William Gass's The Tunnel:

The Work in Progress as Post-Modern Genre

by John Unsworth

Arizona Quarterly, 48.1 (Spring 1992)

In Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants, Jean-François Lyotard says that, like myths, the "metanarratives" of modernity -- the work-ethic, faith in technological progress, the Christian doctrine of salvation --

. . . have as a purpose the legitimation of social and political institutions and practices, of laws, of ethics, and of modes of thought. But in contrast to myths, they do not look to the act of an original founder for this legitimacy, but to a future yet to come -- in other words, to an Idea yet to be realized. (38, my translation)
If, as Lyotard suggests, prolepsis is the characteristic mode of modern metanarrative, then in the realm of fictional narrative the work-in-progress might be regarded as a paradigmatic literary genre of modernity, since the published portions of a work in progress always imply a metanarrative -- that of the performance which has not yet taken place, the edifice which is still under construction.

Yet it is Lyotard's well-known opinion that the postmodern is divided from the modern by its rejection of metanarratives, and its acceptance of a perspective restricted to the ongoing: after Auschwitz, he maintains, it is impossible to believe that the future holds our redemption (40). What makes a work-in-progress paradigmatically post-modern, then, is the disappearance of the "Idea" of the finished work as an effective or believable justification for the work-in-progress, and the metamorphosis of this mode of publication from a provisional into a permanent state of literary production. Indeed, although the post-modern work-in-process still tends, like its modern counterpart, to justify itself with reference to the metanarrative of the projected work, it seems in practice to have accepted endless revision and forestalled completion as the conditions of its existence; these conditions involve both the text and its reader with the world outside the text, in ways the author (and some readers) may not be willing to admit.

If we take Lyotard's broad definition of modernity as an era beginning with the Enlightenment (Lyotard xiii), then the work-in-progress might in general be described as a modern phenomenon: it has roots at least as far back as Tristram Shandy, a work which emerged over a period of seven years and may actually have been uncompleted at the time of Sterne's death.[1] Later, during the nineteenth century, novels often received serial publication in monthly magazines before they appeared as books; in our own century there is the example of Finnegans Wake, which took fifteen years to write and was excerpted in various periodicals under the title "Work in Progress" for eleven.

What I am describing, then, is not a complete departure from previous literary practice, but rather a new constellation of literary and historical elements. In fact, a better understanding of the post-modern[2] work-in-progress might allow us to isolate a previously unnoticed tradition in the novel: that of works which extend themselves temporally and spatially in the effort to contain (that is, include and control) the response of actual or potential readers. In such a tradition, Tristram Shandy would represent the first incursion by the foreign element of critical self-consciousness into the creative text, and Finnegans Wake would mark the point at which the author's dialogue with his critics became both the subject matter for the fiction and the controlling factor in its reception.[3] The institutional position of the post-modern writer within the academy has hypertrophied this feature of the genre,[4] with two results: the author, in the guise of interpreter, increasingly overshadows and supervises the response of the reader, while the "work" that, even for Joyce, was always the goal of "work in progress" recedes from view -- so much so that when we apply the term to post-modern examples we seem at times to be naming something that is a "work in progress" in the sense that a painting might be called "a work in oils."

William Gass's The Tunnel, now a work in progress for more than twenty years, provides an interesting and exemplary case of postmodernity in literature, and of the features of post-modern fiction in particular. Post- modern fiction is in many ways perched on the cusp between a descendant and an ascendant period: in its precepts it looks back towards Modernism, but its practices often mark it as the literature of Modernism's aftermath. This is particularly true of the post-modern work-in-progress. Writers of Gass's generation and ilk are balanced somewhat uncomfortably between the Modernism of the aesthetics they formulate to describe the intended effect of their work, and the post-modernism of the situation in which that work is actually produced and consumed. So, while Gass's rhetoric bespeaks a commitment to the Modern(ist) metanarrative of authorial omnipotence and aesthetic autonomy, his practice betrays the fact that post-modern fiction, especially when it takes the form of the work-in-progress, is a uniquely embroiled medium.

A number of post-modern authors, including Hawkes and Coover, have published in the form of the work-in-progress, but Gass, by sustaining the effort over such a long period of time, provides the most productive example for study. Gass has always worked slowly, at least where fiction is concerned; Omensetter's Luck was fifteen years in the making, and parts of that novel first surfaced eleven years before the book did. That equals Joyce's record, but it pales beside the saga of The Tunnel: this work has been "in progress" since 1966, and since 1969 some nineteen sections, totalling more than 300 pages, have appeared in print.[5] Gass is now sixty-seven, and has been publishing for more than thirty years; more than two thirds of that career has already been devoted to The Tunnel.

I intend to show that The Tunnel is being shaped, in a number of ways, by the mode and context of its production. Specifically, I will argue that the protraction of its composition, the nature of its undertaking, the structure Gass has projected for it, the themes with which it is concerned, and the language and imagery it uses, are all attributable, at least in part, to the forces which the academic institution brings to bear on the writer who belongs to it. For example, published portions of The Tunnel have frequently been accompanied by Gass's theoretical essays or interviews, in which Gass suggests or simply explains his intentions in the unavailable work. Thus, at the same time that Gass is speaking of his fiction as autonomous, that fiction is actually being presented and received as an integral part of an apparatus which on Gass's terms stands "outside" the work -- namely the academic nature of experimental fiction and the tendency of its academic audience to require that authors supply a theoretical key to their artistic practice.

