The Limits of Experience: A Review of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

February 8, 2009

I was happy to hear that Geoff Dyer’s new book was going to take place in Varanasi, India, which is probably the most amazing city in the world. It is a profoundly chaotic place that mesmerizes pilgrims, tourists, and seekers from all across the globe. The entire city has the air of an ancient temple where the boundary between spiritual worship and daily life is imperceptible. Its sounds, smells, colors, and traffic are nearly impossible to describe or even understand. If anyone, I thought, Dyer could capture the magic and texture of Varanasi.

It turns out Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is only half about Varanasi (the rest, obviously, is set in Venice). He does do a characteristically good job of communicating the frenzied madness of the city. But what happens there, and in Venice too, is surprising. Or maybe disappointing. Instead of the romance, beauty, humor, and brilliant insight that I’ve come to expect in Dyer’s work, this book is—at first glance—bitter and cynical. Contagious, too. Instead of life and infinity it made me think about death and the limits of experience. It made me think about Paul Bowles.

***

The Sheltering Sky haunts me. Bowles’ most famous book is about Kit and Port, two rich and restless American dilettantes traveling with their equally obnoxious friend in North Africa soon after the end of World War II. Their marriage is painfully strained—it is clear neither is happy with the other, but they are alone in a very foreign world, locked together in a meandering partnership that takes them deeper and deeper into the desert. Rather than address their simmering frustrations they keep moving, going farther away from Europe and their past, as if travel will salvage their broken relationship. “Because neither she nor Port had ever lived a life of any kind of regularity, they both had made the fatal error of coming hazily to regard time as non-existent.” Bowles’ writes, with obvious heavy foreshadowing. “One year was like another year. Eventually everything would happen.”

Eventually everything does happen, but not the everything they would have likely chosen. Much later—after disaster strikes—Kit recalls a conversation she’d had with Port a year before. “Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life,” he said to her. “It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it seems limitless.”

***

Geoff Dyer can make certain experiences seems limitless. When I was just out of college I read The Colour of Memory, his novel about a group of friends in their early- and mid-twenties living on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s. They all have vague artistic aspirations but mostly they have a lot of fun drinking, dancing, and sleeping with each other. At one point in the book the narrator is walking to a friend’s house late in the afternoon. “Standing there, waiting for the lights to change, I felt a strong sense of converging definitions,” he thinks to himself. “It was one of those moments which, even as experienced, is obscurely touched by the significance with which it will be invested by the future, by memory: this is how I was, this is how we were; this is how we spent our time, wasting whole afternoons and not caring because it was winter and there were so many afternoons ahead.”

I remember sitting in my favorite café in San Francisco—Café Macondo, which has since been turned into a pretentious bar for hipsters on fancy track bikes—while reading it and feeling like I really got what he was talking about, like I felt that optimism and patience, the belief that more good times and life-changing events are always to come. Dyer is one of my favorite writers exactly for this reason: often I feel like he’s talking to me, like he’s describing the world as I see it, reassuring me in a sense. Maybe I was wasting my afternoon too, but that seemed fine. Good even: it’s what I was supposed to be doing.

Dyer’s work is infused with a romanticism that is hard for me to resist. He celebrates youth, newness, and freedom, the fleeting high points of beauty and experience that, when reached, make life worth living. He often rejects the idea of a single home as the center of one’s life, a theme that permeates most of his writing. In Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, a sort of embellished travel memoir, he says that, for him, “home,” in the traditional sense, “is the place where least has happened.” The book documents some of the times and places where things did happen, places scattered around the world. Ultimately, as he quotes Steinbeck as saying, “[he has] homes everywhere.”

Yet this transience comes at a cost. Dyer is neurotic. The opening passages in Out of Sheer Rage, his book about writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, is remarkable for the extent and familiarity of his self-defeating over-analysis. He lets us into his inner, tortured world in which a great capacity for second-guessing often leads to total paralysis and hopelessness, a world in which work is only a temporary distraction from the inescapable boredom of existence.

Dyer often grapples with the two extremes of peak experience and total existential breakdown. He and his characters (who are too easy to think of as Dyer himself) bounce around the globe and between these two poles, trying to find a happy, contented resting place somewhere in between. At times they strikes a balance, if only for a brief and shining moment. Other times, like Kit and Port, they just keep moving, in search of better parties, more spectacular beaches, or more fulfilling relationships, as if they can outrun depression.

