"The Tunnel" is the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime. It took nearly 30 years to write, including long periods of silence and the author's repeated decisions to abandon the work; but some of us have been peeping over William Gass' shoulder, reading sections as they appeared in literary magazines, beginning in 1969 when a chapter called "We Have Not Lived the Right Life" appeared in the New American Review.
That piece took my breath away. The narrator, William Kohler, a professor of modern German history and specialist in the Third Reich, told us about the Midwestern town where he was born, called Grand ("simply Grand"). The beleaguered town is visited by dust-storms and swarms of grasshoppers, tornadoes and blizzards, no plague more devastating than the invasion of relatives come to celebrate a cousin's wedding:
"Ponderous aunts and uncles, uncles lean as withered beans, aunts pale as piecrust, grandmapas with rheum and gout, cousins shrill as sirens, sounding themselves through the house like warnings of death from the air (later in London, I heard them often), cousins who scratched you under the table, all agloat cousins who told on other cousins, cousins who scooped up fistfuls of mashed potato and let it slime over their wrists; aunts who wore hats in the house, aunts who starched and ironed linens, aunts who stirred pots, flagellated rugs, opened doors for dogs, swatted flies, and reminisced fondly of death and diseases as if they were high school dances, former flames; uncles and great-uncles who, like the hoppers, spat long brown jets of chewing tobacco across the railings while they rocked; nieces and nephews, a few of those too, who peed in their pants, threw up, bawled, and beat you on the shins and ankles with alphabet blocks; relatives at every conceivable remove, but not removed, each noisily present. . . ."