Many writers of Gass's literary generation have published finished work infrequently (Salinger has not published anything since 1965; Pynchon's Vineland was his first novel in sixteen years; Gaddis spent twenty years on J R; and Harold Brodkey has been writing his first novel, A Party of Animals, since 1958) but not all of them have filled the intervals with the publication of theory, interviews, and work in progress. In fact, this sort of advance-guard action is far more characteristic of those authors who have been involved with the academy than it is of those who have not. Salinger and Pynchon have not been academics, and neither of them grants interviews, makes public appearances, or is known for publishing work in progress (Salinger, of course, doesn't publish at all).[6] Gaddis does not give interviews either, but he has taught at Bard College and in summer writing workshops, and during the two decades he was at work on J R he published several excerpts from it (in the Dutton Review, Antaeus, and Harper's). Brodkey has also taught (at Cornell), and to date has published at least four sections of his work-in-progress in The New Yorker (three of which were collected in 1985 under the title Women and Angels, and appear again, along with the fourth, in his mammoth compilation called Stories in an Almost Classical Mode). Although Brodkey has not been as publicly forthcoming as Gass, he has apparently made himself (and his manuscript) available in certain quarters, since he has acquired a considerable reputation as a novelist among influential critics such as Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag and Denis Donoghue without having ever published a novel. What finally distinguishes Brodkey's practices from those of Gass and the other academic post-modernists, however, is the fact that he has not supplied a critical apparatus with his excerpts, nor has he thematized or assimilated critical response in his work.

The academic context is also a prominent feature of The Tunnel's narrative pretext, in that the text purports to present the meditations of an apologetic historian of Nazism, William Kohler, who is unable to finish the introduction to his otherwise completed study, called Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany:

It was my intention, when I began, to write an introduction to my work on the Germans. Though its thick folders lie beside me now, I know I cannot. Endings, instead, possess me . . . all ways out. ("Life in a Chair" 3)
The Tunnel is the record of Kohler's unsuccessful attempts to find an end (which in this case is also a beginning) for that book. Endless continuation is not only an imaginative premise and a compositional principle here: it also describes the present condition of The Tunnel itself, a fact which suggests that the specter of endlessness is Gass's demon as well as Kohler's. In 1972, he estimated that completion of The Tunnel was "several years away"; in 1979, it was to have been finished in "a couple more years"; in 1983 the manuscript was a thousand pages long and still "a couple of years" from being done; and in an interview with Arthur Saltzman published in 1984, Gass said the project was "coming along pretty well now.... [it's] a matter of staying in the book continuously for maybe another year."[7] In 1986, Saltzman published his study of Gass, including this interview and a chapter on The Tunnel, but the novel still had not materialized, nor is there any indication today that its advent is impending.

To some extent, this condition is a direct result of Gass's artistic and professional ambitions for the book, ambitions he specified in a 1972 interview:

The Tunnel is crucial work for me. All my work up to it I have privately thought of as exercises and preparations. This was a dodge . . . but it did work. How can you fail when you are simply practicing, learning, experimenting? I can't hide behind that dodge anymore. Further, in this business it is no honor to finish second. Now I shall find out whether I am any good. (McCauley 44)
Another reason, one highly significant if we are interested in the effect of institutional factors on the form of post-modern fiction, is suggested in the following, more recent, remarks:

The only things people wanted from me, and still want, are essays: lectures and essays. So I started doing a lot of them because I knew that otherwise I'd never get ahead, I would never get any time to work. All the breaks I've gotten in the field have been due to the essays, not the fiction. (Morrow 29)
In the time that Gass has been at work on The Tunnel, he has published four books of nonfiction and a large number of uncollected essays and reviews; as he himself has said, "life takes you away from the point of life like a bad guide" (Morrow 17) . These institutional pressures may be responsible not only for Gass's inability to finish his novel, but also for the novel's putative structure: according to its author, The Tunnel is "built on the seventh -- [Kohler] writes Guilt and Innocence in his sabbatical years, so it's three sections for three sabbaticals, twenty-one chapters etc."[8]

I do not propose to survey all the published passages from The Tunnel (and in fact, there is something odd, or at least oddly fitting, about Saltzman's devoting a chapter of critical appraisal to a book that does not yet exist -- a point to which I will return). Because Gass's work-in-progress is so far an affair of interminable preliminaries, we might reap some useful insights into the post-modern work-in-progress by examining the text and context of one excerpt in particular, "Life in a Chair" (1982), itself at least the second and possibly the third version of the beginning of The Tunnel.

Some of the first few pages of "Life in a Chair" are taken from the opening of an earlier piece called "Mad Meg" ( 1976), which also reads as though it were intended to launch The Tunnel; in addition, "Life in a Chair" reproduces with various insertions and deletions sections ranging in length from a paragraph to several pages from two other earlier sections of The Tunnel, "Koh Whistles Up a Wind" (1977) and "We Have Not Lived The Right Life" (1969).[9] At present it is not clear whether "Life in a Chair" has absorbed this last section entirely, whether it has borrowed from it, or whether the same pages will simply appear twice in The Tunnel; at any rate, in an interview that appeared a year after "Life in a Chair," Gass suggested that "We Have Not Lived The Right Life" was the real beginning of the novel -- albeit, he revealed, a beginning that would be "hidden" about a hundred and fifty pages into the text (Morrow 16).