In an essay from Granta titled “On the Roof,” another homage to youthful freedom and possibility, as well as memory, he lays out the spectrum between these spiritual high and low points quite clearly. The essay is based on a photograph of Dyer and some of his friends on a roof in South London in the 1980s. In the corner is a huge homemade bong, which helped make what would have been “just great moments” into “sublime, transcendental, timeless” moments. “I wanted to preserve some of these stoner spots of time in a book, a kind of photo album with words instead of pictures. That’s something else this picture doesn’t record: that the skeletal figure on the left was possessed of a considerable desire to be a writer. When this photograph was taken I had already written an unbelievably boring book about John Berger, but what I really wanted to write was a book about the life I was leading then, a book, in fact, about that roof” and that “in-between world of semi-creative idleness, of voluntary disenfranchisement.” He did write this book: The Colour of Memory.

As I have followed Geoff Dyer’s career, I have been tracing his path between these extremes, his quest for the middle path. Usually it gives me some hope: his life (as I envision it, at least, from his books) is comforting and encouraging. He has managed to maintain his youthful enthusiasm for experience and newness; in fact, he has built a life around what for many (most) people is just a stage before “growing up” and “getting serious.” The real achievement, though, is that Dyer gets serious too. He is capable of sitting down, battling his demons, and distilling these experiences into thoughtful and hilarious essays, memoirs, and stories, or brilliant studies of jazz, photography, and literature. By connecting them back to the rest of the world, Dyer gives these experiences a weight and meaning that makes them so much more than vacations—they become investigations of history, philosophy, and geography, explorations of what it is to live in this world. Afterward, I imagine, he jumps on a plane and takes off to some new spot on some far corner of the map. Surely it’s not so simple, but the crux of the matter is that I don’t have many role models these days. It seems like the “in-between world” he talked about has shrunk a lot in the last twenty years.

Dyer’s latest book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (to be published in April by Pantheon), is at first glance a departure from his previous work. The travel and parties are still there, in part, as is some of the romanticism, but this time there is a bitterness and angst that rarely goes away. It’s as if Dyer and his characters have succumbed to the ennui and emptiness of modern life that he so long avoided. Put another way, it seems there aren’t so many more of those afternoons left that he wrote about wasting in The Colour of Memory. What had appeared to be limitless was suddenly finite. Insufficient even.

The book is two stories that are never explicitly connected. Both are about insecure, disillusioned writers in their mid-40s based in London who use their assignments to escape the tedium of their lives. The first, Jeff Atman, goes to Venice for the flashy Art Biennale, ostensibly to interview some artists and write a few reviews. In reality, however, he is going for the parties. “That was the thing about the Biennale: it was a definitive experience,” Atman says. “You came to Venice, you saw a ton of art, you went to parties, you drank up a storm, you talked bollocks for hours on end and went back to London with a cumulative hangover, liver damage, a notebook almost devoid of notes and the first tingle of a cold sore.”

Predictably, he meets a woman, Laura. He falls for her at first sight; they hit it off, hang out, traipse around town, drink a lot of bellinis, do some coke, and end up sleeping together. Venice for Atman comes to be about her and prolonging their inevitably fleeting tryst—she’s from Los Angeles, he’s from London, and they are both in Venice for work for only a few days. Meeting her redeems his trip and, in the short-term, his life in general. “That was the thing about life,” he ruminates once things are really going well. “You couldn’t cherry-pick the good bits. You had to say yes to the whole package, all the ups and downs, but if the ups—the highs—were like this, you’d sign up willingly for the downs.” Atman’s willingness to drop everything for this new crush shows just how little he had going before.

Like most good things in Dyer’s books, the romance ends after a few blissful days when Laura heads back to LA. This time, however, there is a more palpable sense of loss afterward. They take a picture together in front of a canal as proof that they were ever there, she heads to the bus station, and Atman is right back where he started, alone in Venice, only now without the eagerness and anticipation that comes with arriving in a new place. Immediately the glow of those days and nights together starts to fade and he rethinks his acceptance of all those ups and downs of life: it was already “becoming difficult to remember those great, all-redeeming moments.”

