Boston Globe Book Review: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’ by Geoff Dyer

June 20, 2009 at 7:40 pm Leave a comment

Exploring life, and all its madness

Geoff Dyer's new novel is set in Italy and India. Geoff Dyer’s new novel is set in Italy and India. (Jason Oddy)
By Ted Weesner Jr. Boston Globe Correspondent
In properly versatile hands, the loose baggy monster that is a novel can be made to demonstrate its manifold versatility. Or, as writer Geoff Dyer might put it, were he to continue to channel his karma-tuned protagonist in “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” a novel’s true versatility becomes evident only when one is convinced of its complete and utter bagginess.

Which is to say that this British writer – master of multiple genres, including the essay, cultural study, novel, and travelogue – has packed this particular casing with a lot of varied cuts and yet managed to produce a memorable taste event. The last 20 pages approach magnificence: a virtuosic melding of style and repertoire that come together as a sort of yogic “one.”

As suggested by the title, the novel is divided down the middle, the first half set in tourist-soaked Venice, the second in death-tinged Varanasi, India. Jeff, the protagonist and point-of-view character, is a jaded, 40-something arts journalist who’s covering the Biennale in Venice over a very hot summer weekend.

Then along comes a lovely American named Laura, who is predictably elusive. Dyer amps the elusiveness by claiming neither of them has a cellphone. Even if this ratchets up suspense – all encounters must be left to chance – it’s about as buy-able as finding a tourist-free trattoria in the City of Canals.

Luckily, Laura doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to seduce. With Dyer’s great ear for flirtation, the two banter famously. In a sense she’s the female equivalent of Jeff. She’s got some “life” under her belt. And yet through the thin air of an uncommitted life, Jeff falls for Laura. It’s hard to know whether this amounts to more than passing fancy, because Dyer cuts to Varanasi, and Laura vanishes from Jeff’s mind.

If there’s an engaging undercurrent to the Venice section – beyond Dyer’s highly atmospheric rendering of the city and spot-on portrayal of the chic/shallow art set – it’s Jeff’s struggle with his evaporating youth. In the style of Gustav Aschenbach, an earlier visitor to Venice in Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, Jeff dyes his hair for the visit.

Then, in India, his dance with mortality picks up as Dyer raises the travelogue ante, bringing the holy, filthy, mesmerizing city of Varanasi to fetid, rhapsodic life. Jeff’s listlessness starts to feel dire: “I sat on the bed and did not know what to do, and then I decided that not knowing what to do was a form of knowing what to do, which was to do nothing, so that is what I did.”

When Jeff truly goes off the rails, Dyer’s writerly versatility braids into something madly compelling as the narration becomes comically and tragically unreliable. For the first time one genuinely feels the character’s plight, his increasing undone-ness.

Yes, death and deprivation are everywhere in Varanasi, though where it’s usually at the far end of a tourist’s camera, Jeff begins to live it. Roosting in a strange hotel, he starts to renounce just about everything. Instead of dyeing his hair, he gets it shaved off (eyebrows and beard included). To the astonishment of visiting Westerners, he takes dips in the polluted Ganges and turns to worshiping his own version of a Hindu god. Finally, here, we’re in the grips of a core-shaken character. Where before we’ve enjoyed the sights along with the protagonist, in the novel’s last quarter the viewfinder is ripped from a reader’s hands, and we’re no less devastated than he is.

Ted Weesner Jr. is a writer living in Somerville.

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.
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Entry filed under: Fiction. Tags: , , , , .

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