Book Review: Readings
Publisher:Dalkey Archive Press
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Nov. 12, 2004
Televisionby Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Dalkey Archive Press, 168 pp., $12.95 (paper)
In his half-dozen previous books, the French writer Toussaint has created a bevy of common heroes who painstakingly and humorously navigate the treacherous straits of everyday existence. In this delightful short novel, our protagonist is an academic on sabbatical in Berlin who, upon completing his research, cannot seem to get his thesis written. There are any number of legitimate distractions, among them a daily aquatic endeavor that provides some spot-on observations on the zen of swimming. Yet the recurring source of his procrastination is, of course, television in all of its insidious omnipresence.
Despite his having ostensibly quit cold turkey, there is no escaping its tenacious reach: surveillance monitors in a museum, his continued perusing of the TV guide, or the subject of his research, the painter Titian Vecellio, whose initials are subliminal but inescapable. Casually looking out the window of an apartment, he can't help but notice that every set in this decrepit, East German cinderblock housing complex is tuned to the same program, Baywatch. At other times, he finds himself at home or in a neighbor's flat, fascinated by a blank TV screen. His colleague, John, has given up TV, except when he's borrowing one from a friend and schlepping it home on his bike. Toussaint has a wonderfully wry, tart sense of humor that permeates this comical social satire. Procrastination is even a more universal theme here, with television as its primary manifestation. The author's ability to parse the minutiae of our daily lives and turn the banal into the extraordinary tells us a lot about ourselves as human beings in this crazy modern world.