Friday, January 22, 2010

Tunneling to The Tunnel

Reading The Tunnel by William H. Gass for me was a bit like staring at a big plate of vegetables; I knew I had to do it, but I didn't want to. Perhaps, I thought, the end result will be much more beneficial than the actual process much in the way that lifting weights or climbing Mt. Everest is. Without a doubt this was one of the most challenging reads I have ever set out on, and a journey I might just have to take again before I fully wrap my head around all that Gass has crammed in to his 650 page opus.

My gravitation toward this book has been a process in its own right. While I was attending community college in California back in the mid-90's the librarian at my school brought it to my attention that there was a famous, well-respected author who shared my name. I politely chatted with him about it before heading off to class, but something that librarian said to me about Gass that day has stayed with me ever since:

"You're probably not ready for him."

What the hell was that supposed to mean? I wondered to myself. The name William Gass was filed away in the back of my mind for years, a project to tackle on some distant day, when I was older perhaps.

Every once in a while I would run a search on him at the library just to see if he really existed (he did), or to see if he had died (he had not), but I was still afraid to dive into Gass's work, of which (though I'm told he published more), I could find only two titles.

The years went by and I fed my brain easy to digest fiction by authors like Stephen King. Indeed, the final three editions of King's Dark Tower series were the last three books I read that even came close to 600 pages. When a book gets to be that long it gets harder and harder to proof read and King's books are filled with spelling errors and typos. Yet at 650 pages, The Tunnel has not one that I could find. Every single word was placed there for a reason. Every word has implicit meaning. And many of those words have multiple implicit meanings. If Stephen King had written this book it would have been 650,000 pages long.

Unfortunately I am getting ahead of myself, aren't I? Because at this stage of the tale I am still too afraid to pick up a copy of The Tunnel much less read it or compare it to a Stephen King novel. Too afraid to dive into something I might not be ready for, to dig and explore tunnels of my own, right? As someone who enjoyed writing myself, I believed that it would be mortifying to discover that there was an author out there with my name -MY NAME!- who was considered to be a master of the craft. If I were ever to get published I would constantly be worried about comparisons to him, about forever being referred to as "William Gass The Lesser" or "The William Gass Who Sucks". So I stayed away from the writings of "William Gass The Great" not because I wasn't up to the challenge of conquering something I was not yet ready for but because I was certain that I would compare myself to him when we were, in fact, incomparable. In many ways, I was treating him as though he were my own father, who not so in-coincidentally shares my name as well.

After I finished college I set out to write a novel of my own that was admittedly influenced by all of the Stephen King I was reading at the time. It was moody and dark and dense to be sure. And it was 100% "William Gass The Lesser", meaning that it was in no way influenced by "William Gass The Great". However, to say that it was not inspired at least in part, by "William Gass the Elder" would be a lie. That this novel has not been published is of little consequence to me, only that it is finished, and that it is mine, and that it is a reflection of my experiences in life up until the time it was completed. If I publish it under a pseudonym, the world will not have an opportunity to label me as the "William Gass Who Sucks" because I am perfectly fine being the "JD Robb Who Doesn't Suck".

After I finished Ocotillo Gable's Gate life went along rather happily for a little while, me living in my world, William H. Gass taking up residence in the library of congress (or where-ever it is that authors that no one ever reads dwell). Rather happily that is, until my 32nd birthday came along. I had recently shared with my father the story of my troubled relationship with William H. Gass so he took it upon himself to purchase a copy of The Tunnel for me. My dad is not one who believes that there are demons in this world who cannot be slayed by mere mortals, nor does he have the "turn the other cheek in certain circumstances" mentality that I do, but rather chooses to fight his battles full steam ahead. So by giving me this gift my father effectively told me that William H. Gass WAS something I was ready for, and that there was no better time than the present to prove it.

Two years have passed since he gifted me that book and much has happened during that time. I didn't read it right away, still a little frightened about the prospect I think. Instead, I pawed at it like a lion might do to a fallen zebra, curious about how it tastes. The sheer size and wordiness of the novel, not to mention the four pages of critical praise at the beginning were quite intimidating. So was the fact that all of this praise was being heaped on an author who's name appeared on my own driver's license. But eventually I picked it up and began reading. Like a plate full of vegetables I took every bite, not liking it one bit, forcing myself to swallow all 650 pages of William Gass.

Now that he is behind me the question remains, am I ready for William Gass? Of course I am! In fact, I believe that the young man facing the librarian that day all those years ago at a community college in California would have appreciated The Tunnel far more than I did today. The real question though, the one that has been swirling in my head as I write is this: "Is William Gass ready for me?"

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