Pantheon Books, 2009
Reviewed by Willa Cmiel
Extremes are dangerous. Extreme sports, extreme dieting, extreme Calvinism, what have you, they all come with consequences. In Geoff Dyer’s diptyched novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Jeff Atman’s life exists under no extreme, not even extreme slackerism. As a freelance writer for Kulcher magazine, rather than abandoning work as he fantasizes with the click of a “send” button, he takes a walk, he cuts his hair, he pouts, and he goes to Venice to interview the ex-wife of a washed-up rock star, “publicizing…the astonishing feat of her continued existence.” In a classic Western frame of mind, Atman is constantly looking towards the future, or back at the past, and as a result finds the present ever unsatisfying.
In Venice, though, time can stop, and the contemporary art festival, the Biennale, allows temporary visitors—journalists, tourists, artists—an excuse to collectively freeze it to their liking. So in Venice, Jeff is debased. Surrounded by art created from life, Jeff scoffs at the exhibitions to find instances of what he sees as art in life. He half-asses his interview in order to attend more art shows with open bars and open drugs. And he meets Laura. Youthful and carefree, Laura is a manifestation of Jeff’s desire to break free of his soul-trapping life in London. For a few endless days at the Biennale, Laura makes Jeff a slave to beauty and desire. And like Auschenbach’s young Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s classic novella—from which Dyer, by choosing such a title for his own work, surely invites comparison—Laura the American is mythic.
Where Auschenbach preoccupied himself from afar, though, allowing young Tadzio’s perfection to be properly aggrandized, Dyer goes a step, or six, further. (Ever wondered about dirty sex with a goddess? It’s fantastic.) This up-close-and-personal view of such a fairy tale specimen generates a problem of conceivability. Jeff’s physical contact with Laura makes her perfection real, or presents a form from which the reader is supposed to take to be real. And when not provided with faults—when she turns out to be truly an elusive Dionysus—the result is off-putting. Even if Geoff’s Jeff is so taken with her that he is blind to her faults, the reader will not be, and we deserve to see a few. Coming up short of shortcomings, Dyer’s first narrative dangerously approaches the status of “fable” and threatens the relevancy of the rest of the work.
The second part of the novel brings Dyer’s narrator, probably but maybe not the same person, to India on another assignment. In the city of Varanasi, Dyer presents us with a contrast: while Venice is timeless and unchanging, Varanasi is history, and it is always changing. In Venice, Jeff numbs himself with drinks and drugs and fantastical sex. In Varanasi, a city where people go to die, Jeff is “reborn.” He stays indefinitely, embracing Buddhism and other “eastern forms of living.”
Dyer presents both cities as overdone and overly constructed. They are molded to fit a carnivalesque image of what is expected of them, and in many ways they both exist solely for the tourists who come to visit. In this sense, Geoff Dyer outlines two characters: Venice and Varanasi. In Varanasi, Dyer pretends to strip away the illusion of place (because to be in Varanasi is to be everywhere), but this city is just as fraudulent as its Western counterpart. If the art in Venice is a reproduction of life, the city of Varanasi is a reproduction of death. His descriptions of squalor are point-blank, deliberately straight-faced. And while we have the privilege of experiencing the narrator’s thoughts in Varanasi, I was left feeling empty at Dyer’s descriptions of squalid children rejoicing over a stolen can of Diet Coke. Most convincing is Dyer’s final addition—practically a passing thought—of Sayoko, a young, enlightened Japanese traveler.
I had pretty well accepted that the sole point of existence—especially for artists, but among journalists too—was to make a mark, a splash, to draw attention to oneself. Sayoko was the opposite. She moved through the world as though the idea was to have a minimum impact upon it. Like a skilful driver, she negotiated her passage through things without collisions or near-misses. In the context of Varanasi the comparison made no sense, but to be in her company was to be reminded of how relaxing it was not to be honking your horn and constantly expecting a crash, not to have your attention strained to breaking point.
And so Dyer’s narrator wastes away in Varanasi, passing time or being passed by it along the death-laced Ganges River. Laura is nowhere to be found, and Sayoko moves on without a trace. Although opposites, both Venice and Varanasi showcase an extreme form of living; and Jeff is not in Venice, he is outside it, or at least he is outside himself. And he doesn’t die in Varanasi—he is, if anything, reborn. Which of Jeff’s adopted personae are more “authentic” to life? Which of Geoff’s Jeffs are more convincing to the reader? The answer to both questions is neither. Sadly, most buyable is Jeff at Home: the un-extreme, dead-end freelancer, the almost-slacker Jeff.