I'm rather late jumping into the discussion here, a delay I attribute (without embarrassment) to the fact that I spent Monday, Memorial Day, not unlike Television's hero, floating placidly in a municipal pool. However, I wore no goggles, nor was I naked, which is not permitted (as far as I know, although I have not explored the possibility) in the State of Michigan.
I was, maybe uniquely among LBCers, especially delighted to see Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novel emerge as this quarter's Read This! selection. I've been reading Toussaint for 15 years, ever since his second novel, Monsieur, was published in English in 1991. (I still remember reading Ginger Danto's New York Times review, which is as nice an introduction as you can have. Though you should also see Warren Motte's essay in Context No. 12 for a broader view of this unique Belgian genius.)
Since then, I've read all four of his books that have made their way into English, each offered by a different publisher and translated by a different hand:
The Bathroom, 1990, Nancy Amphoux and Paul De Angeles, Obelisk
Monsieur, 1991, John Lambert, Marion Boyers
Making Love, 2004, Linda Coverdale, New Press
Television, 2005, Jordan Stump, Dalkey Archive
As you can see on the German-based Toussaint fansite (merci, Mirko), four books have yet to appear in English, including his latest, Fuir (Flight). Fuir won the prestigious Médicis Prize in 2005, and Toussaint has been popular in France and in other European countries for his entire career. But I can honestly say that in the 15 years I've read him, I've never met a single other Toussaint reader in the U.S. That is, until literary blogs came along, together with such Internet-age marvels as the Complete Review.
It was interesting to read Steve and Scott's thoughts on the parallels between the emotional detachment of Television's hero and the mediated experience of the world we receive through our TV sets. Very true, I think. But the hero of Television is not different than the heroes of Toussaint's other books -- they are all detached, emotionally muted, static, immeubles. They belong to a long line of literary resisters and refusers that Enrique Vila-Matas salutes in his novel, Bartleby and Co., although of a European strain that is less innocent than a Bartleby, and perhaps even with hints of a perversity typified by Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysman's Against Nature. But I guess I shouldn't presume to speak about the Toussaint books I haven't read. Maybe their heroes climb mountains and slay dragons. I doubt it. More likely, like the executive in Monsieur, they sit around eating paprika potato chips.
Even some of the situations in Television are essentially motifs or set-pieces that repeat themselves from book to book. When the hero's neighbors, hoping he'll take care of their houseplants, give him a tour of their apartment, I was reminded of the scene in the The Bathroom when the hero and his girlfriend receive a tour of their new apartment led by the former tenants. The hero also tours a new apartment in Monsieur. For Toussaint's heroes, nothing is stranger than other people's homes. Except possibly other people. Or, in fact, one's own self, if you really pay attention.
In several books, the hero finds himself talked into helping others with tasks he would rather not perform. (Unlike Bartleby, he doesn't seem capable of saying "I'd prefer not to.") Television's hero, with his plant-watering, gets off easy. In Monsieur, the hero is roped into writing a mineralogy text.
The true theme of Toussaint's books is the overwhelming strangeness of the ordinary world. For me, his novels are a remedy for the blindness we acquire through the dull repetition of everyday life, and the increasingly commodified and commercial nature of our language and the world we live in. I love them for their Keatonesque humor, which like Keaton's has a profound sadness at its base. How beautiful the world is, how awkward we are with the world and each other, yet how we manage to carry on despite it all.