The second half of the book begins with the unnamed narrator—who, according to the summary in the book jacket, may or may not be Atman—receiving a last-minute phone call asking him to fly to Varanasi to write a travel article. He does not hesitate. A page later he is tearing through the apocalyptic traffic on his way to the mighty Ganges, the holiest river in India. He immerses himself in the swirling chaos, the riot of colors and sounds and smells that is India, where “there [is] so much of it all, all blaring so loud and bright, that it [is] impossible to tell exactly what this everything was made up of, what it comprised. It was just a totality of bright, noisy, blaringness.”

Dyer is a master of evoking a strong sense of place, particularly when that place is far away and exotic. He can simultaneously make you feel like you are standing there with him in India or Cambodia or Tripoli but that these are places that exist on some other, more vibrant planet that you can only imagine. Maybe it is because I’ve been to Varanasi and not to Venice that I find the writing more natural and compelling in the second half of the book. Dyer’s character moves convincingly through both the physical and emotional landscape of that wholly otherworldly city, passing through the awe, bewilderment, frustration, and acceptance that travelers in strange countries must inevitably face. In some of the descriptions of the city the ease of his previous work returns and we get lost in the small alleyways and mystical temple rituals.

After his story is filed and his week in India up, the narrator decides to extend his ticket and stay in Varanasi for a while. He finds a breakfast place to frequent, gets to know the owner of his hotel, and befriends some other travelers. He has no clear plan, or even intentions, but as time passes his life in London seems to fade away. His mild derision toward the younger backpackers searching for easy enlightenment diminishes, he has an epiphany about what it means to be human, he realizes that “there are only a limited number of moments that count for anything, that make up and define a life” (a la Bowles), and he manages to “take [himself] out of the equation.” After a few months he is wandering around the city in nothing but a dhoti with a shaved head, bathing daily in the Ganges (which foreigners almost never do), and muttering vague nonsense to strangers who try to talk to him.

In the end, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is essentially a modern-day parable of two jaded men searching for meaning and happiness. One looks to drugs, drinking, and sex for redemption, while the other becomes disinterested in such indulgences and loses himself in the swirling intensity of India. The former ends up right where he started, just hungover and a little lonelier. The latter undergoes a sort of spiritual rebirth and emerges blissful and content (though a little unhinged). Thankfully, the dexterity and vitality of Dyer’s writing masks the simplicity of the story.

At first I found this book horribly depressing. Because I like to imagine Dyer as writing about my life and, by extension, my future, it was crushing. Maybe Port was right: maybe there are limits to experience, maybe it is an mistake to think of time as non-existent. You can’t run forever. Your demons, whatever they may be, will catch up as soon as you slow down. And to be honest, I felt like I’d been slowing down too.

After some reflection, though, it got better. Dyer is still waging the same battle, still exploring ways of dealing with the melancholy and dreariness of existence. He is simply older, calmer, and a little less naïve. The two writers in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi are ultimately caricatures of two clichéd approaches to finding happiness. The book ends so absurdly that it’s clear Dyer still finds some humor in this dilemma, even if there’s a little more cynicism in the humor than in the past.

On the last page of the book is a picture of Dyer. He is sitting in a boat in Varanasi, smiling wryly in a corduroy jacket, like the joke is on us for taking him too seriously. Maybe there are still some moonrises to see.

At least that’s what I hope he meant.

[NOTE: This review is based on an uncorrected proof of the novel. Direct quotes may be different in the final book.]

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2 Responses to “The Limits of Experience: A Review of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

  1. John Self said

    What a brilliant review, of Jeff and of Geoff. You’ve summed up his literary career much better than I could – and, crucially, have read The Colour of Memory, which I haven’t – but I wonder if you’ve read The Missing of the Somme, his meditation on the public remembrance of the First World War? For me it’s the best of the books of his I’ve read. I’ve also not read But Beautiful: although I think Dyer capable of making any subject interesting, I’m not entirely sure if even he is equipped to fascinate me about jazz.

  2. […] 22, 2009 This very brief adaptation of my much longer review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi was just published on Bold […]

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