Designing The Tunnel

Context N°18

by William H. Gass

Oftentimes when critics review a book with a playful or eccentric design, their first assumption is that these devices were included to distract a reader from deficiencies in the text. When you’re dealing with the novels of William H. Gass, however, the danger is reversed: his prose is so gorgeous that no amount of “distraction” can ever quite get your attention, let alone steal the spotlight, even when—as is the case with Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and his masterpiece The Tunnel—the marginalia, distortions, nonstandard fonts, and illustrations were integral to the book’s conception.

This spring, Dalkey Archive Press will be releasing The Tunnel Audiobook—a reading performed by the author himself. What follows are excerpts from William Gass’s original instructions regarding the layout and design of The Tunnel, as they were circulated with the typescript before its initial publication in 1995.

These give a fascinating glimpse into the process of bringing such a graphically complex work to print—especially since a number of the author’s intended effects did not make it into the finished book. Page numbers refer to the typescript, but references for the current edition of the novel have been provided in brackets where possible. Our thanks to the author for permission to publish these selections, and to W. F. Kohler for the use of his illustrations.


1. I regard these instructions and the general layout of the text only as indications of my intentions. Other type fonts, indentations, drawings, etc. might serve my purposes better, and I should be delighted to receive suggestions from a talented and sympathetic designer. The first 500 pages of the text were put on the computer by secretaries at the Getty Center. I have not always been able to follow their lead so there may be some inconsistencies in spacing, font choice, etcetera, when the entire MS is taken into account.

2. This MS will naturally be manufactured and presented to the public as a book, and it will be a real book, no doubt about that, but it must not be a book symbolically. Symbolically it is a heap of pages on various topics which the narrator has shuffled together. This must seem to be the case although at another level the work is tightly organized and determined. The narration therefore contains anachronisms, inconsistencies, redundancies, repetitions, confusions, as well as a lot of silly playfulness and other monkey business not to be found in an ordinary text: there are shifts of form and style from section to section; some sections are labeled, others not; there are cartoons and other kinds of drawing; there is a page that is supposed to be a silver tray covered with calling cards, another that’s printed on grocery sack paper, and so on.

3. Much of what normally goes to make a book is also in this book—is, that is, a bit of the novel’s text—but not everything is such a bit. The acknowledgement and dedication pages, for instance, certainly belong in the book, but they do not belong to the novel. The acknowledgements themselves, their typeface and placement on the page should suggest this, possibly by being set in another font. The cover of the book, the dust jacket, the endpapers, the title page, and so on, are intended to be functional parts of the text.

4. The book should be bound in rough black cloth. The spine should be broad and flat the way Viking Press’s edition of James Joyce’s Letters is, or Finnegans Wake. The title of the book, THE TUNNEL, should appear at the top left edge of the spine, indented, in silver, and in letters about this size (see sample, which is crude but may convey the idea of the effect):


5. Dust Jacket.

The same placement of the title should be on the dust jacket, which should be a dull black. My name may have to go on the jacket and if so it should appear on the bottom of the spine up and down like the title and on the opposite or inner side of the spine panel. Otherwise there should be nothing on the book’s cover or dust jacket. It should be completely empty and dark like outer space or the inside of a cave. The reader should be holding a heavy really richly textured lump of darkness. The book’s size should be larger than normal. Again, the size of Finnegans Wake seems about right. It is important that my name appear nowhere on dust jacket or cover, and that nothing else be put on the jacket—no bio, picture, blurb, etc. The publisher will no doubt want their name on the book so it might be embossed at the bottom of the spine (but left black) and printed in silver at the bottom of the spine of the jacket.

The book should look blackboard black. The title should look formal although as white as if of chalk.

There are, I hope, reasons for my suggestions. Why not put the author’s, name on the book? Because it is Kohler’s book. Because, in a sense, it is not a book. Because, in the reality of the novel, the novel itself is dispersed between the pages of another book.

6. “Armband Sleeve.”

Around the jacketed book (the way prizes are sometimes announced) a paper band should be placed bearing the insignia of the Party of the Disappointed People. This ribbon should resemble the Nazi armband.

