"I quit watching television." Thus begins this amusing, absurdist seventh novel by Toussaint (The Bathroom; Monsieur), in which an academic on sabbatical in Berlin struggles to shut off his set, only to become hyper-attuned to the medium's pervasiveness. With his pregnant girlfriend and son off to Italy on vacation, the unnamed narrator is free to devote himself to his monograph on Titian. Or so he believes, but he is distracted by doing nothing ("Doing nothing, contrary to what people rather simplistically imagine, is a thing that requires method and discipline") and exhausted by watching the French Open ("I was no longer physically up to five sets of tennis"), finally realizing that he must give up television. This doesn't help him make much progress on his monograph, but it does give him time to muse on his nonviewing: he reads the television listings, watches himself in the reflection of the darkened screen and realizes that Titian's initials are T.V. To read Toussaint's episodic, curiously mesmerizing tale is like channel surfing, as the narrator moves from precise descriptions of the "lacquered pedestal" on which the television sits to slapstick scenes of everyday life. Like a good producer, Toussaint knows when to roll the credits, and his short novel integrates sharp insight with gentle humor.
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Toussaint's humor is always welcome, especially in contrast to the seriousness of most recent French literature. Here his protagonist is in Berlin on a grant to write a monograph about Titian's German connections, but he is continually distracted by television. While his pregnant wife and child are traveling in Italy, he stops watching, but then begins to view the world as an ongoing TV show in which he half-participates. Neighbors ask him to water their plants while they are away, and he neglects the plants for weeks. His few interactions with others--including a naked walk through a clothing-optional park with his grant donor and Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom--are truncated, almost soundless, and entered unwillingly. He loosens his conception of "working" to the point where anything, including swimming laps, is considered valid, as long as he is thinking about his project. Toussaint's speaker's tone throughout is charmingly flat, with bursts of drollery, making this an easily digested but memorable walk through contemporary life. Max Winter
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