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Television Paperback – October 8, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
"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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Like Toussaint's novels _Monsieur_ and _The Bathroom_, Television is about a rather pathetic everyman-sort of protagonist. He gives up television (or so we think?). He can't begin to get past the first two words of his Titian monograph. He hangs out with his friend John Dory. He visits an art museum. He swims at a nude beach. John Dory and the protagonist take an airplane ride over the city. His neighbors are away on holiday, and they would like him to water their houseplants. He can't quite remember to do that. Ostensibly on a plant-watering trip, he watches television in their home, and rationalizes that he never meant to give it up completely (what if the Olympic 100M dash were televised, and he wished to watch that 10 seconds of broadcast? should he deny himself that? a measly 10 seconds?).
Toussaint's protagonist seems very likeable, very anti-heroic, and very human: warts, foibles, and all. The musings on television (as passive entertainment, as constant companion, as whatever) are not tiresome at all. They are a welcome complement to the plot, such as it is. Among Toussaint's special gifts is a reserve, a distance that he places between himself and the actions of his characters and scenes. At the same time, the minutiae of those scenes are vividly realized.
_Television_ is very funny, and it is quite well written.
Toussaint has become one of my favorite novelists. Highly recommended.
Toussaint's book is amusing at times, as when the writer runs into the man who gave him his grant money at a nude beach. And Toussaint writes very well about his narrator's failure to write:
"Sitting on the couch in the living room, I then began to muse on the little problem that had been occupying my mind on and off for what would soon be three weeks, which is to say the name I should give Titian in my monograph, and I tried to console myself for not having made a definitive choice by observing that, paradoxically, what would truly have justified the accusation of avoiding my work and enjoying an easy summer in Berlin would surely have been settling straight down to write without fully considering the question of the artist's name, and that in fact I had every reason to be pleased with myself for having, in a spirit of scholarly scrupulousness and perfectionism, maintained myself for nearly three weeks in a state of perpetual readiness to write, without taking the easy way out and actually doing so."
The best and funniest part of the book by far, however, is the drama connected with the narrator's agreement to water his neighbors' plants while they're away, a task he sees to with the assiduity he applies to his writing.
But for the most part the book drags, with a great number of episodes that don't seem to have much point to them except to underline that the narrator still isn't writing (e.g., the flight around Berlin, the trip to a museum). The book is short, but I found myself wishing it was shorter, or that a larger percentage of it had to do with watering plants.
-- Debra Hamel