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the complete review - fiction
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
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B+ : entertaining aimlessness
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Jeff in Venice contains enough sharp observations to justify its existence, whether or not it quite succeeds as a novel. (...) Jeff in Venice doesnít entirely satisfy as a novel. Nevertheless, Geoff Dyer is an extraordinarily reflective, perceptive and funny writer, as well as a fine prose stylist." - Lionel Shriver, Financial Times
- "Atman and Dyer have between them given us a wonderfully entertaining book, but it is fundamentally sad. Sometimes it erupts into the overwrought, such as when Atman in Venice delightedly immerses himself in his beloved's urine as she pisses on the lavatory. Once or twice it is so frightfully funny that it verges upon the hysterical. But it ends poignantly. It is not real happiness that its anti-hero finds, not lasting emotion that he feels. The book is a prodigious display of virtuosity, but it seems to me stony at the heart." - Jan Morris, The Guardian
- "This might be one of Dyer's best books but, the more he writes, the less the distinction between them becomes important. They are all a part of each other. To choose a favourite is somehow to miss the point." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent
- "It is not without flaws: there is a fundamental disconnect built into its structure and the narrative never regains the momentum it loses in the jolt from part one to part two; it is willfully disorienting; and the title is not the weakest of its puns. But the writing seems effortlessly good, and it is erudite, full of subtle allusion and foreshadowing, highly observant and frequently funny. It is slippery, evasive even, and is liable to provoke wildly varying responses. It struck me as an ultimately sad novel, asking the question of whether 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and finding the answer inconclusive." - Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday
- "I hear a cry in this book that wells up between the two halves. (We could do Dyer a favor and refer to these halves as Atman/Brahmin; even the most cynical freelance writer has the potential for rebirth, but that would be way too generous.) Dyer dodges the autobiographical nature of this broken book with a flotilla of explanatory notes identifying quotes and other references, but in these days of the shell-game author (nonfiction-fiction-hybrid), a reader has to assert his or her instincts now and then. We'll pass over this little blip, this little burp. History will smile fondly on this midpoint in Geoff Dyer's great oeuvre." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times
- "Mr. Dyerís Varanasi is at once parallel with and opposite to Venice: Venice during the Biennale is aggressively profane; in Varanasi, contemplation of the divine saturates the air, bending the spirits even of tourists passing through. And where Jeff in Venice is about the mysterious eruption of desire into a life that seemed irrevocably dulled by habit, Death in Varanasi is about the renunciation of desire and the hunger for stasis." - Damian Da Costa, The New York Observer
- "(T)he joy of his writing at its best lies in not knowing whatís coming next, and in the fluent way it throws irreverence and transport together with a confessional ease that reflects the spirit of the age. His new book, which is Dyer at his very best, allows Jeff Atman to turn himself inside out and remind us that "itís possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time." (...) In the weeks since I devoured Jeff in Venice, I donít think a day has passed without my thinking back to it." - Pico Iyer, The New York Times Book Review
- "(T)he stories seem to flit in and out of fictionality, in a way that seems intended; they are a Dyer-like combination of essay, travelogue, and invention, and the veronica of the authorís soul can be glimpsed behind the two texts. (...) The cynicism of Dyerís story would be insupportable if it were not savagely funny, and if there were not Mannís closeted idealism to play off. (...) The moral emptiness of "Jeff in Venice" seems all the more devastating when put into relief by its companion, "Death in Varanasi."" - James Wood, The New Yorker
- "Neither did the title, with its naff pun, bode well. Remarkably, from this material Geoff Dyer has fashioned a novel that is both funny and insightful. (...) There are no glib self-help solutions here, but there is an amusing and intelligent exploration of some of life's big questions." - Alice O'Keeffe, The Observer
- "As absurd as this may sound, could the two stories be mere variations of each other with a scrambling of key details ? Water, boats, heat, new friends from California, and dolphins, monkeys, otters, oh my. Indeed, in Dyer's enigmatic novel, every reader will have to discover his or her own answers." - Terry Hong, San Francisco Chronicle
- "The first 93 pages are vintage Dyer, painfully funny, slyly observant, brilliant, full of wild misery. After Lauraís departure, nightmares and a sense of doom creep in." - Lee Langley, The Spectator
- "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is essentially a book about desire in all its manifestations: the desire for sensation and escape, to get out of oneís own skin and to become somebody else, whether through love, intoxication or spiritual transformation. (...) Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is essentially a book about desire in all its manifestations: the desire for sensation and escape, to get out of oneís own skin and to become somebody else, whether through love, intoxication or spiritual transformation." - Mick Brown, The Telegraph
- "For all his novel's lack of propulsion, Dyer is a witty and concise observer of landscapes: social, geographical and emotional. (...) This second part of the novel is indulgently aimless, beautifully written and freighted with a significance that is never made clear. All the way through there is a sense of being being kept at arm's length, not quite being let in on the deeper meaning or the cosmic joke (if there is one). But Dyer's eccentric charm and barbed perceptiveness will hook you to the end." - Tim Teeman, The Times
- "Dyer's hedonistic novels all have to end somehow, although there is no real end to anything he writes. Similarly, it would be a mistake to consider each new Dyer novel as if it represented a culmination of his critical writing. The new book is enjoyable to read, but the effect of reading it has already been eclipsed by Dyer's recent essay on the films of Tarkovsky." - Mark Crees, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a two-part novel.
