Geoff Dyer’s non-fiction has always been more consistent – or anyway easier to get a grip on – than his fiction. With punning titles to his novels like Paris Trance and now Jeff in Venice…, just how seriously are we supposed to take them? It’s a query that doesn’t dissolve even after reading his new book. One reviewer says that reading Dyer is like making a new friend, one as silly as you but more intelligent; precisely so. I’d call him a national treasure if that didn’t imply a cosiness which doesn’t fit Dyer’s rigorous intellectual anarchy. Let’s begin from the understanding that anything Dyer writes is worth reading, and proceed from there. And as far as the difference between fiction and non-fiction goes, Dyer says “the distinction means absolutely nothing to me. I like to write something that’s only an inch from life … but all the art of course is in that inch.”
When the protagonist’s name – Jeffrey Atman – was disclosed in the opening sentence of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a little something in me died. I recalled from Siddhartha that Atman was a Hindu spiritualist term for the eternal soul, and I dreaded the onset of a new age tale of ‘finding oneself’. But I needn’t have worried: at least, not yet. And just in case Dyer’s reputation as a restless intellectual burrower didn’t precede him, the book has no fewer than seven epigraphs, from sources as diverse as Borges and Ginsberg.
In part one, ‘Jeff in Venice’, our louche Dyeresque hero is a freelance journalist (“if it was a proper job, I’d pack it in and do something else, but freelancing is the something else that you do after you’ve packed in your job so my options are limited”), given to wearing skateboard T-shirts, raving about Burning Man, and other activities recognisable to Dyer watchers. Jeff is sent to the Venice Biennale to interview a fading celebrity. This is a great opportunity for Dyer to exhibit his facility for slick wit. On the budget airline:
The cost-cutting was amazing, extravagant, even. No expense had not been spared. … Then he had to struggle through the coach-crowded bus terminal, with his bags, in the baking heat. It was like being in an Italian version of an oily, hugely demoralizing art installation called This Vehicle is Reversing.
This includes accurate observations – perhaps derived from Dyer’s own journalistic experiences – about contemporary art (“The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness”) and the business of celebrity (“part of the etiquette of being an interviewer [was] that you had to let the interviewee call the shots. It made them feel important and being important hopefully made them more amenable – though, in practice, as often as not, it just made them feel even more important, which manifested itself in their being extremely difficult”).
The plot of this first part, such as it is, comprises Jeff’s interview with the celebrity and his sexual encounters with a woman named Laura. At one point Atman observes that “everything began as a joke – or some things did anyway – but not everything ended as one”. The tone of ‘Jeff in Venice’ is of a joke, where the witty exchanges tread a fine line between maddeningly brilliant and brilliantly maddening, so it’s a relief, or at least a change, when part two, ‘Death in Varanasi’ is generally more sombre.
Here, the narrative is in the first person, with nothing but a passing reference to Venice to suggest that this may be the Jeff of part one, rather than, say, Geoff instead, or another incarnation entirely. In a recent interview, Dyer said that the book was originally intended as two discrete stories: “With my usual unerring eye for commercial suicide, I originally wanted to subtitle the book ‘A Diptych’ to make clear the two stories were separate. But I was urged not to, and when I saw a mock-up of the front cover with the word ‘diptych’ on it, I thought, ‘Oh God, that’s too pretentious even for me’.” Much of ‘Death in Varanasi’ reads like a reportage piece about travels to the Indian holy city (“the place of many names”) with “uncomprehended meaning everywhere.” Here, comic set pieces about locals who don’t respect the British addiction to queuing tend to give way to sincere observations:
What I didn’t see was any affinity between us. He was in his world and I was in mine. My world-view would never be his and vice versa. That was what we had in common. What distinguished us from each other was that he had no interest in mine – it meant nothing to him – whereas I was intensely curious about his.
As Dyer – or the fictional narrator (“the distinction means absolutely nothing to me”) – points out, “it’s possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time.” The lazy perception of a barrier between ‘a funny book’ and ‘a serious book’ is broken down. Like so many great writers, Dyer is both deeply funny and absolutely serious.
Midway through the book, Jeff recalls reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and how he had been “much impressed by John Fowles’s distinction between the Victorian point of view – I can’t have this forever, therefore I’m miserable – and the modern, existential outlook: I have this for the moment, therefore I’m happy.” In the first part of the book, Jeff seeks completeness through attachment to the passing moment; in part two, the narrator achieves completeness through detachment from the present.
I really don’t want to come on like someone who has gone through rehab or undergone a conversion or awakening. All I’m saying is that in Varanasi I no longer felt like I was waiting. The waiting was over. I had taken myself out of the equation.
Being a Dyer fan is a stressful experience, always expecting great things, always fearing he’ll drop the ball. He portrays himself in other books – and Jeff the journalist here – as a lazy writer, coasting by on considerable talent but without the application to transmute the work into gold. But this cannot entirely be true, when the results are so satisfying and stimulating. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is only an inch from brilliance, but all the Dyer is in that inch.