We’re All Living in the Bathroom Now

Lessons in quarantine from Jean-Philippe Toussaint's debut novel, in which a man moves into his tub

Photo by Emanuela Franchini

When I was nine, I sat on an Amtrak somewhere in Northwest Montana, melting into my coach seat. Another train had derailed ahead of us and so we’d stopped among tall and dry grass for more than six hours. Every hour that passed seemed to stretch out relentlessly. We began to wonder if we would ever start again, or if we would be relegated to this train car while the world spun outside us. 

My mom and I, in preparation for our trip from Chicago to Whitefish, had packed a case full of movies and a portable DVD player. I’d already finished the copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret my mom had gifted me (this book changed me, she’d said). We were running out of Gilmore Girls, burning through hours while remaining a fixed distance away from our destination.

Our time inside the train didn’t seem to match up with the time outside. The sun trailed across our cabin window and then disappeared. We bought more Maruchan from the dining car and ate it sitting criss-cross-applesauce. When we finally did start moving, we sank into our seats with the knowledge that we’d wasted time, time that hadn’t gotten us anywhere, that hadn’t brought us any closer to anything. Amtrak’s estimated time of arrival no longer mattered—the timetable we’d worshipped was irrelevant. 

We sank into our seats with the knowledge that we’d wasted time, time that hadn’t gotten us anywhere, that hadn’t brought us any closer to anything.

I was mildly disturbed, beyond the taunting boredom, that a whole day had circled the drain. As a young kid, I valued structure; a plan was immovable, and the mere prospect of being late drenched my chest with molten lead. Spontaneity is a muscle I’ve only recently begun to stretch. On the train, time I hadn’t accounted for wedged itself between my Today and my Tomorrow. The control I thought I had over this small chunk of my life had been rendered completely arbitrary—the derailed train didn’t care that I was rapidly approaching my last DVD, or that I hadn’t showered in three days, or that I was anxiously picking at my skin because the conductor hadn’t answered any of my questions.

As an only child, I was content in spells of seclusion. I used to play in my room for hours in the early morning, my dolls bobbing in and out of the patches of sunlight spilling across the hardwood. In college, I spent listless days in my home, cycling through albums and reminding myself to drink water. Some people tell me this is introversion, or because I’m a Taurus moon or something. Either way, it was the choice I relished—to partition myself off from the world, and re-enter it when I was ready. I grew comfortable with inactivity, but that is not the same as enforced stasis. The former wasn’t confinement because I’d sought it out, and I could leave when I wanted to. But I couldn’t leave that train—we weren’t even allowed to stand outside—and there was no telling when I could.

The Bathroom, the first novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, follows a man who wishes to be utterly still. The narrator wants to live within a pause; he moves through the world reluctantly, reclining into a fugue state and uninterested in escaping it. He stops people in a hurry and asks them for directions, manufacturing a halt in time where there would normally be none. He is concerned with images of immobility: a broken clock’s unmoving hand, the blocks and lines of a Mondrian print. 

The narrator, craving this stasis for himself, moves his entire life into his bathroom. He reads in the bathtub, eating flaky pastries in the sloping enamel; he leaves occasionally to visit the kitchen, which is being painted by some Polish men, only to return to the soothing space. His lover, Edmondsson, calls his parents because she is worried. Later, upon traveling to Italy from his home in France, he insists on remaining largely within the hotel, while Edmondsson visits art galleries and museums. The narrator is drawn to these liminal spaces, which one is intended to pass through. The bathroom, he says, is “where [he] felt best.” 

I am more of an Edmondsson: I question the point of traveling if not to explore, as I question the point of an entire home if you can live happily within one room. But I understand the ache for things to stop. In high school I experienced bouts of depression, during which I slept on the couch instead of my bed. I was crying one night, unable to stop; I was sad, and my bed was making me sad, and the walls were making me sad, and so was the floor. My mom gathered the blankets and carried them into the living room, spread them over the couch. I slept there for months. Part of the sofa’s comfort was that it functioned in however way I needed it. It was both transient and eternal, always there yet without the pressure of my bed, which seemed to mock me. I could return to my room when I wanted to, when I was ready. 

And I did. I slept in my bed again, and then I moved away and slept in a different bed, and then away again. My periods of sofa-sleeping, as most of my depressive episodes, were marked by lack of control—the world swirled around me and I couldn’t touch any of it. To move into a bathroom, or onto a couch, is not to achieve physical, but emotional stasis. But it’s only a respite when it’s elective. 

I am in some version of the Doldrums, involuntarily sloth-like; nothing is happening, yet everything is.

I wonder what it means to be still, beyond physicality, now. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I feel I am in that train car again, time hurtling past me while I can do nothing to catch it. I am in some version of the Doldrums, involuntarily sloth-like; nothing is happening, yet everything is. I cannot piece together one day from another. I can’t sleep on my couch because I don’t have it, but it wouldn’t even matter if I did. The chaos is internal.