"Life in a Chair" has no plot as such, but it does have some identifiable themes. The overriding topic of the piece (and, one suspects, of The Tunnel as well) is the epistemological status of history, where history is understood as the translation of human events into language. The implicit justification for Kohler's ramblings is that they represent that side of the historian which is repressed in his professional writing, and that side of life that is outside the purview, or beneath the dignity, of history:

O, it would be a domestic epic indeed, and unique in the literature, one that took place entirely in the mind -- on the john, in a bathtub, chair or darkened room, upon a sleepless bed; because historians never leave Congress or the President for the simple white houses of home. ("Life in a Chair" 39)
As I have indicated, The Tunnel is supposed to be the result of Kohler's futile efforts to write an introduction for his history of Nazi Germany; Kohler's dilemma, it seems, is that once he has worked his way through the events of that period and arrived at the point where he must introduce his work in propria persona, he finds himself outside the artificially restricted territory of the past -- off the map, as it were, and without a compass or guide:
I intend no introspection. Mark that. Redden that resolution. Occupation is essential. When I had written what I had written; when I had reached the present -- the dead-end of history -- to find it empty as an empty pantry; then I had Alice'd into the finis of my book. . . . So I shall dwell now in another kind of void unless I choose one dominant figure and arrow in: on --> Martha, --> Governali, --> Planmantee, --> Culp. But I intend no shallow introspection. Yes. No intro. ("Life in a Chair" 14)
Alice is Alice in Wonderland, Martha is Kohler's wife, and the others are his colleagues. Of course, Kohler cannot really avoid introspection, and whenever he 'arrows in' (with large arrows drawn in the text) on the other people in his life or on the wonderland of history, the "dominant figure" is himself. "Well, I intend no in," he says: "Out is all of it. Out of the print and over the cover . . . to grandmother's house we go. I study other methods of desperate disappearance" ("Life in a Chair" 14). Kohler can see no way out of the self, other than death: hence the desperation with which he studies exits and endings.

Finding one's way "out of the print and over the cover" is, for Kohler, a problem of knowledge, but it becomes a different sort of problem for Gass. In part, it is a problem of form, because the task Gass has assigned himself in The Tunnel is to produce a work that will be the model of Kohler's mind:

I'm interested in making a self-contained system of concepts, ideas that will then define a kind of consciousness. It's a way of inventing a consciousness by supplying someone with the structure and content of an experience. So I make that up and create that consciousness. It's not a consciousness of the world; it's a consciousness of the work. (Castro 31)
Gass's notion of consciousness as a "self-contained system of concepts" suggests that his model of "the structure and content of an experience" will be organized along spatial rather than temporal lines. For Gass, it is not sequence but juxtaposition that makes a set of ideas into a system; and for that matter, he sees concepts themselves as things that "exist all at once, and the model for existence 'at the same time' is spatial" (LeClair, "Conversation" 102).

It is worth wondering how a work-in-progress can be said to "exist all at once," except in the author's mind; still, in that respect The Tunnel has been obedient to a spatial model at least since 1978:

I am conceiving the book as a literal attempt to tunnel an escape, a tunnel out of language, so it has to have two forms. It has to be both the hollow that's taken out of language in order to somehow get through it, and . . . also that place to which every day [the narrator] comes and disposes of the words he's dug up. So I've got two kinds of mutually contradictory forms for the book. First it is the dump-ground where he hides the dirt that he's dug, and secondly it's the hole-structure itself.[10]
The image of burrowing through and out of language implies that this tunnel is more than a hole, that it might also be a route along which to travel from one point to another. But Kohler is never allowed to escape from language into something else (he's "stuck with words") and Gass, for his part, disavows any sense of direction:
If I try to think out in outline some linear structure, then I start pushing my material in that direction like a baby in a pram. When you arrive at your destination, all you still have is a baby in a pram. I want the work to write itself, every passage to emerge from the ones which have come before, so I have to keep looking at what I've done to see what will come out. (LeClair, "William Gass" 78)
If plot is the temporal element in fiction, character would appear to be its spatial counterpart: like Hawkes, who first made the declaration, Gass has on more than one occasion professed to have no use for either, but in The Tunnel he has clearly chosen between the two, opting for character. His desire to "create a consciousness" in the form of a novel results in a (projected) work of a thousand pages devoted to rounding out a single character, that of the speaker/narrator, Kohler.

In order to understand why Gass has elected to commit himself so exclusively to the spatial model, and why he chose to do so in a work that addresses itself thematically to the subversion of historical narratives, it is necessary to consider the lessons he learned from his first novel. This, in turn, will give us a better idea of how the institutional context can determine the work-in-progress at its most basic levels.

At the end of a letter to the publisher of Omensetter's Luck, dated June 26, 1965, Gass remarks with regret that the book he has just finished

. . . is seriously flawed. The middle is gross. It tries too much. There is too much narrative compromise. But large forms lack great emotional force because they take so long to complete. ("A Letter to the Editor" 104)
Two of these qualms have since gone by the board: Gass now believes that the Furber section, which comprises the last three quarters of Omensetter's Luck, "is the only justification for that book," and despite his early conviction that "large forms" cannot achieve "great emotional force," he is currently embarked on what is by all accounts a very large form indeed, and has now declared himself interested only in "affective effects" (LeClair, "William Gass" 88, 69). The one stricture that has persisted, and that has given The Tunnel its shape, is the rejection of "narrative compromise."