Thus one enters the book through a series of unwrappings: the sleeve, the dust jacket, in effect, the lifted cover, passing through an anonymous darkness, whose only assistance is the suggestion that the book, so entered, is a kind of tunnel.

7. Endpapers

a. Front endpapers should be similarly black but across the top of the book’s cover and first page (a double spread) should be stretched, as the drawing indicates, a dressmaker’s tape with markings in inches—each inch representing one main section of the 12 section text and smaller lines, symbolically—not precisely—representing titled subsections. These divisions will not be otherwise named on the tape. They will only be suggested here.

b. The rest of this space will be black except that on it will be drawn in white (as if in chalk) a diagram of the tunnel itself positioned in such a way as to parallel the course of the text through its twelve stages. (See drawing which is crude and could be improved—however it should never look polished, or the work of a professional.)

c. That is: the trope of this text is the tunnel. The reader is to feel, as he or she doubtless will, as if they are crawling through an unpleasant and narrow darkness. Tunnel entrances, when they are escape tunnels, are usually hidden. The book therefore does not “begin” with its first section. That section is the tunnel’s trap and hides the true beginning. [See illustration:]

1. Life in a Chair. The tunnel’s disguise. In this case, an old coal furnace. (This section has no named divisions.)2. Koh Whistles Up a Wind. The tunnel’s trap in the interior of the furnace is created. The basement floor is breached.

–Invocation of the Muse. (The epic is mocked.)

3. We Have Not Lived the Right Life. The book begins. The drop or initial descent of the tunnel is excavated. Small ladder shown in drawing.

–Uncle Balt and the Nature of Being.

–The Old Folks. (In this section the first major anachronism and contradiction is prepared for.)

4. Today I Began to Dig. The first elbow and the beginning of the horizontal thrust of the tunnel.

–August Bees.

–Culp. (Each of Kohler’s colleagues is also one of his personalities. Here we deal with the most obnoxious and omnipresent one.)

5. Mad Meg. Tunneling to the house’s edge. Rhetorical section. Theories of history. Spiritual father. Automotive motif.

–In My Youth.

–A Sunday Drive.

–A Fugue.

–The Barricade.

–At Death’s Door.

6. Why Windows Are Important to Me. First Outdoor Section. Considerable shoring. Heavy clay.



7. The First Winter of My Married Life. Relatively straightforward section of tunnel, but not of text. “Foreskinned” section narrows.

–Family Album.

–Child Abuse.


8. The Curse of Colleagues. The tunnel drops in four step-like stages.

–Planmantee Particularly.

–Governali Enters Heaven.

–Hershel Honey.

–Scandal in the Schoolroom.

9. Around the House. Relatively straightforward bit except for narrowed stony section. Single hunk of text.

10. Susu, I Approach You in My Dreams. The cave-in.

–Down and Dirty.

–Learning to Drive.

–Being a Bigot.

11. Going to the River. Tunnel veers and then straightens.

–The Cost of Everything.

–Do Rivers.


12. Outcast on the Mountains of the Heart. Progressive narrowing until the nose of the tunnel is reached, now the length and width of arms.


–Mother Makes a Cake.

–Blood on the Living Room Rug.

–Outcast . . . etc.

8. So far, then, a black armband, then a black jacket, then a similarly black cover, with black inside backing and half of tunnel diagram, followed by black page with initial side possessing the other half of the tunnel diagram. The obverse side remains black and blank.

9. Title page containing Title, Characterization, Author, and Publisher. Back of that page in different type from any to be used in book because not a part of the book: the usual copyright information.

10. On the reverse of the title page, the list of the author’s previous books. In the font which says “not in text.”

11. This is followed by, in color, the sheet containing the two Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions. We are continuing to work on the reader’s expectations. This is not your usual novel, nor customary book.

Furthermore, the fact that the pennants are the same in color and division, though facing different directions, but have a different labeling system, suggests something about how things in this text may be taken.

12. Acknowledgements page is next. This page contains the author’s acknowledgement of assistance, and places where parts of the novel have been previously published. In a type like that for publisher’s data and author’s previous books, since this page is also not part of the book. Back of that page is the black and white banner for the PdP and a medal design—for ingratitude.

