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The Leveling Wind

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William Gass is a critic and a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of three volumes of fiction, each of which is intelligent and well-crafted but somehow less than memorable. For three decades, he has been laboring over a vast novel about the frustrations of private life in an age of historical enormities. Here is the finished product. Some may seize on it as a postmodern masterpiece, but it is a bloated monster of a book. (At 400,000 words, it is almost one-third longer than Joyce’s Ulysses.) The bloat is a consequence of sheer adipose verbosity and an unremitting condition of moral and intellectual flatulence. Lest this last description seem gratuitously mean, let me quickly note that Gass’s narrator is himself obsessed with farting; history-writing, politics and sex are all repeatedly reduced to a bursting bubble of malodorous gas. At one point Gass’s text is actually embellished with a diagram of four farts, labeled from F to T.

Gass’s real achievement is to have produced a complete compendium of the vices of postmodern writing. His narrator, William Kohler, is a professor of history at a Midwestern university, who records in a secret diary his ruminations about his life, about his colleagues and (very intermittently) about the Nazi genocide, after having completed a major study called Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. The time of writing is the 1960s, when Kohler is in his 50s. An American of German ancestry, he was a student in Germany during the 1930s, where he observed Kristallnacht and was actually drawn into joining the rioters. He served with the American Army in Europe during the war, and he was present at the Nuremberg trials.

His private life is an unending tale of domestic disaster and inner revulsion. His father was distant and judgmental, his mother a hopeless alcoholic. His wife, who has become immensely fat, despises him, and he loathes her. His feelings for his two adolescent sons oscillate between impatience and contempt. He has a fleeting erotic idyll with a local salesgirl, but after a summer of passion she ditches him, telling him—with good warrant, most readers will feel—that he has a revolting mind. There are two other amorous attachments from his past that are mentioned: a sinister cabaret singer in Germany who turns out to have been involved in barbaric Nazi acts, and a student, who is only required, in a strictly genital sense, to pay lip service.

But such a synopsis makes The Tunnel sound much more like a conventional narrative than it really is. Gass’s manifest aim is to subvert the linear progression of narrative. This is a disposition shared with many twentieth-century novelists, beginning with the pioneering modernists who emerged just before World War I; but in Gass’s book the subversion of narrative is associated with a whole constellation of aesthetic, moral, political and historiosophical biases that are distinctively postmodern.

From its very beginning, the novel adopts a variety of devices to disrupt the realist illusion. Gass’s narrator is an inscriber of what John Barth once designated “the literature of exhaustion.” Professorial to the marrow, he inhabits a library, buckles under the weight of the innumerable volumes that he carries in his head, from Plato and Pascal to Kleist, Proust and Rilke. His own pages are awash with citations and references, with imitations or parodies of earlier texts. The line between reality and textuality blurs, and everything turns into text.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we should be constantly reminded by Gass of the textual artifice of the words that we are reading. Much of this is done typographically. There are sketches, cartoons, diagrams, printer’s symbols, a dozen varieties of typefaces. All this is vaguely reminiscent of Tristram Shandy, though Sterne handled such visual techniques with wit and point. For a while it seems as though the novel will be 650 pages of alienation effect. By the middle of the book, however, Gass himself appears to tire of the typographic high jinks; and the last half is a much closer approximation of a continuous realistic narrative, chiefly concentrated on the woes of Kohler’s childhood and marriage.

The Tunnel is equally postmodern in its transgression of the limits of structure. Where modernist novels that break with traditional linear narration, such as Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury and Petersburg, replace it with an elaborate structure of recurring motifs and other kinds of formal symmetries and antitheses, the procedure in The Tunnel is loose, unimpeded, free-associative flow. The principle of artful selection is renounced. The basic rhetorical form of the novel is the run-on catalog. If the narrator begins to describe what he does when he gets up in the morning, we get: matinal defecation with all the consequent motions and sensations of bottom-wiping; washing of the face; tooth-brushing, stroke by stroke; shaving, and so forth, for seven or eight numbing pages. If he recalls a visit to an ice cream parlor as a child, every last flavor concocted on the premises must be inventoried. The same deployment of unfocused accumulation of words, items, images and ideas is evident when Kohler is not narrating but lucubrating about such topics as sex, fascism, bigotry, conjugal hostility, academia and modern history.

