Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Geoff Dyer presents us with a mystery in his new book Jeff in Venice, Death in
Varanasi
. But this isn’t your typical whodunit in which the narrator tries to figure
who did it. Instead the reader tries to figure out who the narrator is that’s
doing it.

Dyer’s book consists of two short novels,
Jeff
in Venice
, which details journalist Jeff Atman’s
junket to Venice to cover the Biennale, the
fashionable gathering that brings the art world
together every two years, and
Death in
Varanasi
, which relates the much different
visit of a writer to Varanasi, the Hindu holy
city on the Ganges. The narrator of this second
story “may or may not be the Atman previously
seen in Venice,” announces the marketing
copy that accompanies the book. “Could two
stories, in two different cities, actually be one
and the same story?”

I think I can answer the last question. No, they
are not the same story. In fact, one could hardly
find two more different tales about traveling
journalists. The Venice story is fast-paced and
lighthearted. The dialogue is spry and ready for
the film version. Our protagonist is a worthy heir in the tradition
of grumpy, smart, dissipated British male heroes (think Kingsley Amis’s
Lucky
Jim
, Martin Amis’s Money) who exasperate and delight us by turns.

The main character in
Death in Varanasi, in contrast, is harder to comprehend, if
perhaps more intriguing. What should be a short trip to do a travel article for
newspaper back home, turns into an extended stay, as our hero falls into a
mental torpor and gradually goes native. If Dyer's Venice novel could be made
into a Hollywood romantic comedy, the second one is more akin to a dark reality
show in which the contestants, sent off to Varanasi with only a small suitcase
and few changes of clothes, get more unhinged each week. Our narrator is the
last one left on the Ganges survival trip, but by this time he has forgotten that
there is any other place to live.

If these are two facets of the same character, then something must have
happened to him between Venice and Varanasi. Maybe we need a third short
novel to fit in between these two . . . perhaps called
Jeff’s Mid-Life Crisis. The
protagonist of our first story is so caught up in his own neediness and neuroses
that he hardly pays attention to the world around him—from the very start of
the story, the reader knows that Jeff will bungle his journalistic assignment in
Venice and is simply waiting to find out the particulars. The lead character in our
second story, in contrast, is attentive to his surroundings to an almost
obsessive degree. His sensitivity to time and place is, in fact, so extreme that
he gradually loses his own sense of self in his immersion (both physical and
psychological) in the Ganges and its surroundings.

Death in Varansi is so focused on its setting, that the first half of it could pass as
non-fiction, akin to those fussy literary travelogues by Naipaul or Theroux. The
magic in this story is how Dyer slowly adapts the atmosphere of his account to
reflect the gradual loosening of his lead character’s ego and attachments to
past ties. By the end of the story, we are no longer reading a travel story, and
instead witnessing the assimilation of the traveler into the surrounding city.

Pulling off this type of shift is no small feat, especially given how slowly and
subtly Dyer works these changes. The conclusion of
Death in Varanasi is likely to
remind you less of
Jeff in Venice, and more of spiritual literature, those great
autobiographies of transcendence from Paramhansa Yogananda or Milarepa or
Thomas Merton. Yet Dyer’s character never abandons his basically secular
character, and he is just as likely to ridicule the spirituality he sees around him
as to find deep meaning in it.

Perhaps
Death in Varanasi is what religious narrative becomes in a irreligious
age. And the story of how our friend Jeff from Venice got ready for that type of
writing assignment is definitely worth another novel.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
by Geoff Dyer
Great Books Guide
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