It is significant that Gass was confirmed in this crucial resolution by the critical reception of Omensetter's Luck: both Richard Gilman and Earl Shorris took Gass to task for being too traditional. Gilman, who was the first to fault the novel on these grounds, was particularly distressed at the novel's "compulsion to tell a 'story' while its whole internal action struggles against the reductions and untruthfulness of story-telling, while its verbal action is struggling to be the story."[11] In an interview given in 1976, which appeared along with "Mad Meg," Gass specifically alludes to this criticism and testifies to its effect on his subsequent creative production:

Shorris' objection [to Omensetter's Luck] -- and it's also Richard Gilman's objection, I think he was the first person who made it -- was that I was trying to work the result on the basis of a plot maneuver rather than on the basis of pure language. I think that it's a good objection, myself. . . . It is a theoretical flaw in the book. Some writers it wouldn't have troubled, it wouldn't interfere with their work. But it does mine, because I'm theoretically oriented. (Duncan 58)
What this points out is that Gilman's criticism would not have had the effect it has on Gass's work if Gass had not already been "theoretically oriented" -- as every post-modern writer seems to be. The alignment between post-modern fiction and literary theory may be explained in a number of ways -- it may have to do with how these authors were trained, with what they do for a living, or with the audience to which they present their work. In Gass's case, theory has not only constituted the larger part of his production as a writer, it has also been one of the most important ingredients of his fiction. That is not to say that we ought to take his statements about his work at face value; they are often misleading. But regarded critically, the theoretical essays, like the interviews, can tell us something about how his fiction is made. There are critics who would disagree: in the article which follows "Mad Meg," Ned French says that "Gass is everywhere recognized as a theoretician leaning towards formalism, but the construction of his novels is realist" (99). In French's handling of the term, however, "realist" appears to mean nothing more than "concerned with reality" -- that much could be said of Gass's theory as well, since it circles obsessively around the correspondence of words to the world. Still, there is at least one sense -- a narrower and less obvious one than French has in mind -- in which it would be accurate to associate Gass with realist practices of representation: Gass's fiction not only refers to but actually relies on the extratextual reality of his theory, to an even greater degree than Gass himself admits.

As an historian, Kohler is most interested in the lives of"little people," and Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany is intended to be a description of the suffering and the sadism of individuals. Kohler's quandary, how to illuminate the private lives behind the public record, is the same one Gass confronts as a theoretical problem in the writing of fiction: how to pack a person into print. By making his novel out of the consciousness of a historian of Nazism, Gass is able to present both hemispheres of his concern: both the difficulties of comprehending, and the difficulties of expressing, the interior life of an individual. According to the theory, from neither perspective can notation and instance ever converge, and Kohler's mistake is to have structured chaotic experience into an orderly account:

. . . what is chapter-like about tyranny but the beatings and decrees? how much of life is simply consecutive like forks of food, as straight- forward and declarative as my disciplined academic style? everything is both simultaneous and continuous and intermittent and mixed . . . ah, my book cries out its commands, and events are disposed like decorative raisins on a cookie (that row there is the mouth, and there's an eye). . . . ("Life in a Chair" 39)
This passage does not appear in any of the earlier avatars of "Life in a Chair," but for readers of Gass's theory it ought to recall a 1976 essay called "Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses," in which Gass uses a snowman as an example of the sort of "ontological transformation" human beings are responsible for whenever they commit an act of representation. Kohler's disposing of events "like decorative raisins on a cookie (that row there is the mouth, and there's an eye)" is a direct parallel, in tone as well as in sense, to Gass's description of the transformation that we wreak on commonplace coal and carrots when we employ them in the context of a snowman ("Buttons of coal: notice how the same piece may be a button or an eye." The World Within the Word 292). But the actual effect of transplanting this image from the theory into the fiction is not one of ontological transformation; instead, Gass has done something much more direct by simply endowing a character with one of his own ideas, and thus "the same piece" performs the same function in either context (in fact, we might have difficulty assigning a function to Kohler's image if we were not aware of its roots in Gass's theory).

In this case, as elsewhere, representation of a certain sort is the project, but what is re-presented is an idea about the theoretical problems of representation, and not "the world" itself or even an idea about it. In other words, while Gass's theory denies the possibility of representation vis-a-vis the world, representation is a possibility if what is represented is the writing subject. This, I take it, is what Gass means when he says Kohler's consciousness is a "consciousness of the work" and not of the world: his is a mind made out of its own making -- consisting of, and ultimately referring back to, Gass's ideas about the making of fiction. I have already suggested that Kohler and Gass both suffer from an inability to finish the work that will embody them: given the self reflexive nature of representation in Gass, it is arguable that this inability is a result of an utterly non-symbolic concept of representation, in which the sign must be isomorphic and coextensive with the signified. This is perhaps an additional reason why Kohler, and possibly Gass himself, can conceive of no escape from The Tunnel save death.

