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Onomatopoeia in "The Tunnel" by William H. Gass

"He'll tell you it's dong-dong-dong-a-ding and ten ticks"


Onomatopoeia in

William H. Gass

The author of two novels and several volumes of essays, William H. Gass has received numerous awards, including the American Book Award (for The Tunnel) and the PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement award. Noted for his experimental use of language, Gass has been called "the finest prose stylist in America."

In this sketch of Culp, the limerick-writer (from The Tunnel), Gass relies on onomatopoeia and other sound effects to illustrate the character's cartoonish ability to "whine, yelp, growl, howl, and bay with the worst of them."

from The Tunnel* (1995)

by William H. Gass

[F]rom a distance, Culp seems presentable and reasonable and normal enough. Approach, however, and you'll hear whirs and clicks, rhymes and puns, jocularities in dialect, jingles in dirty high-schoolese, gibberish he says is pure Sioux.

Culp's conversation is made-up like his Halloween Indian's face. It is simply streaked with zaps, wheeps, and other illustrative noises. I guess I shouldn't say "simply" or "streaked" either. That's not exact. His speech is not outlined or punctuated with clacks or thonks in any ordinary way. It is engulfed in them--washed with them as though they were spit--the way street sounds surround us--surround us, you remember? during that intense noontime tête-à-tête in a sidewalk café where I confessed my passion to an emptied cup and you lifted your chin to look cooly away; yet that comparison is not correct either, since Culp's incessant zits, yelps, zooms, and hip hips intervene; they serve as symbols themselves and carry on the action. If his pickup hasn't started, first we hear last night's icy wind, and the oil in the engine thicken. The truck's doors open with a groan--which he gives us. His trousers slither over the--ah!--cold seat and the key snicks entering its lock. The engine's frozen agonies are minutely replayed: the starter's grind, the muffled puff of a single cylinder firing. Then the smell of a flooded engine is delicately rendered by, as if from a distance, the bassoon. Finally: zrrBLOOM! GLOOM ROOM AROOM!

There is palpable silence, an emptiness in the line on the page; in the corridor there is no one, or the heart. Culp shrinks. He is shifting into another scenario. His right hand becomes a dinky little car puckpuckpucketing along toward school.

I heard not a single pucket as I approached the crowded café. The clatter of the city collected like lint in an unconscious corner: the corner, perhaps, the café was bent around. A comic strip.

Culp loved to reenact them, enliven their lines. He was surely brought up on Mickey Mouse and Porky Pig. He falsettoes in fright, as they do; he zips; he squeals to a halt; he vaaroo-ooms; he tsks; he thonks. His thonks are worthy of the Three Stooges. He does all the Popeye voices, but prefers Olive Oyl's. He has noises for the nittles, the grawlix, the quimps, the jarns. He blows each ballon up before your ears. He reels home, +'s on his eyes, singing the spirl that rises like heat from his head.

Don't ask him the time. He'll tell you it's dong-dong-dong-a-ding and ten ticks.

Selected Works by William H. Gass

  • Omensetter's Luck, novel (1966)
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (1968)
  • Fiction and the Figures of Life, essays (1970)
  • Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, novella (1970)
  • On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, essays (1976)
  • The World Within the Word, essays (1978)
  • Habitations of the Word, essays (1984)
  • The Tunnel, novel (1995)
  • Finding a Form: Essays (1997)
  • A Temple of Texts, essays (2006)

* The Tunnel by William H. Gass was originally published by Knopf in 1995 and reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press in 1999.

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  6. Onomatopoeia in "The Tunnel" by William H. Gass - Scrapbook of Styles - Culp, the limerick-writer

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