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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

By Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer’s new work is very much a book of two halves. Indeed, he was going to subtitle it ‘a diptych’, until his inner editor prevailed in its judgment of such a move as pretentious. Still, the structure of the new novel may prove disconcerting to some, reading more like two novellas than one novel.
The first ‘Jeff in Venice’ half is familiar Dyer territory: it features a third-person male narrator, Jeff, who is much the same age and height as Geoff, and works as a freelance arts journalist just like Geoff. ‘Junket Jeff’ goes to Venice for the 2003 Biennale, gets wasted on bellinis, grass and cocaine, and clicks with a very attractive, younger Californian gallery worker, Laura, with who he has an intensely carnal, hedonistic fling.
So, for the second ‘Death in Varanasi’ sequence, you are set up to expect some kind of continuation of Jeff and Laura's relationship elsewhere. Instead, you get a first-person narrative from an unnamed narrator, who may or may not be Jeff (it's never made explicit, though you tend to assume they are one and the same) who accepts a travel writing gig to the holy city of Varanasi at the mouth of the Ganges in India. It's not even clear whether the second half chronologically follows the first. By the time you realise that ‘love interest’ Laura isn't going to reappear, that she's been abandoned mid-book, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed.
Dyer has explicated his methodology, rather fancifully, thus: ‘Just as everyone is an avatar of someone else in Hindu myth, so the characters are different incarnations of each other.’ Whatever; what is certainly clear is that what we have here is an attempt to write prose fiction that is not narrative-driven, that favours the byways of digression over a well-planned, or well-plotted, journey.
Consequently, although the slacker laureate, as he has been dubbed (it is surely something of a misnomer, since few ‘slackers’ are as prolific as he) has this time produced a work of what is ostensibly billed as fiction, his fourth to date, don’t be fooled: classification is always tricky with Dyer, as he is as adept at critical essay, reportage and travelogue as he is at fiction (if not more so), but happiest when fashioning them all into something entirely his own. This assertion, coupled with the diversity of his interests, is evidenced across a back catalogue which includes titles which range from: Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger; The Missing of the Somme; Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D. H. Lawrence; Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures, 1984-99; What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney; Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It; The Ongoing Moment, an idiosyncratic history of photography; and But Beautiful, an astoundingly wonderful synthesis of fact and fiction, with a penetrating critical essay as a coda, described by Keith Jarrett as, ‘The only book about jazz I have recommended to my friends.’ There aren’t too many John Berger enthusiasts who are also interested in the First World War, D. H. Lawrence, jazz and photography. The downside of this magpie-mindedness, if there is one, is that because non-fiction for him is just another location on the fiction continuum, his fiction proper (forgive the crude categorisation) can feel a bit samey and lightweight. Again, Dyer on Dyer: ‘I do understand my limitations as a fiction writer, which is why my novels are always going to be close to home.’
In his defense it might be argued, with reference to writers who are connoisseurs of their own consciousness from Montaigne to Barthes: why bother trying to make stuff up, when your own preoccupations and obsessions, and what you make of them, are so riveting? Besides, no one actually believes in the elaborate fictive worlds created by the likes of Henry James anymore. (Jeff in Venice at one point compares himself ironically with ‘…some sad fuck in a Henry James’ novel.’) Novels are so over: read Geoff (Jeff) Dyer instead.

 

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What we have here, I suppose, is a superior sort of Bloke Fiction, a male equivalent of the better class of Chick Lit. Thus, if Jeff is a bit like Geoff, he is also a bit like me. Jeff on freelancing: ‘If it were a proper job, I’d pack it in and do something else, but freelancing is the something else that you do after you’ve packed in your job so my options are kind of limited. It’s that or retirement – from which it is at times pretty much indistinguishable.’ Hey, I can identify with that. This being the Biennale, there is also some fun and penetrating contemporary art criticism too: ‘Extraordinary – there was all this art and yet there was very little to see, or very little worth looking at anyway. Some of it was a waste of one’s eyes. Good. Because even though there was nothing to see, there was a lot of it to get round and Jeff had to at least poke his nose in at everything. Quite a bit of the work on display could have been designated conceptual, in so far as the people looking at it were conceived as having the mentality of pupils at junior school. Fair enough, except most of it looked like it was made by someone in primary school, albeit a primary school pupil with the ambition of a seventeen-year-old Russian whose widowed mother had saved every ruble to get him into a tennis academy in Florida. The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.’
Even in Varanasi, the lack of Laura is compensated for by the excellent travel writing, and the new friends made. Hinduism is ‘the Disney of world religions’, and there follows a disquisition on the superiority of polytheism to monotheism. ‘There is no God but God, says the one place. There are millions of them, says the other.’ By the time our charming narrator starts losing it spectacularly, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for him, whoever he is.
Lots of guys who scribble would give their right arms to be Martin Amis, or some other supposedly serious great mind grappling with the weighty issues of our time. Me, I wouldn’t mind being Geoff Dyer. With his deft insight and lightness of touch, he makes the self-important overachievers look rather foolishly earnest. What a great travelling companion – if we weren’t all lonesome travelers.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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