Another example of the transmigration of ideas from Gass's theory into his fiction involves a 1973 essay called "Groping for Trouts," collected in The World Within the Word along with "Carrots, Snow, Nose, Rose, Roses." In this essay, Gass's topic is "the measurement of nature" (262): the "trout" is the world, and the stream in which we grope is representation. In particular, he discusses mathematical representations of the world, and compares them as metaphors to representations in language. Kohler is also concerned with mathematical representations of reality, inasmuch as his historical research involves the contemplation of the Holocaust as a set of statistics. In fact, at one point he says:

. . . perhaps I've absorbed my present insanity from all the books, films, papers, callous lists and neutral figures I have hunted up, compilations which contain everything except the sufferings they number. ("Life in a Chair" 20)
That notion, of number-collecting as a fetish which objectifies and dehumanizes, is first broached in "Groping for Trouts":
[Man] arranges everything he hears, feels, sees, in decorous ranks like pallbearers beside him. . . . he does not copulate, he counts; he does not simply laugh or sneer or shout, he patiently explains. Regardless of the man or woman he mounts, throughout his wildest daydreams and even in the most persistent myths of his pornography, he will imagine in amounts. (266).

In the fiction, the generic statistician of the essay is cast as an aspect of Kohler's character. At the conclusion of "Life in a Chair," on a page that uses typography pictorially to suggest the unrecognized protrusion of reality through the cloak of self-deluding language, Kohler admits:

                                       sums are what I most remember -- 
upshots -- if I remember anything -- the quality of additions --what any-
thing amounts to. History is just such a sum: the upshot of upshots 
  shot                                              shot      shots
For what is not a sum is not in history. . . . ("Life in a Chair" 59) 

If we accept the premise of The Tunnel, that it is actually being typed by Kohler, it is difficult to grant this device the value Gass would like to give it: the typist here is clearly not self-deluded, and representation (in this case the representation of the return of the repressed) is clearly not problematic.

The trout stream of the essay also runs through "Life in a Chair," where it seems at first to be innocent of theoretical significance:

I remember, as a boy, being taken fishing by my father. Brown trout lay hidden in little stone holes like the complete expression of a wish, and disappeared at the rude intrusion of my shadow even before my bait dropped like a schoolboy's casual pebble in the water. A whisper would frighten these fish, a footstep, any clatter, so that all I saw of them were the ripples where they'd been. ("Life in a Chair" 27)
By the end, however, the stream serves to re-present the same problem described in Gass's essay, the presumed opacity of that medium through which we attempt to discover the world, or ourselves:

. . . I'd like to look below my shot gas hang shot shot eyes and see not language staring back at me, not sentences or single shot gas hang shot shot words or awkward pen lines, but a surface clear and burnished as a shot gas hang shot shot glass. There my figure would appear as perfectly as any Form shot gas hang shot shot reflected in Platonic space-as those tall soot-black boots which I shot gas hang shot shot remember grew inside the marble. . . . shot gas hang shot shot The boots gleamed; they always gleamed; and that gleam lay back shot gas hang shot shot within the image of the boots like fish asleep in shaded water. ("Life in a Chair" 60)

The reflection of a reflection (the imaged gleam of the boots) presents only a superficial perplexity in this passage: it is obvious to the reader what Gass intends by suspending the words "shot gas hang shot shot," fishlike, just below the surface of his text and Kohler's consciousness.

The fact that the dates of publication for the essays I have mentioned are earlier than the date of publication for "Life in a Chair" does not, of course, prove that Gass builds his fiction out of images and ideas which originate in his theory; it is quite possible that these elements could have been developed simultaneously in different forms, or even that they were first conceived as fiction. His essays, in any case, are often more literary than philosophical. Whatever the sequence, it is plain that Gass uses his theory as a sort of proving ground; and though I suggested earlier that the pressure to publish essays might be partly responsible for the protracted deferral of The Tunnel, it may also provide him with an incentive and an opportunity to draft the material from which he is fashioning that work. On this reckoning as well, then, the essays would appear to be integral rather than peripheral to Gass's work-in-progress, since they are in effect a rehearsal for imaginative acts performed in the fiction.

If theory is a rehearsal for the work-in-progress, publication of the work-in-progress (especially when it appears along with the author's essays or interviews) can also be a sort of rehearsal -- not only as it drafts the "work" but also as it drills the reader. Of the twelve sections of The Tunnel which have been published in journals since 1976, four, including "Life in a Chair," were accompanied by an interview and/or one of Gass's theoretical essays; during that same time, by my count, a dozen other interviews and symposia and colloquia with Gass -- and twenty-eight of his essays -- have also appeared. No academic critic would consider writing on The Tunnel without taking at least some of this material into account, beginning with those interviews in which The Tunnel is discussed and explained. At the same time, one of the problems of reading a work-in-progress is that there is no textual whole against which to judge the author's proleptic descriptions of the "work." The whole resides, as yet, only within the mind of the author and he retains interpretive control over the work, since presumably only he knows its final form. Or, to put it another way, whereas in reading a finished novel you may, if you wish, compare the various parts to one another and support your inferences about the text exclusively with references to it, in reading a work-in-progress the text itself is partial, and many necessary inferences can only be supported by referring to an element outside the text -- namely the author's expressed intent.

