More Jeff in Venice

April 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 Type.

Geoff Dyer’s work often grapples with two extremes: peak experience (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It) and total existential breakdown (Out of Sheer Rage). He and his characters — who are too easy to think of as Dyer himself — bounce around the globe in their explorations of the terrain between these two poles. At times they strike a balance, if only for a brief moment. Other times, they just keep moving, in search of better parties, more spectacular beaches, or more fulfilling relationships — as if they can outrun their demons.

Dyer brings this framework to his latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a peculiar homage to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The book is actually two stories that are never explicitly connected, though plenty of details suggest the character in each is the same. Both are insecure, disillusioned British writers in their mid-40s who use their assignments as opportunities to reinvent themselves. One travels to Venice, ostensibly to review the flashy Biennale, but is really there for the parties; the other, while on assignment in Varanasi, India, (also known as Benares) loses himself in the swirling intensity of the holy city. The first meets a woman, does some coke, and ends up right where he started, just hungover and lonelier. The second undergoes a sort of spiritual rebirth and emerges seemingly blissful and content (though a little unhinged). Dyer does a characteristically masterful job of painting a magical picture of the two watery, dreamlike cities as a backdrop.

On the surface, this is a slight departure from the youthful romanticism of Dyer’s previous fiction. The travel and parties are still enjoyable, although this time, they’re competing with a nagging angst that rarely goes away. But at second glance, the old Dyer is still there, still waging a war against the tedium of modern life — he’s simply older, calmer, and less naïve. The two writers in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi are ultimately caricatures of two clichéd approaches to finding happiness, and the book ends so absurdly that it’s clear Dyer still finds humor in the drama of existence.

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