The novel's first half follows Jeff Atman, a discontent freelance journalist for Kulchur magazine, to Venice on assignment at Biennale, a multi-day, international art exhibition. Through Atman, Geoff Dyer captures the spirit of the festival, or at least the freelance journalist's view of it:
"That was the thing about the Biennale: it was a definitive experience... You came to Venice, you saw a ton of art, you went to parties, you drank up a storm, you talked bollocks for hours on end and went back to London with a cumulative hangover, liver damage, a notebook almost devoid of notes and the first tingle of a cold sore."
And Atman's experience is exactly that. At his first Biennale party, he hits it off with a beautiful woman named Laura and then spends the next several days face down in drink, drugs, and various portions of Laura's anatomy. It's a dive into the carnal deep end, brief and disorienting. Laura leaves Venice with a mention of a planned trip to Varanasi, and Jeff is left alone, bewildered.
This is an observation, not a criticism. Dyer has always blurred the edges between fiction and nonfiction, but his celebration of the sublime in both the mundane and the exotic is made palatable if not delicious by his facile hand. The bits about Varanasi are the best parts of Dyer's dyptich, often beautifully written and incisive:
If you enter Dyer's novel expecting some sort of narrative arc, some plot, some connection to arise between Jeff in Venice and the narrator in Varanasi, you'll be disappointed. As in his previous work, Dyer eschews convention and exhibits near endless capacity for rumination. Expect that, and the author's funny and perceptive prose stylings make Jeff in Venice an entertaining, if not illuminating, experience.