Gass is not at all reluctant to say that he wants his readers to under- stand his books in a certain way, but he wants those books to be seen as containing within themselves the mechanism by which reading is controlled:

My texts are not open at all if I can have my way about it. I want the instructions to the reader to be my instructions, although I hope the reader will indeed create the work because otherwise it will not, in a sense, exist. But I want that "creating" to be done in accordance with my text, which I hope will provide the instructions.[12]

Arthur Saltzman's The Fiction of William Gass, is the first, and to date the only, book-length study of Gass; predictably, its notes testify to the author's broad acquaintance with Gass's essays and interviews, and in fact one of those interviews is included in Saltzman's book. In his chapter on The Tunnel, Saltzman suggests that Gass's so far fragmentary text does in fact "provide the instructions" for a proper reading, when he asserts that "although the novel remains essentially in-progress, [its] fugitive pieces can be roughly united into a composite picture which discloses the author's design for the completed work" (116). Later, Saltzman specifies that Gass's "design" in The Tunnel is

to capture and to indict the reader, forcing him to pit his conditioned patterns of reasoning against his emotional biases. We are asked to judge without resisting implications; to "say yes to Kohler" as a convincing artistic creation is to credit the novel with completeness, openness -- with being, in Gass's phrase, "all there." (134)
We can see here how difficult it is for the contemporary critic to praise a work without attributing "openness" to it, even though Gass repudiates that quality.[13] For the most part, precisely because The Tunnel is not "all there," the instructions which Saltzman is following in this assessment are taken not from the text, but rather from a 1978 interview with Tom LeClair, where Gass says:
Once I get the reader captured in [The Tunnel], I really want to do things to him. . . . And I hope to write about certain kinds of objectionable attitudes and feelings in such a way that the reader will accept them, will have them, while he's reading. In that sense the book is a progressive indictment of the reader. If it works. . . . I want the reader to say yes to Kohler, although Kohler is a monster. That means that every reader in that moment has admitted to monstrousness. So my point of view in writing this book is less detached for me than normal. It does involve the manipulation of the reader, and I am not sure about it. ("Conversation" 100)
It is notable that Saltzman makes no mention of the uncertainty expressed here, and does not pursue the proposed implication of the reader to the logical conclusion that such a project might also involve the reciprocal implication of the work in the world of which the reader is a part. Instead, he affirms the book as a purely intellectual exercise, a Jamesian feat of difficulty overcome, and concludes his chapter with the determination that
. . . once again, we have run flush against a new reality -- another fiction -- which is all the more startling a confrontation when we realize just how unlikely a narrative this promised to be for meriting moral vindication and love on its own terms. The Tunnel is the sternest test to date of energy of execution, integrity of craft, and worship of the redeeming power of the word as proof of the value of that fiction which flaunts its "incestuous sentences," oblivious to that other world's endorsement. (134)
The disregard for "that other world's endorsement" with which Saltzman credits The Tunnel might conceivably be demonstrated by citing a passage like the following, from "Life in a Chair":
And when I wrote was I writing to win renown, as it's customarily claimed? or to gain revenge after a long bide of time and tight rein of temper? to earn promotion, to rise above the rest like a loosed balloon? or was it from weak self-esteem? from pure funk, out of a distant childhood fear or recent shame? . . . the world. alas. It is Alice committing her Tampax to the trash. ("Life in a Chair" 4)
However, Kohler's rhetorical dismissal of the world is contradicted by other, more psychologically and thematically credible "confessions" to be found elsewhere in the same section -- as for example when Kohler, examining his motives for undertaking Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, says:
It was always the work, the work, the Great Work. . . . I've dug patiently through documents, examined testimonies, also taken them, gathered facts and sifted evidence . . . seeking support for my theories, my beautiful opinions, in the diaries of all those destined to be gassed, burned, buried alive, cut apart, shot. . . . ("Life in a Chair" 17-18)
Nevertheless, Saltzman would be forced to take Kohler's first and less compelling self-justification seriously, because he has obviously already accepted similar statements made by Gass, in moments like this:
. . . even a good critic isn't likely to tell me anything about my work I don't already know, since I'm pretty careful and self conscious in what I do. I also don't take much pleasure in approval. (LeClair, "William Gass" 93)

Perhaps more than any other, the work-in-progress is that form of creative writing in which all the elements of post-modern fiction's academic environment meet and mingle, including even the most prosaic facts of professional life. Yet, as the forces behind the work-in-progress vary, so do its functions. Such intermediate publication as The Tunnel has received does, after all, help to keep Gass in groceries and in the public eye, but it also serves a more remote end. As long as The Tunnel remains in progress, the possibility that the text will change undermines the authority of traditional literary criticism, which aims at definitive assessments of finished products: if what we are reading is process rather than product, our reading must be at least as conditional as is the writing. Granted, we know the work-in-progress through its published portions, and each of these is presented in the form of something finished -- each has a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if it is not The End. But while Gass, who takes the nail-pairing creator of Joyce's Portrait as his model, holds that the author of a finished work "cannot be recalled to rejoin or revise or reconsider anything by any plea or spell of magic or sacrifice or prayer," it seems clear (even in Joyce's case) that the author of a "work-in-progress" not only may but often does revise and reconsider.[14] Furthermore, as we have just seen with regard to Saltzman's analysis, by affording criticism only a partial view of his work, the artist can make himself indispensable to interpretation. In fact, like most of the procedures that mark the production of post-modern fiction, publishing in the form of the work-in-progress is a way of preserving authority over one's text.