Perhaps The Bathroom’s narrator has progressed beyond me. He moves into his bathroom because he knows there is no real reason not to—it makes him feel good. The novel offers stasis as a philosophy of life, and the narrator leans into it rather than running away. Confronted with a character who finds stagnation comforting, my own instincts reveal themselves: I desire pauses only when I know life will resume. 

The Bathroom is unbothered by questions of logic. Separated into numbered sections, the structure subverts traditional narrative. The numbers progress and then stop, only to start again; the last page is the same as the first. There is no order here, no instructions, no true historical timeline. But of course, everything is always happening at the same time. Most traditional novels manipulate time in order to extract order from life—fiction, writing, is distortion in that way. It is satisfying, and often stunning, to see a story unfold ahead of you, every detail accounted for, every word pushing the narrative forward and leading to its inevitable conclusion. The Bathroom does not care for this sequence, even though the reader expects it; indeed, it’s even more effective because the reader expects a linear plot. Instead, it leans on oddness and idiosyncrasy, and its disorder resembles something like life.

From when I was a young reader, I’ve been tempted to consider myself in literary terms. When I was in high school I fell victim to the solipsism of imposing narrative devices on my life: I was the protagonist, every experience was character development. This is unfair—to myself, but also to the world, which contains so many lives, so many experiences that do not follow narrative arcs, that expand beyond an author’s dictation. 

I am afraid of those times from which we can derive no meaning.

Like many writers, I am desperate to feel like my life is worth something, desperate to excavate meaning from events and people. I want to extract sentences from days. I am afraid of those times from which we can derive no meaning. Perhaps we can’t assume ownership over our experience; perhaps all this life we live is ultimately just life. 

For the unnamed narrator, life is an endless cycle of thoughtless action and actionless thought. Typical psychology is removed, and characters’ self-reflection is replaced by instinctive and blunt dialogue. He insults a woman’s dress, mocks a friend’s home decor; he makes decisions without alerting the reader of his motivations. For him, days are inconsequential. Both the novel and the narrator insist on the void, the blissful ignorance of bothersome noise. 

Is that nihilistic? I don’t want to succumb to a void; I want to construct meaning and feel meaningful. But every day feels now to be a replication—I am reminded of Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych,” the series of silkscreen paintings repeating a publicity photograph of Marilyn Monroe. The image loses potency with every stamp, her face becomes just a whisper of what it was. My days begin and end the same way, bookended by coffee and Klonopin. The space within them is monotonous and eternal.

I have been tricked into thinking that every day carries me forward, that I am someone different now than yesterday, that my skin is new skin every seven years.

This past week has felt like one long day. I read and watch reality television and look forward to dinner and that is it. Due dates pass. I do my homework in my bed and it’s done and I send it along in an email and its entire life is just on my screen in little windows and boxes. I have been relegated to my bathroom; I live inside a train car. I have been tricked into thinking that every day carries me forward, that I am someone different now than yesterday, that my skin is new skin every seven years. I have been tricked into believing this was guaranteed, tricked by illusory progress. I am not owed this promise. I move as the world allows. 

The Bathroom expresses the absurdity of life: that disorder and randomness prevail. The narrator, staring out of his window at a downpour, watches one raindrop as it falls from the sky; he traces its path, calmly awaiting the moment it splatters against the pavement. The novel presses on the illusion that life gets you somewhere—and behind it we find the reality that life leads only to death, that existence eventually hits up against its opposite. We move like raindrops, hurtling toward the ground, and end in immobility. Whatever meaning exists is our own creation, and we can choose whether or not to worship it. 

I know now that I can’t trust life to continue at a particular pace in the same way I can’t trust Amtrak to arrive at a destination on time. It’s futile to move to my couch and plead with the world to stop spinning around me, some facsimile of Dorothy in the tornado. I can’t be promised safety. Every moment, I am vulnerable to depression, a pandemic, my train whining to a pause. No writer, not Toussaint or myself, can truly assume authorial control—for even when we try, we are thwarted by a word’s unruliness, by a number out of order, by a life that rejects reason.

The most dreadful part of being stopped was the not knowing—time dripped slowly on, filling a pool without walls.

Later in the novel, Toussaint’s narrator defines immobility, with which he is enamored, as “not absence of movement but absence of any prospect of movement.” It seems silly, now, to pine for something which has arrived. We wait for so many things: friends, family, farmer’s markets, concerts, a stability that isn’t this labored stasis. On the train, the most dreadful part of being stopped was the not knowing—time dripped slowly on, filling a pool without walls. 

I envy this narrator, whose stagnation is his own choice. People who are older than me are always saying that years will pass and I won’t notice and all of a sudden I will be their age without blinking an eye. Now all I am doing is blinking and noticing.

The Bathroom reminds me that I cannot trust logic, or expect every day to be meaning-making. The acceleration of the numbered passages presents the illusion of moving forward—through the novel, but also through life—which is why it feels so discomfiting when at the end, we arrive at the beginning. We assume that we will be guided by a logical linearity, that one step will propel us into the next. But though we have moved, through life and through time, we feel still. We have seemingly made no progress at all. 

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