The first, narrated in the third person, follows journalist Jeffrey Atman on assignment for Kulchur magazine at the Venice Biennale; the second, narrated in the first person, sees a journalist (presumably Atman) who comes to Varanasi (Benares) in India to write a travel piece -- and then lingers.
There's an aimlessness to most of Dyer's books, with his characters (or himself) lightly tugged in some directions but rarely able to follow anything through with much conviction.
Jeff is typical: in his early forties, about the most decisive step he takes is getting his hair dyed before he sets out for Venice.
He does have a specific assignment from Kulchur -- to get an interview, and both a photograph and the rights to reproduce a drawing of the subject -- but will, of course, manage to bungle most of that quite badly.
And so 'Jeff in Venice' follows Jeff ambling around Venice and the Biennale, allowing Dyer to riff on modern art and the art scene (and the parties), and on the petty personal concerns of status and place in this peculiar world; Jeff, like most of Dyer's protagonists (including himself), affects indifference to what is generally his lowly position on the totem pole, and yet it also constantly gnaws at him.
But Jeff meets a girl, and that certainly makes a difference:
It occurred to Jeff that he had entered the vague phase of his life.
he had a vague idea of things, a vague sense of what was happening in the world, a vague sense of having met someone before.
It was like being vaguely drunk all the time.
The only thing he was not vague about was the woman in the yellow dress
Her name is Laura, and they hit it off -- with typical Dyer-repartee.
At the end of their first encounter he says he hopes to see her again, but instead of fixing any plans for a second encounter she insists on leaving it up to chance -- aware that in Venice at Biennale-time their paths will inevitably cross.
They do, of course, run into each other again, and then pretty much remain together for the duration.
If it all seems a bit much like a fairy-tale romance, it is still agreeable enough -- and made more bearable by the more cynical and jaded asides regarding the art-scene backdrop and socializing which they are immersed in.
When Laura leaves they do hope to stay in touch:
'You know, this time we can't just leave it to chance, can't just hope to run into each other.'
Of course, Laura had said that she was planning to quit her job and head to, among other places, Varanasi .....
'It worked in Venice, in a small town, but on a global scale I think it's just, you know, the odds are stacked against it.'
The narrator of the second part certainly sounds (and acts) a lot like Jeff.
Sent to do a puff-travel piece by the Telegraph he simply stays on in Varanasi, finding himself oddly rooted there.
When prodded he also notes that Varanasi resembles Venice:
They're incredibly similar.
Versions of each other, almost.
Yet his story here is a very different one.
There's no woman in the picture, for one, as he is left almost entirely to his own devices (though frequently glad of and reaching out for some social contact).
He has also become even more the observer.
But where Venice was all art and artifice, Varanasi is over-bustling life -- and, especially, death, with the bodies burnt on the ghats.
In Varanasi, ultimately: "Time passed, or maybe it didn't. All of time is here, in Varanasi, so maybe time cannot pass."
Ah, yes .....
But Dyer rarely gets too ponderous, his riffs on these foreign places and the feeling of not quite belonging in them -- even as his main characters are (or become) insiders of one sort or another -- keeping things going fairly well.
Dyer's comfort level with the art world and tourism are great enough that he can pull much of this off with comfortable ease; only a few bits, such as the descriptions of traffic in Varanasi, feel a bit too forced.
For better and worse, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is typical Dyer-fare.
The turns of phrase are enjoyable, the wit and haplessness good fun, the set pieces -- everything from the parties to dealing with people who cut ahead in line at the ATM -- quite well done.
It doesn't really feel like it adds up to quite enough, but that's also to be expected: Dyer's big pictures aren't meant to be definitive, as he revels in that sense of vagueness.
Enjoyable enough, certainly.
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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi:
Other books by Geoff Dyer under review:
Otehr books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction
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About the Author:
British author Geoff Dyer was born in 1958.
He attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
He has written several novels, a study of John Berger, and several books that his publishers describe as "genre-defying".
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