Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice Death in Varanasi is a strange book on many level. I don’t mean strange in the negative or critical sense, but may be in statistical sense. Split in two parts, the “novel” is actually a set of two stories/novellas, if you look at it one way — that is if you choose not to make connections. But if you do, it fits well too. For Dyer has left enough ambiguity to support both interpretations.
The split isn’t just structural. The former is a third-person telling of Jeff’s tale, where, curiously, Jeff is there all along. Never is there scene where Jeff is not there, and the narrator is kind of proxy narrator, as the only person who’s mind it seems to have any insight into, is Jeff. Not your typical third-person narration, hinting at Jeff being Geoff the author, trying to look at oneself like a third-person (in the sense that Jeff is partly based on him). The latter half is in first person, but the (now in first person) narrator is nameless. However, both the protagonists are middle aged, English, reporters, in a sort of mid-life crisis.
The first part, set in Venice, uses the city more as a backdrop, while the story goes on to tell the excesses and in certain sense, emptiness of the art world, and Jeff goes through it, sleepwalking, with only thing that seems to really excite him is Laura, an American is on her last assignment before she quit her job at art gallery and slated to move to Varanasi (don’t start thinking this explain anything). The story goes on, telling of their rendezvous which turns into a torrid affair. In a sense Jeff is living his dream in a city of dreams. Love, sex, drugs, spirits — part one is unmistakably about western civilization — its promises and decay.
In Varanasi, the second novella starts off like a typical travel writing — and here Dyer is probably trying to blur the boundaries of genres, as he has written before admiringly about Kundera:
“After reading Immortality what I wanted from Kundera was a novel composed entirely of essays, stripped of the last rind of novelisation. Kundera duly obliged. His next book, Testaments Betrayed, provided all the pleasures – i.e. all the distractions – of his novels with, so to speak, none of the distractions of character and situation. By Kundera’s own logic this ‘essay in nine parts’ – more accurately, a series of variations in the form of an essay – which has dispensed entirely with the trappings of novelisation, actually represents the most refined, the most extreme, version yet of Kundera’s idea of the novel” (Out of Sheer Rage)
Stripping off any semblance of a story-line, then, the second novella follows the narrator’s journey from a typical westerner outsider’s vantage-point to a curious (even extreme) acceptance/internalization of the eastern experience. If these lines seem to hint at any superiority/inferiority of cultures, or anything of that sort, Dyer, mercifully stays away from any quick (or even nuanced) answers, one way or the other. He just presents how he (or his narrator, if he’s different — something Dyer wanted to obfuscate by calling the first narrator Atman, aka self/sour, and the second narrator kept nameless, to live the possibility of all the three being same) sees, which itself changes …
Yes, the book has its flaws, although I won’t delve into them — mainly because, I suspect they are not accidental, and Dyer wanted it that way. He probably never wanted to write a masterpiece. What he has ended up with, is still worth our time, for it has all the good and bad of Dyer — the insane wit, the keen eye, the roving narrations always going into all sorts of tangents, and excesses of all kinds. I’m not complaining. And all said and done, I enjoyed the second half a lot more, mainly because it’s lot more pensive. Surely not the best of Dyer, but darn good still.