Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television, a Novel features a thiry-something Parisian academic who, while spending a year in Berlin on sabbatical to conduct research on Titian, concludes that he watches too much TV and that it’s preventing him from completing his work. The novel begins with the anonymous narrator confiding, “I quit watching television. I gave it up cold turkey, once and for all, never to watch another show, not even sports.” He acknowledges, of course, that he waited until after the Tour de France to make this decision, and like many of us, speaks coyly about the depths of his addiction: “On average, I watched maybe two hours a day (maybe less, but I’d rather err on the side of generosity, and not try to puff myself up with a virtuously low estimate).”
The narrator’s decision provokes an entertaining, humorous, satirical meditation on TV’s role in our daily lives (Warren Motte aptly describes Toussaint’s work as “an epic of the trivial”). Mark Holcomb, in his Village Voice review, notes that Toussaint is “in DeLillo territory,” and that description seems especially apt when the narrator speaks about the endless streams of programs that play non-stop, whether the TV is running or not: “everywhere it was the same undifferentiated images, without margins or titles, without explanation, raw, incomprehensible, noisy and bright, ugly, sad, aggressive and jovial, syncopated, all equivalent.” Thus, for the narrator, TV prevents the quiet contemplation needed to engage in his scholarly work, as Joy Press points out in her New York Times review. Of course the narrator consistently finds ways around his self-imposed TV boycott, concluding that it doesn’t apply when he is visiting other people’s homes, ultimately justifying more frequent visits to a neighboring apartment where he is supposed to be caring for their plants (though he does a humourously poor job of fulfilling this rather simple task).
The novel is also an amusing satire of the solitary academic writer and the ways in which the narrator finds ways to avoid writing. Soon, a daily trip to the swimming pool becomes justified as work precisely because it is not writing, explaining to himself that he must let his ideas “gestate” before trying to put them on the page while they are still incomplete. There’s also a humorously uncomfortable scene in the novel when the narrator runs into the professor who awarded him the grant while sunning himself naked in a public park.
Throughout the novel, the narrator becomes acutely aware of television’s ubiquity, its overwhelming presence in daily life. In this regard, the novel seemed almost a fictional companion to Anna McCarthy’s Ambient Television, with Toussaint’s playful descriptions of surveillance monitors in a museum, apartment buildings lit entirely with the dull blue light of TV screens (all of which are tuned to Baywatch of course), an electronics stor that resembles a Nam June Paik sculpture, and the narrator’s own continued reading of TV listings. Despite the narrator’s renunciation of TV, however, Toussaint treats our TV “addiction” sympathetically, acknowledging its seductive pleasures while also noting its ubiquity in our daily lives.
But the strength of the novel, which can best be described as a picaresque of the everyday, is its episodic structure, with the narrative consisting of a series of disconnected fragments, just like…yes, you’ve guessed it, just like TV.