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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

by Geoff Dyer

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Jeff in Venice Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
© Doubleday
Though it purports to be a single novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is actually two novellas, each surrounding a middle-aged English journalist under very different circumstances.

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.
The novel's second half is distinct from the first, narrated by an unnamed middle-aged journalist freelancing for the Telegraph. Perhaps this is Jeff, but we never really find out, and it doesn't actually ever seem to matter. The narrator is sent to Varanasi, India's holy city on the Ganges River, to write a travel piece, and ultimately, this latter half of the novel is exactly that. With the exception of the narrator's gradual unraveling and assimilation - the shaving of his head and eyebrows and his invention of a kangaroo god named Ganoona - the Varanasi piece smacks familiarly of the drug-embellished travel essays Dyer collected in Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It.

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:
"What a clean and dull planet it would be if everywhere became a suburb of Stockhom, where citizens queued patiently and the cash machines dispatched crisp, high-denomination, fraud-proof notes, where there were no elephant-headed gods who rode around on mice, where there were no beggars waving their bandaged, pus-stained stumps in your face, no janitors claiming they were priests, no cows solemnly manuring the streets, no monkeys running riot and no kids scrounging rupees?"

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.
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