Still, it is reasonable to assume that The Tunnel will eventually be finished: at that point, one might well ask, what difference will it make that it was once a work-in-progress? One answer is that publishing a work as it progresses ensures that all future critics will confront an object which includes the layers of its composition, a record of choices made and possibilities rejected; or, to use the terms of our earlier discussion of Gass's alleged "realism," the process of the work's production becomes its representational content. At least in this way, the nature of the finished product is affected, and the presence of the author in the work is perpetuated. The lesson of post-modern fiction is that even the immutability of the finished "work" is illusory, another false ending. For if the post- modern novel has come to be read and understood through practices which foreground the author, and if those practices govern it both before and after publication, then that author has in fact never withdrawn to the wings of the work, and the appearance of the finished work does not ring the curtain down on his performance.


  1. In this connection, the fact that Tristram Shandy is sometimes cited as the first "post-modern" novel makes perfect sense: Sterne's thematization of the endless extension of the process of composition, and his perpetual forestalling of the beginning of his history, are both qualities shared by the novel which will serve as our exemplar of the post- modern work-in-progress, William Gass's The Tunnel. Back

  2. As I have explained elsewhere, I use the presence or absence of a hyphen in the term "post[-]modern" as an artificial but logical way to distinguish between what I see as the two generations of post[- ]modernism -- an earlier one which sees itself as extending the project of Modernism, and a later one which reacts against Modernism. The original form of the word, "Post-modernism," has a hyphen which privileges the modern, and this term is properly applied only to the first of the two generations. In "postmodernism," on the other hand, the hyphen has dropped out and the agglutinated form, in which "post" gets top billing, implies the emergence of a new entity. This form of the word is increasingly common, but rather than being applied indiscriminately it ought to denote specifically that rising generation which conceives of itself as distinct from and often opposed to Modernism. (See my essays "Practicing Post-Modernism: The Example of John Hawkes," forthcoming in Contemporary Literature, and also "Orchestrating Reception: The Hierarchy of Readers in Post-Modern American Fiction, " forthcoming in Centennial Review.) Back

  3. In practice, Joyce did not adhere to Stephen Dedalus's notion of the author as indifferent God any more than the academic post- modernists do. As regards Ulysses, he not only coordinated reception in the literary realm through his well-documented direction of the criticism and research of Stuart Gilbert and others, but also appears to have played a major role in developing strategy for the legal defense of the book against the charge of obscenity (see Vanderham on the trial of Ulysses. Furthermore, Finnegans Wake includes rejoinders to at least two of its critics: Wyndham Lewis's "Analysis of the Mind of James Joyce" is prominently alluded to during the section sometimes called "The Riddles," and Beckett (whom Joyce seems to have regarded at this point as both a critic and a competitor) is also addressed (and browbeaten) at various points in the text. See Amiran, Wandering and Home. Back

  4. Gass and his contemporaries (Hawkes, Coover, and others) were the first generation of American writers to proceed from college to graduate school to lifelong employment in the university system; like many American experimental writers after World War 11, they seem to have felt that the odds of survival were more favorable inside than outside the academy. Back

  5. In chronological order, the published portions of The Tunnel are: During this period, Gass has also published three other pieces of uncollected fiction, sometimes identified as sections of The Tunnel but apparently belonging to (and perhaps constituting) an unpublished work called "Cartesian Sonata." These are:

    Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, which first appeared as TriQuarterly Supplement Number Two in 1968, shares several characters (Philip Gelvin, Ella Bend, and Willie's wife herself) with "Cartesian Sonata," and probably once belonged to that work; in fact, it is also possible that all four were originally intended as parts of The Tunnel, since Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife contains the first of Gass's Nazi jokes, and was mostly written in 1966 -- the same year Gass says he began The Tunnel. Back

  6. As Michael Berube has pointed out to me, Pynchon has on several occasions published sections of his works before the works themselves appeared: chapter 3 of V appeared in advance of the novel ["Under the Rose,"], as did two parts of The Crying of Lot 49 ["The World (This One), The Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and The Testament of Pierce Inverarity"; "The Shrink Flips"]. On the other hand, Pynchon has not published excerpts from either Gravity's Rainbow or the novel on which he is now at work, and those from his earlier novels have received relatively little critical attention, even after the appearance of the works to which they belong. Furthermore, Pynchon has never provided any sort of key to his work: the closest he comes is the introduction to Slow Learner, where he critiques the failures and mistakes of the juvenile productions which that volume collects rather than theorizing his present position. However, it is worth pointing out that in Pynchon's case a more colloquial mechanism, that of rumor, seems to serve somewhat the same purpose of preparing the public for forthcoming work -- for instance, one rumor has it that the subject of his next book will be the Napoleonic wars. Back

  7. In order, these estimates are drawn from the following sources: McCauley 45; Janssens 259; Morrow 14; and Saltzman 159 [no date is given for the interview itself, but it was first published in the Summer 1984 issue of Contemporary Literature]. Back

  8. Durand 8. This interview was conducted in July 1978. Back

  9. See n. 5, above, for publication information. The corresponding pages are:
    "Life in a Chair"----6-9.
    "Mad Meg"----77-79.

    "Life in a Chair"----22-23.
    "Koh Whistles Up a Wind"----196-197.

    "Life in a Chair"----17-21, 52-54, 60.
    "We Have Not Lived the Right Life"----13-14, 14-16, 16.

