Some describe Toussaint as a novelist fascinated by goofy situations, so fascinated that he writes them as if they’re the most normal in the world. “When I began to spend my afternoons in the bathroom I had no intention of moving into it,” begins this novel’s nameless narrator. Naturally, he’s moved into the bathroom. A bit of activity swirls around him as he settles into his lavatorial routines, though he’d rather it didn’t. He receives a letter of invitation from the Austrian embassy; though certain it came by mistake, he nonetheless fantasizes about the Soirée it announces. His girlfriend Edmondsson, an art gallery employee, hires a couple of Polish painters exhibited by her workplace to paint the apartment. The painters don’t seem to do much painting, spending most of their energy instead on struggling to skin a pile of octopuses.
If life has driven you into bathroom exile, suddenly taking off for Venice presumably doesn’t seem so bad an option. The entirety of “The Hypotenuse” takes place there, where the narrator goes “abruptly, without telling anybody.” One obvious interpretation says that, fed up with the Polish painters and their squids by the end of the first section, the protagonist flees for the Continent and then returns toward the end of the third. But is that really the chronology? Reflecting on the book, I do wonder. The Venice segment could, in the chronology of the story, actually be the earliest. In other words, the Venice trip comes first, then he moves into the bathroom, then — and this would be the text of the first section — he reflects on the events of his bathroom days before the painters show up.
We won’t settle this here. Hell, since I’ve never heard anyone else bring up this issue of multiple interpretations, I might well be wrong about it even being an issue in the first place. What’s not in doubt is the protagonist’s action in the 75th chunk of the middle section, when the visiting Edmondsson has been spending her days at various Venetian cultural attractions and the isolated protagonist has been spending his running imaginary international darts tournaments:
Edmondsson found me a bore. I let her talk and went on with my darts game. She asked me to stop and I didn’t answer. I was sending darts into the target, stepping up to pull them out again. Standing in from of the window, Edmondsson stared at me. Again, she asked me to stop. I hurled a dart at her with all my strength, and it stuck straight in her forehead.
This reads as somewhat less horrific moment than it sounds, but, if we’re going to bring up Camus again, it does have a certain Meursault-shooting-the-Arab flavor. Both characters commit their acts of violence suddenly, out of what appears to be nothing more than irritation. (“When The Bathroom’s narrator throws a dart at Edmondson’s forehead,” Toussaint said in one interview, “I understand his gesture and I find it unforgivable, all at once.”) Yet whereas Meursault’s shot lands him on the 1940s Algerian equivalent of death row, The Bathroom dude’s stray dart seems to bring no discernible major consequences at all. You can call this bad storytelling — maybe it is — or you can call this a crock of Frenchy bullshit — maybe it is — but the dart incident goes on less as a driver of the plot than as a sort of spill that seeps into the very fabric of the story. It potentially has many effects on the text before and after, and if it does, they’re near-invisibly subtle.