The mingling of styles, the conjoining of high and low, which critics such as Bakhtin and Auerbach saw as the fulfillment of the modern novel, is pushed here to an extreme and banal limit. A general assault on aesthetic hierarchies is undertaken. No restraint of decorum is allowed; there is no subject about which the narrator is not both flippant and obscene. The novel bristles with remarks that combine aggressive rudeness with a kind of willed stupidity, such as this comment on Proust: “O sure, we know why Proust wrote: to justify one man’s sordid sadomado ways to the interested asses of other men.”

And mass murder itself is not exempt from such treatment. A series of limericks about Auschwitz is strung through the novel, of which this is the first, and not even the worst:

There once was a camp called Auschwitz where the Germans continued their Jew-blitz. Their aim was the same if they shot, gassed, or maimed; while gold was reclaimed from the teeth that remained, and they sold off the hair for a few bits.

Though this particular piece of appalling doggerel is attributed to a colleague of Kohler’s who is a compulsive limericker, elsewhere the narrator cuts his own limericks from the same shoddy cloth, and the other poems that he inserts into his narrative are no better.

The obliteration of aesthetic distinctions has an obvious moral corollary; and it is this leveling of values that is the truly troubling feature of Gass’s novel. At one point Culp, the narrator’s compulsive colleague, offers a defense of the limerick as the perfect postmodern form, serving the purpose “to raunchify, to suburp everything, to pollute the pollutants, explode the exploded, trash the trash.... It is all surface.... There’s no inside however long or far you travel on it, no within, no deep.” This may serve as a credo for the book as a whole.

Gass has written an immense novel in which everything is deliberately reduced to the flattest surface. This generalization of the historian-narrator about history and poetry is characteristic of the way in which all realms of experience are handled:

Cancel Clio, cross out sweet Calliope, for history’s been buggered by ideology, and farts its facts in an odorous cloud, while poets have no breath whatever, are in another business presently, where Parnassus is a pastry, and produce their poems promptly on request like short-order cooks shake forth a batch of fries.

The sentence tumbles from cynicism to nonsense, chiefly driven by the energy of alliteration, which suffuses the whole style of the novel, flaunting “like” for “as” (actually the source of a momentary confusion) as a grammatical index of its unrepentant mixture of styles.

The buggering and the farting reflect the general reduction of all aspects of human life to lower-body functions and insistently unpleasant representations of the sexual organs. Sex itself is rarely, in this novel, erotic. It is repeatedly and childishly scatological, dissolving into an imagery of slime, scum, smegma, scuz and snot (the infernal alliteration, again). And slime is, in turn, the narrator’s metaphor for everything: “Slowly slime is covering the earth, more of it made every day—more whiny people, more filthy thoughts, crummy plans, cruddy things, contemptible actions—multiplying like evil spores.”

The difference between Gentile and Jew is figured, for half a dozen pages at a time, in elaborate descriptions of the distended male member, with foreskin and without. And the murder of 6 million Jews is, in the context that Gass creates, not so much horrifying as redundant, because it is merely a massive instance of the slimy nastiness of all things human: “No matter what you do or how you live, whether you are good, bad, or indifferently dull, you die. That’s the master race’s Message.... Death owns everything, especially our souls, source of the foulness we smelled when we tried to drive the Doggod’s goat out.”

Transient love, long gone by the time of the narration, may afford some respite or consolation, but it, too, cannot escape the general foulness of mortal existence: “Orgasms pass more quickly than most pleasures. Less than a length of licorice. Only illusions remain.” Note that love itself is reduced to orgasms, as repeatedly in the novel the joining of lovers’ bodies proves to be only a temporary and excessively complicated substitute for masturbation, since in the narrator’s leveling perspective the swelling of the organ and the expelling of seed are the heart of the matter. This is not pessimism, this is adolescence.

If this fictional encyclopedia of postmodern stances is, in sum, not meant to proclaim the end of history, it surely seeks to announce the end of moral history, denying the possibility of making consequential distinctions between, or meaningful rankings of, moral or aesthetic values. There is no within: murderer and victim, lover and onanist, altruist and bigot, dissolve into the same ineluctable slime.

