The Bathroom

Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Sometimes when you’re stuck with a book you can’t get into and can’t let go of, the best thing that can happen is to stumble upon something else that will give you the route to move on to the next one. In this case, I’d been carrying around Zadie Smith’s On Beauty for several weeks, untouched beyond the first twenty pages, before a stoop-side giveaway presented this novella as an alternative. While the integrity of unfamiliar books abandoned to the dangers of the street is inherently suspect, tastes are subjective. And I did come to The Woman in the Dunes through a box of books left on a street.

The Bathroom is written in such short sections that the numbered paragraphs appear to be a list, totaling up the absurd feelings and actions of the unnamed narrator who, for a time, decides to stay in his bathtub indefinitely. Because he likes reading there. It’s not exactly a plot-less story, but the plot points often feel more like silent film gags than narrative arcs — like how the two Polish men who his girlfriend hires to paint the kitchen instead spend the day struggling to skin a mound of octopuses. Even when the narrator doesn’t just leave his bathtub in Paris but departs abruptly to Venice, where he holes up in a hotel playing darts, nothing actually changes in terms of his incalculable alienation. As Colin Marshall wrote on the Millions, “[Toussaint] eschews shades of gray, but he places so many black and white extremes so near to one another that, if you step back, they look like gray.” (See Darts and Philosophy, Bowling and Metaphysics for more about Toussaint’s oeuvre.)

For me this book was the perfect palette cleanser, with its humorous tone and unexpectedly philosophical underpinnings. I finished it in a few days and then jumped directly into 1Q84 — the just-released, paperback edition in three easy-to-carry volumes.