13. Now we reach the dedication, in the type of the text: This Book Is for Mary.

14. On the back of the dedication page is a color rendition of the symbol of the PdP, the Party of the Disappointed People. This sheet should lie open alongside the first page of the book. This symbol need not be exactly reproduced . . . but the color scheme should remain, as well as the general form, and the handmade graffiti quality retained. The icon should be strong and assertive. Slight variation from armband. One also wants the reader to have the sense of being “in the text” now, so that every page, and every side of every page, counts.

15. Now we reach numbered page one. (At first there will be a lot of font changes and line spacing and picturating too, even in color; but this will lessen as the narrator begins to focus his text on his own past, and after chapter three, for the most part, the high jinks will become midjinks, finally even lowjinks or no jinks at all.)

a. Choice of font. The font size should be larger than normal and blacker than average . . . Ideally it should produce an assertive black thorny page, with a hint of Old German in the style. I would love it if every line looked like a length of barbed wire . . .

b. The placement of the page numbers is troublesome. In one sense the numbers don’t matter. This book is a pile of pages. In another sense, like any book, they do. But also [page] 111 will be repeated, and play will be made with others. The numbers could be put at the bottom and in the middle of the page. But sometimes I want to make the page number into a camp tattoo. That should be kept in mind. As: 0047. So upper right is probably best.

16. This sense of a particular page being isolated from the rest cuts the narrative flow to a trickle, subverts the traditional notion that the text can be cut into pages any old way. Second: The playfulness ironically undercuts the seriousness of the sentiments. Third: The fonts, etc., comment on the words they represent. If I say: “Alice, how about another scone?” in Ye Olde English Tearoom style, I lend a certain tone to the question and place it in a context.

Page 30. The bubbles at the bottom of this page and at the top of the next lose their meaning if divided. All the bubbles should appear in a cloud together, so a page division at this point should be avoided. There should be enough of them so what is going on is clear. Often the illustrations (if they can be called such) make visually literal what is said in a metaphor, whereas the font changes often are metaphors for what is said “inside” them. Here, that is, are the actual bubbles from the decomposing hilarity of corpses.

[Page 79]. The person I need to set this book is Saul Steinberg. I wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. Page [78] . . . has to end as this does, with “the engraved calling cards of the well-titled muses . . .” because the entire next page will be given over to the image of a silver tray on which the calling cards of all the countesses, and other ladies who knew Rilke and visited him, are placed. In this section, which is the “Invocation to the Muses,” all sorts of books and authors have been invoked as muses. Now the women. But by placing each name in a font being used in the book, attention is called to another kind of muse, the material character of the book itself.

[Page 96]. Having concealed our entrance and invoked every muse in sight, we finally commence. It should be noted, and may offer some comfort, that the pages will tend to normalize as the text proceeds.

[Pages 266, 267, and 288]. We come to three important pages . . . The first represents the Structure of the PdP Particle. Four different Os are connected by an X. The meaning is deliberately left ambiguous. But the reader is invited to wonder “what the fuck?”

The second . . . provides an image representing a theme of the PdP, the image being that of the hour glass, the theme that of “too lateness.” This cancellation image will not be immediately read as an hourglass, I suppose, although the accompanying Xs are obvious enough. Still, any closer look will show time running down the arms of the X to the dark orb below, nearly full as the top one is nearly empty. I have been deliberately sloppy with the color. This also continues the stencil theme, of which more anon.

The doodle page. Kohler is trying out emblems, flags. It has to seem sketchy, but must be striking nevertheless. Is the previous page striking or not? Is there something menacing about the page, even though it is not thoroughly understood? If not, the little images have failed. On this page we are to imagine some of Hitler’s little doodles or the first drawn ideas for the architectural layout of the camps, etc. I want something at once naive, a little charming, and a lot unsettling.

The last of the uniform and banner design pages. Actually we have the Sam Browne Belt and the armband and the PdP bracelet. The stamp in the corner suggests a broken window, important to this section of “Why Windows Are Important to Me” . . . These images can, indeed must, be crude, but they must be strong too, and from them the reader can infer that Kohler has spent a good deal of time imagining his Party, far more time than merely indicated by the text. He has three principal occupations: digging, writing, imagining his Party.

← Return to index

Comments are closed.