July 14, 2019

THE APPRENTICE:

A 1995 Novel Predicted Trump's America (Alec Nevala-Lee, July 12, 2019, NY Times)

[A]s he said of his most ambitious novel: "I wrote 'The Tunnel' out of the conviction that no race or nation is better than any other, and that no nation or race is worse; that the evil men do every day far outweighs the good."

Kohler, its narrator, is a 50-year-old professor of history at a thinly disguised version of Purdue University, where Gass himself taught for more than a decade. As the novel opens, he has just completed a book, "Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany," that he'd once hoped would be his masterpiece. When he sits down to write the introduction, however, he finds that he despises it, and he starts to pour out his life story instead -- his dismal boyhood, his unhappy marriage, his failed love affairs. He also begins to dig a tunnel to nowhere out of his basement, although this evocative symbol occupies only a fraction of the narrative, which is dominated by Kohler's seemingly endless flood of rage, interspersed with typographical tricks, cartoons and obscene limericks.

At first it can be hard to understand why Gass dedicated so much of his career to writing in such an unbearable voice. As we learn more about Kohler, however, we find that Gass is assembling a case study with the meticulousness of a psychological profiler. We gradually discover that Kohler -- who keeps a trunk of Nazi memorabilia hidden under his porch -- is drawn to the Hitler era because it reveals the unspeakable truth about his own soul. As a young man, he studied in Germany, and on Kristallnacht, he was so swept up by the fury that he hurled a brick at the window of a Jewish grocery store.

After brooding over his actions, he concludes that violence is an eruption of disappointment -- the attacker hurts those whom he sees as unfairly advantaged, even if it costs him everything. Kohler connects this irrational longing for revenge to the Holocaust, as well as to a distinctly American bitterness caused by "an implicit promise broken, the social contract itself," which deprives its victims of the happiness that they had seen as an inalienable right. This theory of history reflects his own toxic envy, but the picture that emerges of Kohler himself is painfully real, and his humiliation over his own minor failures leads him to exhibit what Gass diagnosed as "a slightly hidden fascist mentality" common in the United States.

This is an immensely important theme, and Gass explores it relentlessly. His narrator's memories begin with his bigoted father, who scorned the ideas -- "free trade, for instance" -- that his son learned at school, while dismissing immigrants as "parasites, scabs, seducers" and ranting against "those who let these people into the country in the first place, when there were few enough jobs." Gass methodically depicts what he elsewhere called the "fascism of the breakfast table," as domestic combatants "crow over every victory as if each were the conquest of a continent, grudge every defeat as if it were the most meanly contrived and ill-deserved bad luck a good sport ever suffered," in performances that can expand outward to define an entire culture. He also devotes many pages to the small towns over which "sunsets were displayed in the deepest colors of catastrophe, the dark discordant tones of the Last Trump."

As Kohler recalls the resentments of his father's generation -- "They were America, damn it, and Americans should come first" -- he offers a word of advice to those who have been abandoned by history: "Don't invest in a future you will never see, a future which will despise you anyway, a future which will find you useless. Pay for your own burial plot. Get the golf clubs out. Die with a tan your daughter's thighs would envy." This sense of betrayal, which can shade into vengefulness, leads to a radical strain of politics that Gass later described in an interview: "Fascism is a tyranny which enshrines the values of the lower middle class, even though the lower middle class doesn't get to rule. It just gets to feel satisfied that the world is well-run. It likes symbols of authority and it likes to dress up. It likes patriotic parades."

In the novel's most prophetic passages, Kohler fantasizes about forming a movement called the "Party of the Disappointed People." He draws pictures of its insignia and merchandise (including special caps) and explains: "What the other parties avoid, we shall embrace. We shall be the ones with the handshakes like the Shriners, the symbols, the slogans as if we were selling something, the shirts, the salutes and the flags." By definition, its constituents feel disenfranchised by life, so they need powerful collaborators: "If we were to recover a bit of pride, we might be able to make ourselves into harassing gangs. So we shall make our pitch to the huddled elites, the ins who are on the outs."

The party will need to be circumspect about its intentions -- Kohler proposes a secret hand signal that will allow its members to recognize one another -- until a public figure arises to amplify its anger: "What a pool of energy awaits the right voice." Kohler's ideal tyrant is modeled on Hitler, but he also looks ahead to the demagogue of the future. "And now the hero comes -- the trumpet of his people. And his voice is enlarged like a movie's lion. He roars, he screams so well for everyone, his tantrums tame a people. He is the Son of God, if God is Resentment. And God is Resentment -- a pharaoh for the disappointed people." Kohler anticipates the role of the media -- "TV faces and their blatant lies are now our leaders" -- and contemplates the shape of such a man's life: "Our favorite modern bad guys became villains by serving as heroes first -- to millions. It is now a necessary apprenticeship."

Posted by at July 14, 2019 7:21 AM

  

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