I don't think I'm alone when I say that I'm not quite sure what's so darn interesting about this book. Derik discussed the narrative voice and the repetition of the television motif--those are two great elements (especially the narrative voice) that definitely kept me involved, but Television still feels, to me, like a book about nothing.
It's a book that never really goes anywhere, but rather plays with our expectations that every novel we read will have some overarching theme or idea or plot. Take, for instance, the title "Television," a title that practically begs for interpretation. Before I'd even read the first page I was already projecting myself into the possibilities for a fiction named Television--maybe it will be a critique of what TV does to culture, maybe it will be about art in the age of television, maybe the narrator will end up on television.
But despite the title and the idea of a narrator that quits watching television, Toussiant seemed to not be interested in really discussing TV. Fine then. I kept reading and immediately took interest in the monograph that the narrator is working on. It's the story of a pivotal moment in art history, a perfect moment for a close reading, something that can act as a lens and reveal to us new things about art and politics. Not only that, but it's the perfect device for Toussaint to construct a narrative around.
But no, in the second half of the book the monograph is mostly forgotten.So I kept reading--there was the business with the narrator subbing in for his psychiatrist friend, the trip to the museum, the airplane ride, the pregnant wife returning from Italy. All of it had so much potential for, for . . . something. But no. In the end we're almost exactly back where we began, the narrator watching television and promising himself to get to work on his monograph.
It's very much a tease. When the narrator points out that Titan Vecellio's initials are TV, I so much wanted this to fit into place somewhere, for this fact to induce some greater meaning in the narrative as a whole. But now, months after I read the book, I'm still not quite sure what significance that coincidence is supposed to have. There are so many moments like this, moments when you would expect the elements to start coming together into some greater whole, but when, in fact, meaning continues to elude you.
And yet, for all this narrative and thematic frustration, the book is undeniably engrossing. I think the fun here is that Toussaint is continually leading us on, getting us right to the point where we'd normally expect him to drop that nice New Yorker-story epiphany, and then leaving us to our devices. Instead of him nudging us toward meaning, he simply gives us all the parts and leaves us to assemble a meaning as we will. Toussaint's abdication of the authorial right to instruct us, the readers, in the meaning of his work strikes a parallel with Toussaint's anti-hero who goes through life encountering all sorts of potentially interesting things, but, ultimately, just wants to be left alone.
And in the end, I think this makes the book Television very faithful to the machine television. All day long the TV bathes us in all kinds of images. In real life, the device is just as omnipresent as Toussaint makes it in his book (you try going a whole day without encountering one). Everywhere we are saturated with dramas, newscasts, sporting events. But what does it all add up to? What does it all mean?
Who knows, and yet the vast majority of people still watch it compulsively (in the book, Toussaint says only 3% of Europeans don't have a TV, and those people are homeless). Similarly, even though Television may frustrate our attempts to make meaning out of it, it remains strangely fascinating.