Saturday, May 9, 2009

Geoff Dyer's "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi": Book Review

Two cities by the water, two stories of the flesh and its decay, two narrators who may be one. A "cutesy pun," as my wife noted about the title, but don't let it put you off what turns out to be more profound than a tired author-character-narrator postmodern exercise in narcissism. Dyer pairs two novellas that match Venetian decadence with Indian decay. Pitting luxury against want, the result adds up to more than two parts.

Dyer's "Jeff" does resemble the author; he dyes his hair early on and is the same age. An endnote marks what Dyer borrowed from his visits to the Biennale art festival. Luckily, there isn't a Philip Roth sort of doubling that weighs this novel down with too-clever self-referential complexity. Yet, it's not as light as you might expect from the satirical set-up and the opening pages. As the two stories thicken, they gain depth and you will find yourself drawn into them more deeply.

Jeff finds himself in love with Laura (homage to Petrarch?) and their fling comprises most of the action in this episode. They're aided by an astonishing amount of free booze and gifts of cocaine. For this chance to live it up, he flees his pathetic and sycophantic London job as a lightweight celebrity-profile journalist; he lives the life he's always wanted as an adult-- he never wants to go home.

Moments of clarity, if brought on by chemicals, do pierce his glazed nature as the Biennale goes on and the wooziness adds up. He visits a church described often in the novella by Mary McCarthy. (Many of the sights, as he finds, he cannot see fresh; Jan Morris or McCarthy have seen them for him first, not to mention artists and Thomas Mann.) In church frescoes of the two Testaments, Jeff discerns the sobering idea that "we could not be bullied into paradise." (153) He has contemplated if he can ever have a life-changing experience. He may find out, in Venice, or beyond.

He wonders if he is entering in his mid-forties a "vague" or "stupid" phase of his life. For a while, in the arms of a lovely woman, he forgets his self-pity. Yet, at the end, his "inner Victorian" emerges; he realizes the cost of having it all so quickly and so cheaply on demand, never having to wait as people once had to, before losing a life's hope.

Part two moves what may be Jeff-- we never find out his name in the second novella-- to the city of the dead on the Ganges. The colors are as vibrant as the art in Venice and the scenes around him as packed with strange energy leavened by lassitude. Both cities seem on perpetual display for tourists, so that the residents become as if stagehands or extras in a pageant. The narrator here tells of cultivating "darshan," the gift of divine contemplation, so as to take in the funeral parade, the mourners who refuse sadness, and the endless grift and outstretched beggar's bowls for the evanescent entertainment they present to him.

The noise and chaos of Varanasi balance the calm of an orderly city like Stockholm; an ATM encounter serves as a parable for waiting, and for the "luxury tax" that the rich must, if worn down enough by a place like demanding India, pay to those who press in all around. "Every social exchange is a prelude to transaction." (225) The narrator begins to go native, "since there's nothing to go home for." (239)

These are simply told tales, not bare of description or lacking in humor. I do think some scenes in each may have mattered more to the author, based on his encounters or conversations, and while the novellas never flag, with frequent asides and side chats they do stop and go as regards their energy. Their ambling, happenstance quality may, however, reflect travel's ups and downs, like the kites seen over the Ganges by the narrator. Certainly the effects of cocaine on one's (lack of) sensitivity to another's pain and the aftermath of getting hit in the face by a feces-stained cow's tail enliven, if that's the term, the physicality of both tales; sex, cut-rate air travel, Indian music and modern art all gain fine renderings too.

The stories remind me of a calmer Martin Amis, or a humanist David Lodge or wry Malcolm Bradbury for a warier, more jaded, equally spoiled generation after the hippie-yuppie hegemony. Dyer has matured from the wonderfully titled "Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It" (also reviewed by me on Amazon). Perhaps even the ex-pat spirit of Somerset Maugham or Joseph Conrad's tormented moral protagonists flit across these tales as much as Thomas Mann or (a subject of a sort of anti-biography by Dyer) D.H. Lawrence. I look forward to Dyer's next work.
(Posted by me today to Amazon US)

P.S. I was also reminded of Rosemary Mahoney's chapter in "The Singular Pilgrim" and Manchán Magan's visit to Varanasi in his "Manchán's Travels"; both travel narratives bring their writers close to the same disturbing encounters found in part two here.

No comments: