One half is a Nick Hornby-esque embittered middle-aged man’s fleeting romance with a woman he meets at the Venice Biennale loosely based on “Death in Venice,” the other a classic white-dude-unraveling-in-a-foreign-country story á la Paul Bowles. Like all of Geoff Dyer’s work, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is exhaustively researched (the “Author’s Note” pages read more like a bibliography than anything else). References to Dean Young, Maughm, and, of course, Mann, are neatly tucked into passages, and most would probably go unnoticed if he didn’t point them out. Dyer, a self-proclaimed “academic gatecrasher,” seems to pride himself on this hybrid of semi-fictional and scholarly analysis. It makes sense, then, that his novel is part travelogue and part meta-fictional exercise in narrative structure. Maybe that sounds like pretentious trash (it seems like every new work of fiction is “meta”), but the characters’ effortless humor and the rapidly unfolding plot serve as a welcome spoonful of sugar to whatever structural tinkering and literary references Dyer expects his reader to swallow.
The first half opens with the misanthropic reporter Jeffrey Atman taking a break from agonizing over writing a think piece “intended to require zero thought from the reader and scarcely more from the writer.” Thus we are plunged into Jeff’s vitriolic universe as he boards a plane to the Venice Biennale to report on the art festival and do an interview with Julia Berman, the aging ex-lover of a famous artist, for Kulchur magazine. He sparks up a romance with the yellow-frocked Laura at an after-party and the two of them whirl through parties and hotel rooms having sex, chugging bellinis, and snorting cocaine. The tryst, like most travel romances, is bittersweet, and the two part ways at the end of the Biennale’s opening festivities. Laura, as a character, is nothing special; she seems to be almost a placeholder for any dream girl: witty, smart, sexy, and what is more, young. Dyer captures the name-dropping, party-hopping art festival world expertly, going so far as to describe a rushed excursion through the exhibitions. This is when we get a taste of Atman the art critic, as he categorically dismisses and approves of the works of art, hoping the whole time that he will run into Laura. Though his descriptions of Venice are more focused on the Biennale than anything else (for Dyer’s emphatic disquisitions on the Italian people, read Out of Sheer Rage), he still paints a scorching, crumbling city as a backdrop for the partying. Jeff’s trip, in the end, is a failure. He finds, but eventually loses, the girl; he interviews, but forgets to photograph, Julia Berman, and concludes his trip with a dazed, drugged out tour of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. “Jeff in Venice” ends with him sitting sullenly by a canal, staring at the sky, in a graceful literary dissolve into part two.
In part two we are thrown into a much different riverside world. The POV shifts from close third to first, as we follow a nameless reporter (possibly the same one?) through the ramshackle holy city of Varanasi, where he has been sent to write a travel article, but where he ends up staying for months. It’s jarring, the shift from boat parties and explicit sex scenes to descriptions of burning corpses and rotting marigolds; however, despite the geographical and cultural differences, similarities begin to bleed through. (In an interview with Amazon.com Dyer points out that he is not the first to notice the similarities between Venice and Varanasi, citing Ginsberg’s journals where he claims that when walking stoned by the Ganges he thought he was in Venice.) The reporter becomes as enraptured with religion and spirituality as Jeff was with Laura. While Jeff merely contemplated taking a swim in the canal, the protagonist in Varanasi begins to swim regularly in the Ganges, wears a dhoti, and immerses himself in Hinduism, even inventing his own Hindu god. The prose style of the second novella is more dreamy and mystical than Jeff’s caustic accounts of booze and drug addled Venice. Atman found a very fleeting calm in the land of Laura, open bars, and air-conditioned hotel rooms. The reporter in Varanasi learns to take comfort in squalor and seems to have achieved something between enlightenment and insanity.
So why is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi “a novel”? Separately, the two stories are lukewarm tales of angsty 40-something British guys in foreign cities, but when read together there are a million tiny strands of comparison you can thread between the two. Engaging in this exercise is one of the most enthralling parts of the work. Conversational asides, descriptions of the settings, and observations are echoed from one half of the book to another, as if one half has been dreamt by the other’s protagonist. The novel, with all its epigraphs, references, and meta-flaunting, is enough to make any grad student salivate; but the real thrust of the novel comes from Geoff, not Jeff, whose enduring personality and profoundly tongue-in-cheek musings on the art world, travel, and middle-age are the driving force behind this pair of stories.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is out now from Pantheon.