  10. Durand 8-9. See also Gass, Habitations 158:
    My present novel, The Tunnel, is dominated by the trope of its title. The text is at once the hollow absence of life, words, and earth, which the narrator is hauling secretly away; then it is the uneasy structure of bedboards, bent flesh, rhetorical flourishes and other fustian forms, which shapes the passage, and which incontinently caves in occasionally, filling the reader's nose with noise, and ears with sand and misunderstanding; while finally it is the shapeless mess of dirt, word-dung, and desire, which has to be taken out and disposed of. Every tunnel invokes Being, Non-Being, and Becoming in equal portions and with equal fervor. This is . . . a cautionarv instance, for now and then the trope itself will be in such need of a proper bringing up, be itself such a symbol of flight and connection, concealment and search, that it brings its wretched employer nothing but confusion, nothing but Postmodernism, nothing but grief. Back

  11. Gilman 78-79. This essay was originally published, under the title "Omensetter's Luck," in The New Republic 7 May 1966. Back

  12. "A Colloquy" 592. What Gass wants the reader to do is evidently not so much to create as to recreate. On this point, he is more explicit elsewhere-as in this exchange, during a symposium, with Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme:
    Gass: You [Paley] want the creative reader.
    Paley: You got 'em. I mean, he's there.
    Gass: I don't want them.
    Paley: Well, it's tough luck for you.
    Barthelme: I have to disagree absolutely about what Bill wants. He does want the creative reader. He could not possibly write in the way he does without positing a highly intelligent and rather wonderful reader, totally docile, whom we all want to go out and drink with. You do posit such a reader, or you could not write the way you do.
    Gass: What I mean by this is that I don't want the reader filling in anything behind the language.
    Paley: Right, that's what's wrong with you. You don't leave him enough space to move around. (from Gass, Barthelme, Paley, and Percy, "A Symposium on Fiction" 8).
  13. A similar problem arises in relation to "The Sunday Drive," a portion of The Tunnel published in Facing Texts (Durham: Duke University Press, 1988), edited and introduced by Heide Ziegler. Facing Texts is another sort of emblematic text: its title refers to the fact that it "faces" creative texts (by Gass, Hawkes, Coover and others) with responses from critics often selected by the authors themselves. Ziegler's introduction is particularly interesting as it exhibits the unexamined conflict between the actual practices of the earlier generation of post-modernism with the critical ideology of the later one. Back

  14. Gass, "'The Death of the Author'," in Habitations of the Word 269; see note 1, above, for some evidence which undermines the alleged autonomy of Joyce's texts. In this case, it would seem that Gass himself has been taken in by (Joyce's) tendentious statements of aesthetic principle. Back

Works Cited

Amiran, Eyal. Wandering and Home: Beckett's Engagement with the Metaphysical Tradition. Diss. University of Virginia, 1989.

Castro, Jan Garden. 'An Interview with William Gass." Bulletin of the Association of Departments of English 70 (Winter 1981 ): 30-34.

Duncan, Jeffrey L. "A Conversation With Stanley Elkin and William H. Gass." Iowa Review 7.1 (Winter 1976): 48-77.

Durand, Régis. "An Interview with William Gass." Delta 8 (May 1979): 7- 19.

French, Ned. "Against the Grain: Theory and Practice in the Work of William H. Gass." Iowa Review 7.1 (Winter 1976): 96-106.

Gass, William H. "A Letter to the Editor." In Afterwords: Novelists on Their Novels. Ed. Thomas McCormack. New York: Harper and Row, 1969. 89- 105.

-------. The World Within the Word. New York: Knopf, 1978. .

-------. "Life in a Chair." Salmagundi 55 (Winter 1982): 3-60.

-------. "A Colloquy with William Gass." Modern Fiction Studies 29 (1983).

-------. Habitations of the Word. New York: Random House, 1969.

Gass, William H., Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, and Walker Percy. 'A Symposium on Fiction." Shenandoah 27.2 (Winter 1976): 3-31.

Gilman, Richard. The Confusion of Realms. New York: Random House, 1969.

Janssens, G.A.M. "An Interview with William Gass." Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters 9.4 (1979): 242-59.

Kermode, Frank. Rev of Stories in an Almost Classical Mode by Harold Brodkey. New York Times Book Review 18 Sept. 1988: 3, 51.

LeClair, Thomas. "A Conversation with William Gass." Chicago Review 30.2 (1978): 97-106.

-------. "William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV." Paris Review 70 (1977): 61-94.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans., Geoff Bennington and Brian H. Massumi. Theory and History of Literature l0. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

-------. Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants: correspondance 1982-1985. Paris: Éditions Galileé, 1986.

McCauley, Carole S. "Fiction Needn't Say Things -- It Should Make Them Out of Words: An Interview with William H. Gass." Falcon 5 (Winter 1972): 35- 45.

Morrow, Bradford. "Interview with William Gass." Conjunctions 4 (1983): 14-29.

Pynchon, Thomas. "Under the Rose." The Noble Savage 3 (May 1961): 223- 51.

-------. "The World (This One), The Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity." Esquire 64 (Dec. 1965): 170-73, 296, 298-303.

-------. "The Shrink Flips." Cavalier (Mar. 1966): 32-33, 82-92.

Saltzman, Arthur M. The Fiction of William Gass: The Consolation of Language. Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques, Third Series. Ed. Jerome Klinkowitz. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Shattuck, Roger. Marcel Proust. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Vanderham, Paul. Diss. University of Virginia, 1991.

Ziegler, Heide. Ed. and intro. Facing Texts: Encounters Between Contemporary Writers and Critics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988.