JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI by Geoff Dyer

Book Quote:

“Everything began as a joke–or some things did anyway–but not everything ended as one.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (AUG 22, 2009)

The main character of this novel, Jeff Attman, is a globe trotting art critic and journalist. But he hates his job, even hates writing, which can pose a problem for a print journalist. He keeps at it because it affords him the opportunity to use an expense account to do what he really loves: drink, take recreational drugs, chase women, drink more, occasionally exercise his rapier wit, use more drugs. You get the idea. He is fun loving and intelligent. He is a kick, the type of guy whose company you would probably enjoy, albeit in limited measures.

We follow Attman from London to Venice, where he is attending the city’s annual art festival, the Biennale. He is there on assignment for the art magazine Kulchure. He is to write an interview, take a picture of his subject and ask to borrow a drawing made of her by a former lover. He gets the interview, but fails at the other duties, which gives rise to self loathing and frustration. He simply hates everything, but for the aforementioned activities. And he hates himself. He feels that he has wrung his life dry. “It occurred to Jeff that he had entered the vague phase of his life. He had a vague idea of things, a vague sense of what was happening in the world, a vague sense of having met someone before. It was like being vaguely drunk all the time.” He is, as we say, simply going through the motions.

It is critical to understand the importance of his name, Attman. Atman, with one t, in Hindu philosophy is the name, the pronoun, for the essential self, the core of being. Atman, the pronoun, survives death and transmigrates to a new life. Attman, the noun, our man Jeff, is exhausted by his lifestyle, his work, his play and ultimately his own core being. This is important, because book two, Death in Varanasi, later finds our hero on the Ganges, as an individual undergoing a transformation. But let’s not rush out of Venice just yet.

Central to the story-telling of Jeff in Venice, is a wonderful cat and mouse romance between Jeff and a woman he meets at a Biennale party, Laura Freeman, a gallery manager. He falls for her instantly, and finds himself uncharacteristically stymied and dumbstruck: “A voice in his head was saying, Act normal, act normal, say something normal. Don’t act like a nutter.” They banter and it is fun:

“It’s a great dress,” he said. “But, frankly, it wouldn’t be anything without the shoulders. And most importantly of all…the collarbones.”

“Well, thank you again.” He had spoken honestly. Her shoulders were not wide; they were bony but strong-looking.

“I suppose I should return the compliment.”

“Please. Don’t feel you have to.”

“No, I want to. I really do.”

“Ok. Maybe the shirt.” He held out his arms, a gesture that was part display and part shrug.

“It is a nice shirt.”

“Thank you. Look, I know I had to drag that out of you, but, well, it’s my favorite shirt. I feel it’s so…”

“Blue?”

“No.”

“Wrinkled?”

“No. Though I admit I could have folded and packed it more carefully. No, the word I was looking for was ‘manly.’ Sorry, I shouldn’t have said it. You were right on the brink of getting it anyway.”

“Was I?” I thought I was going to say ‘cheap-looking.’”

We are happy for Jeff. He and Laura make such a nice couple. And they have ever so much fun having sex together, taking drugs and getting drunk, all of Jeff’s favorite sports. We keep waiting for the shoe to drop, for something to come along and mess everything up. A spouse, or work, a deception, anything–but it never does. They are a happy couple, genuinely–though not committed. And by the end of the Biennale, Laura is off to lands unknown. She is going to quit her gallery job and see the world. “The places everyone goes. South-East Asia. India.” At the end of Jeff in Venice, our hapless soul-searching journalist-critic is broken-hearted and desolate. He is empty. Jeff in Venice ends.

Then the story picks up again, an undisclosed amount of time later (one gets the sense it has been while), in India, in Varanasi, at the turn of the Ganges, where everything spiritual is reputed to have congealed. “Varanasi made going anywhere else seem nonsensical. All of time was here, and probably all of space too. The city was a mandala, a cosmogram. It contained the cosmos.”

The story changes voices. No longer do we have a narrator telling us what Jeff is doing; rather, he is driving now–first person narration–and informing us directly. This is important, as Death in Varanasi is all about that core being, Atman, of which only Jeff can convincingly inform.

Varanasi. He stays. In Jeff in Venice he dyes his hair, looking for an edge, a more youthful look (he is 45). In Death in Varanasi he cuts it, his hair, except for “a little pigtail at the back of the head, as I had seen on mourners.” And a bit later, he confesses, “I am mourning for myself.” Our hero, and indeed he now is one, having realized and striven to overcome his deficiencies and shortcomings, is on a path which will render his former self dead–thus the title–and deliver up a transformative being.

The second book gives us a depth of character in Jeff that is not readily apparent in book one. Yes, we recognize the Jeff of Venice to be sharp as a tack and funny. But we don’t realize the vacancy of being he is subject to. Nor do we have an appreciation of his ability to self reflect until he makes his way to Varanasi. There, we find him transformed from his previous Venetian self. “I didn’t renounce the world; I just became less interested in certain aspects of it, less involved with it…” I found the two books–or sections–simultaneously at odds, yet complimentary. The traditional reader in me wanted more of a narrative connection between the two; but the reader risk-taker liked the gap, as Dyer himself calls it. It was jazz-like, a riff where you know there is a connection, but can’t put your finger on it. Dyer said in an interview of the narrative distance between the two books: “Instead of papering over the gap, I’d accentuate it, make the two parts completely distinct. Instead of trying to make the narrative rope thicker and stronger, I’d just have these tiny, almost invisible filaments linking the sections, all these little echoes, chimes and rhymes.” It succeeded wonderfully in this fashion.

There is a quality to this story which I find immensely refreshing, a manner of spirit in the telling that gives one confidence and hope. It is not a stretch to say it makes one think that this is what Dostoyevsky would have written like had he actually had a good day. This is a wonderful book. A great and edifying story well told.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 76 readers
PUBLISHER: Pantheon (April 7, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Geoff Dyer
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Missing of the Somme

Others to check out:

 

And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Raymond + Hannah by Stephen Marche

The Story of My Baldness by Marke van der Jagt

Bibliography:

Nonfiction


August 22, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Drift-of-Life, Europe, India-Pakistan, Literary, Unique Narrative, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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