Some readers of the novel may be inclined to defend its unrelenting nastiness as a variety of political criticism. William Kohler is certainly not William Gass, whatever the similarities of vocation, geographical location and physique. It is fair enough to say that Gass intends Kohler as a representative modern middling man seething with ressentiment. Thus he is meant to exhibit a subterranean bond with the Nazis. As was true for them, the frustrations of his private life express themselves in a spectrum of hostility toward whole classes of people—Jews, blacks, Italians, women. It is not surprising that he should heave a brick through a Jewish window on Kristallnacht, or that his book (the contents of which are never explained in detail) should argue for an ambiguous mixture of guilt and innocence in Nazi Germany—evidently, not much different from the guilt and the innocence that we all possess in our ordinary lives. Kohler can readily understand the allure of marching in the ranks beneath the swastika: “I would have a certain superiority, I would have backed a winning team, I would be wearing a damn fine uniform, I would be a little finger, sure, but in a big fist.”

In keeping with this notion of identification, he proposes the founding of a Party of Disappointed People, duly providing sketches of possible flags and insignia. This idea of a neofascist movement, jauntily presented, is clearly meant to show that Nazism was not an aberrant moral monstrosity but a culminating manifestation of forces percolating through ordinary people in mass societies all the time. The ugliness with which we are treated, and with which we treat our spouses and children and colleagues and lovers, naturally seeks a grander theater of action. The fear and loathing of the conjugal bed and the departmental meeting-room seek outlets in landscapes of naked corpses and crematoria.

Something of this sort, I would infer, is the intended argument of Gass’s book. But the intention fails on two serious accounts. First, the leveling, despairing, cynical, resentful worldview of William Kohler totally pervades the novel. There is no glimpse of a complication or an alternative, no implication—as there is, say, in Notes from Underground—of an antithesis. If Kohler is meant to be Gass’s portrait of what Michael Andre Bernstein has called the “abject hero,” the novel is committed with a vengeance to an encompassing imitative fallacy: abjection is the only perspective provided for the comprehension of history, morality, politics and private life. The novel is itself abject. There is only darkness at the end of The Tunnel.

In this respect, a comparison between Gass and Celine is instructive. Celine’s novels express a pervasive, authentic sense of rage against mankind, articulated with the energy and the inventiveness of genius, and he includes himself among his targets, and can be quite funny both about himself and the world. Gass is not a genius, which is not a crime; but more to the point, he approaches his dark materials without a real sense of comedy or a real sense of authenticity. The abjection of his hero seems less lived than written. It is an act of ventriloquism: behind the repulsive, potentially fascist narrator stands his critic, the novelist, presumably committed to humane, democratic values. But those values are nowhere intimated in the book, and what emerges is a kind of inadvertent complicity between author and protagonist. The supposedly critical novel becomes an enactment of bad faith.

It may be true enough that movements such as Nazism draw on feelings of resentment in the masses they attract, though the idea is not exactly a new one. But such feelings undergo a crucial, hideous transformation in the political realm, and not all private ugliness leads to murderousness or its moral equivalent. Gass is an obliterator of distinctions. He believes that a portrait of a man despising a wife who has become physically and emotionally abhorrent and denies him his connubial rights offers access into the mental and moral makeup of the contrivers of the gas chambers and the torchlit marchers drunk on slogans of Blut und Erde. Such connections between the personal and the political realms seem dangerously facile.

The image from which the title of the novel is taken reflects the intellectual confusion at the core of the book. The narrator begins, quite madly, to dig a tunnel in his basement, “you know,” he explains, “to escape from the camp.” The obvious idea is that married life has become a death trap, a concentration camp, and, like a desperate inmate marked for destruction, Kohler must try to save himself by scrabbling in the dirt, shovelful after painful shovelful, to work his way out.

Of course, there is a troubling incoherence in the fact that the narrator who repeatedly identifies himself with the Nazis should in this recurrent instance identify himself with their victims. What is more revolting, however, is the violent yoking of heterogeneous realms. Like Sylvia Plath’s use of Auschwitz in “Daddy,” this is an exploitation of the imagery of the death camps to represent out of all proportion the animosities of private life. Domestic rage, intimidation and resentment are terrible things, but they are not the moral or psychological equivalent of being herded into gas chambers and shoveled into furnaces. It is a little tiresome, at this late date in the history of writing about the Holocaust, to make this point again, but Gass’s book demands it. The real obscenity of his novel is not its hideous language or its scatological imaginings, but its trivialization of the enormity of genocide by absorbing it into the nickel-and-dime nastiness that people perpetrate in everyday life.