Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Jeff im Venice, Death in VaranasiWhat’s up with Geoff Dyer’s new novel?

There’s little narrative tension let alone follow-through on actions.  And Dyer lacks emotional commitment to the narrator Jeff Atman in Venice and the unamed Varanasi narrator (who obviously is Jeff Atman from Venice), exuding neither sympathy nor disdain or anything in between. 

What he does give us is witty commentary that attempts to impart good-life bad-life enlightenment. Jeff’s self-effacing “I’m not a player in the art world” attitude and self-confessed lack of ambition or purpose in life, which “meant that you clutched at whatever straws came your way,” are rich fodder.

Upon arriving at Venice’s Biennale, the city’s major international contemporary art exhibition, British middle-aged Jeff meets gorgeous young American Laura, who becomes his focus for the rest of the week, not the art.  Sex (erotic), cocaine (occasional) and alcohol (constant) define his days with the beautiful Laura wearing beautiful dresses, much to the neglect of his Biennale assignment from Kulchur magazine.

This London writer is suppose to interview the 50ish former sex symbol, reclusive Julia Berman, who once had an affair with globally successful artist Steven Morison.

Laura and Jeff part ways at the end of the Biennale, and we turn the page, never to hear of Laura again or of what happened with Jeff’s flubbed assignment. We next enter Death in Varanasi

Here the narrator is unnamed but, being he’s a free-lancer with the same characteristics as Jeff in Venice, it’s an easy assumption that Jeff-of-the-loose-Biennale-life is now on assignment in India’s sacred city Varanasi. Difference is that he’s now being influenced by the city’s spiritual roots, living in poverty, wandering the streets, gazing with holy men and bathing in the River Ganges, obviously a man still clutching at straws coming his way.

All in all, his time in Varanasi is a cleansing of the soul that unfolds as we turn each undramatic page

And that’s about it for this book. It borders on being a bore, but here’s the catch: Dyer’s cleverness teases us along, much like a clever friend that drops the occasional hilarious line or gem of wit. You want to be around that friend just for the cleverness, and that’s the appeal of this odd book that’s mildly entertaining in Venice and surprisingly tolerable in Varanasi.

Dyer’s previous  work includes 10 books, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I hear they’ve won him many fans, which makes me think Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is not the best book to be the introduction to Geoff Dyer, as it was for me. Despite the cleverness, it’s not a fan-maker.