Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Geoff Dyer's new novel has received high profile reviews in all the big spots lately. I've been waiting to read these reviews until I finished the book (which I did on Saturday), but I thought I'd write down a few of my thoughts on it before seeing what the critics had to say.

I rarely read "current", as in just released, fiction, but I was lucky enough to acquire a castoff review copy, I was curious about Dyer, and the premise sounded interesting. Being unaccustomed to reading books set in the two-thousand-oughts, I kept getting little shocks from references to iPods and other features of contemporary life. I suspect that these references have a purpose, though, as one of many devices Dyer uses to both link and create contrast between the two halves of the novel and the two cities in which they take place, Venice and Varanasi (aka Benares, India). In the first half, the often comic up-to-dateness of the art scene (and scenesters) at the Venice Bienniale is played against the city itself, which is perceived as unchanging, timeless from the point of view of the narrator, Jeff, resident of ever-changing London. In the second half, he discovers what timelessness means from an Indian viewpoint in Varanasi, gradually shedding his technology and other links to the West and adopting his own quirky version of the Hindu mindset.

The two-part structure of the novel is one of its most interesting features. The linkages between the two halves are everywhere. There are premonitions, hints of Varanasi in Venice, while the Varanasi section seems haunted by a specific version of Venice, Thomas Mann's in Death in Venice. From the reference in the title to plot points and specific quotes, picking out all the parallels to Mann's novel could keep a Cliff's Notator busy for some time.

Both halves of the book are quite funny. Dyer lands sharp jabs at art world types, the hassles of international travel, crunchy backpackers, and if we assume that there is a lot of Geoff in Jeff, himself. Beneath the jokes and satire there is a sadness, an emptiness to Jeff that allows his story to take on weight and become more and more involving at it goes along. By the end of the novel, Dyer has led Jeff to a place we might not have expected at the close of the Venice section, a place far away from where he began and much farther than the mere distance from London to Varanasi.

A great pleasure to read. Highly recommended.


I almost bought a used copy of Dyer's jazz book But Beautiful a couple months ago. I'll definitely seek it out now. The sections on Indian music in Jeff in Venice certainly suggest that he's someone I'd want to read on jazz.

For a more sombre but very beautiful rendering of some of the same themes (perhaps also inspired by Mann), I recommend Jose Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

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