Television – Jean-Philippe Toussaint

by ohshillings

The protagonist of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s fifth novel, Television (2005), has given up TV – “cold turkey, once and for all, never to watch another show, not even sports”. Why? He’s not entirely sure, though he optimistically believes he can devote his newly liberated time to academic work: a monograph on Titian, inspired by an apocryphal story of Charles V handing the artist a dropped paintbrush in his studio. Throughout the course of the novel, however, he never progresses beyond the opening phrase, “When Musset”. He spends hours arranging the objects in his study, only to leave the house and go swimming, or flying with a friend’s student across the Berlin cityscape. He claims these leisurely adventures to be part of “a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind”, but he’s fooling nobody. This is not a book about withdrawal or obsession or society’s addiction to television. It’s a book about something that anybody who has ever tried to do anything for any period of time will have sympathy with: procrastination.

Indeed, the narrator’s relationship to television, monomaniacal as we might expect it to be, is constantly and comically undercut by Toussaint. Halfway through the novel, when we assume the hero to have been valiantly resisting temptation for months, he mentions in passing that it has almost been 24 hours. He phones his pregnant wife – holidaying in Italy with their son – and announces his resolution, only to receive an indifferent reply: “Yes, we don’t watch much TV here either”. Toussaint makes it clear that the act of abstinence is not nearly as epic as the narrator might consider it; the viewing habits of the book’s characters never resemble the pathology obvious in Videodrome or Baudrillard, say. In fact, the narrator is a pretty half-arsed philosopher on the subject of television. His musings on collective behaviour, simulacra and simulation are intermittent, underwhelming, hardly profound. His later diagnosis of TV as a “disease” doesn’t hold much water: no character is portrayed as addicted or malformed as a result of owning or watching television.

Indeed, Television is a novel curiously lacking action or drama. If Toussaint is, in Tom McCarthy’s words, a writer of the “nouveau nouveau roman”, then in this novel he abandons the traditional strictures of plot – twists, tensions, a denouement etc – in a much softer manner than his radical Francophone forebears. The narrator and his wife are separated geographically, but not romantically; he encounters a possible burglar on the stairs of his apartment block, but his reaction is one of embarrassment rather than alarm. The greatest threats he faces are an old tutor encountering him swimming nude, or accidentally leaving a neighbour’s prized fern in the fridge. The result would hardly make for high-octane TV. However, as a study of scholarly timewasting, Television manages to exert its own captivating and comedic charm.