Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
Pantheon, 304 pp., $24.00
Halfway through Geoff Dyer’s new novel, its protagonist, an unmoored, sad sack of a London hack called Jeff Atman, wanders into Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco. He sits down with one of the large handheld mirrors the Scuola provides visitors for viewing — sans neck strain — an elaborate cycle of ceiling paintings by Renaissance master Tintoretto, and furtively dusts across its surface, and promptly snorts from same, a line of cocaine. The mirror here is notable not only because it suggests an improbably convenient new implement for aesthetes with a predilection for blow — “This made the art of the past really come alive,” the coked-up Atman notes — but because in putting it at the tail end of the book’s first section, Dyer playfully suggests what he’s up to in this masterful novel: fashioning two distinct narratives that, however superficially dissimilar they may at first appear, are in fact reflections of one another.
This is Dyer’s fourth novel, but we might as well also count it his fifth, its two discrete halves each capable of standing alone. The first concerns the aforementioned Atman, whose story is told in third person limited, and the second an unnamed first person narrator who may be Atman, but whose identity Dyer ultimately leaves ambiguous. Both protagonists are middle-aged British men, both are, with some ambivalence, writers, and both bear more than a passing resemblance to Geoff Dyer — as will be apparent to anyone who has dipped into, for instance, the darkly comic, closely observed personal essays posing as travelogues in his Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. Both characters are traveling, and end up in the nebulous territory that some call “finding yourself” and others “losing yourself.”
The curtain rises on Atman in London, mired in procrastination, opting to walk around the city rather than pound out a facile think piece about a contemporary art installation for one of the British dailies. A self-loathing journalist (“[L]ife on Planet Jeff was intolerable”; “However much he despised other people, when he did the math and added things up, Atman always found himself more despicable still.”) with a tendency to mumble to himself on the street, the brooding Atman sees one bright spot on an otherwise unrelievedly bleak horizon: he is headed to Italy in the morning, on assignment to write a celebrity profile during the art-world schmoozefest known as the Venice Biennale. To prepare for the trip, he does something unusual. A guy who ordinarily goes for a no-frills barber, he slips, on a whim, into a salon and “reinvents himself” by having his greying hair discreetly dyed.
It’s not an insignificant detail, considering that the novel’s title has already tipped us off to the fact that we’ll be in the company of Mann. In Death in Venice, the decrepit Aschenbach, smitten with prepubescent Polish aristocrat Tadzio, dyes his hair to recapture the glow of youth. In Jeff in Venice, the same cosmetic procedure signals a nod not only to Mann but, homophonically, to Dyer, for now we have “Jeff, dyer” presented by (and possibly standing in for) Geoff Dyer. No sooner has Jeff immersed himself in the “high-quality freeloading” that the Biennale’s many Bellini-soaked soirees represent for junketing journos the world over, than his Tadzio materializes in the gazelle-like form of Laura, a nubile 30-year-old Los Angeles gallerina. And Jeff — the hoary “at first sight” would not be out of place here — falls in love.
Jeff and Laura make the party rounds and, depending upon your interpretation, Jeff either descends into frivolous art world depravity (“I’m part of the drug-yacht scene!” he announces to himself with glee) and sexual decadence, or ascends to new heights of bliss, validation, and sexual fulfillment. (The sex with Laura is “an out of body experience”; “The last six or however many hours it was were like a concentrated version of everything he had ever wanted from life.”)
Section two picks up when an unnamed narrator is offered a gig for the Telegraph, a travel piece about Varanasi, the ancient Indian city on the Ganges where the dead, draped in chains of marigolds, are dipped into what some deem the holy – and others the fetid and trash-strewn – waters of the river before being cremated on open-air pyres. The narrator spends his days navigating the various temple-crested ghats, or stone stairways leading down to the Ganges’ edge, where he at first observes and eventually becomes a fixture of the place – like Mann’s Aschenbach at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido, he cancels his return ticket, moving into the Ganges View hotel – with its circus of squalor, beggars, holy men, 20-something dreadlocked western student tourists, dung-splattered cows.
The myriad unforced resonances between the novel’s two sections leave the greatest impression. Atman’s Laura sports a tattoo of a dolphin on her pelvis; a Dutch woman believes that dolphins cavort, improbably, in the Ganges. Atman “reinvents” himself via the aforementioned hair do-over; our narrator in Varanasi completes his transformation into a dhoti-wearing sort of holy-man manqué by having his head, beard, and eyebrows shaved. When Atman eats a banana, Laura tells him he looks like a monkey; when our narrator falls ill in Varanasi, he subsists on bananas, and is told by an acquaintance that he is “living like a monkey.”
Throughout the novel, Dyer anchors his narrative with acute powers of observation, whether it’s of something as mundane as a pastry — Jeff’s “almond croissant was the size and complexion of a small roast turkey” — or as otherworldly as Venice at night, viewed from the deck of a yacht. (“He held up his glass of champagne and looked through it at San Marco, bubbling away greenly like an underwater city.”) And he leavens its more wrenching events with moments of humor that are equally revelatory. The Varanasi narrator takes a boat to the other side of the Ganges, only to find horror on its bleak, barren shores: “A dead man. Was being chewed by two dogs. One was eating his left forearm, the other his wrist.” But he also trips on a potent bhang lassi, and has a philosophical conversation with a goat. (“Because I am goat I do not have tools to explain what it is to be goat.”) And he enters “hostage negotiations” with a monkey that has made off with his sunglasses.
Dyer is interested in the power of place — of these two places in particular, dominated as they are by disorienting, shimmering bodies of water — to throw his characters back on themselves. One of them finds love, however fleeting, amidst the preening narcissism of the Biennale; the other is finally able to get out of his own way, even if that means taking himself “out of the equation.”
It is the rare novelist who deals elegantly — at once with gravity and, if such a thing can be said to exist, serious levity — with such potentially new-agey notions as renunciation and transcendence. Here is Dyer’s narrator in Varanasi: “I didn’t renounce the world; I just became gradually less interested in certain aspects of it, less involved with it — and that diminution of interest was slowly reciprocated. That’s how it works. The world stops singling you out; you stop feeling singled out by the world.”
Sarah Douglas is an art journalist who has covered the Venice Biennale three times for various publications. She is currently a staff writer for Art & Auction.
Books mentioned in this review: