] about how to improve their own writing, their own prose style, I would point them in the direction of The Tunnel. Anyone who has an interest in being an author: pick it up and it can teach you a few things, about imagery most of all. It can squeegee your windows and give you a clearer perception of what great prose style actually means. But that is all. I felt like I was learning, being taught a lesson, but not necessarily enjoying myself page-to-page. And yet maybe, sometime in the future, a subsequent me will hold a different opinion, will laud this novel with the same sort of enthusiasm that my younger self once did. I certainly would not rule it out.