13 June 2006


Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Television is about as mesmerizing as a book about nothing can be. Mesmerizing yet a little numbing, like a television, set to a constant low hum. There were several times that I wanted to abandon the book, thinking "Alright, I get it!", but I kept being drawn back to it the way the flickering images on a TV in a bar or restaurant can draw my attention even when I know I can't hear the audio. (For some reason, I'm reminded of a time I watched Hitchcock's The Birds play on a TV in a repair shop window late one night many years ago. In German, which I do not speak....but that's probably a completely different post.)

At first, as I read this book, I couldn't help but recall reading an article a few years ago attributing the success of HGTV to how innocuous it is. Having no content that can offend, it is the perfect TV programming, the visual equivalent of background music. The narrator of Television thinks that TV is stupid, yet he contemplates its importance constantly, as if pondering the absence of TV can make up for the background music he has turned off.

The unnamed narrator is an art historian, on sabbatical, attempting to write a book about Titian. The only problem is, he doesn't want to write. On a whim, he vows to not watch television any more. Except when he can't avoid it: looking out the window into other apartments, while waiting for someone in her apartment, at the neighbor's. He gives no reason for his decision and is relieved when those to whom he brags about his TV abstinence do not inquire as to why he went cold-turkey.

Television is not so much about television as it is about the narrator and his ability to put off writing. Throughout the course of the book, all he manages to write is two words. Yet, the narrator claims he is working: if he is swimming, dining, walking and thinking about his book, or preparing to think about his book, he is 'working'. The narrator describes how he postpones any actual writing in a series of humorous events over the course of a summer. Each of these scenarios -- a chance encounter with his benefactor in the park, dinner with a colleague, watering his neighbor's plants, floating casually in the pool -- is, like the book as a whole, without much of a plot. Yet, the recounting of his day-to-day activities creates an effect on the reader similar to one a rabid channel-surfer in control of the remote would have on another viewer: the blurring of story lines, different faces and times, scattered observations in one continuous loop. Sitcom, melodrama, documentary, arts: on TV it all blurs, and little of it is memorable. Like the banality of television programming, it the mundane that occupies the narrator's life. And he is okay with that. Success, the narrator says
"...couldn't be judged quantitatively by the number of pages one might have written, nor, it seemed to me, by the quality and scope of the more basic groundwork one might have laid. No, the best criterion for evaluating the success of a day's work, it seemed to me, was surely the way we have seen the time pass as we worked, the singular capacity the hours have demonstrated to take on the weight of our work, associated with the apparently contradictory impression that the time has flown by at great speed, heavy with the work we've accomplished, laden with that work's meaning, charged with all the experiences we've gone through, and yet, so incomparably light that we never so much as noticed it passing. That's what grace is, it seemed to me, that mix of fullness and lightness, which you can only experience in certain privileged moments of your existence, moments of writing or love." (p. 91)

The narrator also says:
"Television is formal beyond all seems to flow along hand in hand with time itself, aping its passage in a crude parody where no moment lasts and everything soon disappears, to the point where you might sometimes wonder where all those images go once they've been broadcast, with no one watching them or remembering them or retaining them, scarcely seen at all, only momentarily skimmed by the viewer's gaze. For where books, for instance, always offer a thousand times more than they are, television offers exactly what it is, its essential immediacy, its ever-evolving, always-in-progress superficiality." (p. 95)

It is the mundaneness of life that skims his existence in an 'always in progress superficiality' that allows his life to speed by with lightness and grace, like the flicker and hum of the TV. The best way to watch television actively, the narrator explains, "is with your eyes closed." (p. 97) And that is how he chooses to live.

There's more to read about Toussaint's Television at The LitBlog Co-op where Television was the Spring Read This! selection. (As usual, I'm a few weeks behind...."Television Week" was a few weeks ago, but you can still read the all of the interesting posts and comments.) Max Magee, of The Millions, wrote here and Anne Fernald of Fernham wrote here about the narrator as a slacker, and whether this makes him a hero or anti-hero. Max argues convincingly for hero. But, like Anne, I can't help but project my workaholic tendencies on the narrator. Yet, I understand him. The thing is, though, I think that if I didn't have that overachiever's work ethic, I would be just like the narrator, drifting aimlessly in the swimming pool, except I might just drift away permanently like those broadcast messages that disappear.

Television, Jean-Philippe Toussaint. 1997. Translation by Jordan Stump, 2004. Dalkey Archive Press. 164 pp.


chiefbiscuit said...

Sounds a little like me at the moment! Maybe it's a book that doesn't know what kind of a book it wants to be - or a writer who can't make up his mind just what kind of a book he's writing. Thanks for the review - interesting and very well-written - that's my review of your review! :)

Dorothy W. said...

I put this one on my TBR list because of the all the very interesting discussion about it, so now I have another reason to look at it -- although with all I have to read, I'm not sure when! But thanks for the review.