Title: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Author: Geoff Dyer
Release Date: April 7, 2009
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5
Every two years the international art world descends on Venice for the opening of the Biennale. Among them is Jeff Atman—a jaded, dissolutely resolute journalist—whose dedication to the cause of Bellini-fuelled party-going is only intermittently disturbed by the obligation to file a story. When he meets Laura, he is rejuvenated, ecstatic. Their romance blossoms quickly but is it destined to disappear just as rapidly?
Every day thousands of pilgrims head to the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city in India. Among their number is a narrator who may or may not be the Atman previously seen in Venice. Intending to visit only for a few days he ends up staying for months, and finds—or should that be loses?—a hitherto unexamined idea of himself, the self. In a romance he can only observe, he sees a reflection of the kind of pleasures that, willingly or not, he has renounced. In the process, two ancient and watery cities become versions of each other. Could two stories, in two different cities, actually be one and the same story?
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is actually two separate novellas combined into one book. The first novella, Jeff in Venice, is a worldly and self-indulgent account of a journalist named Jeff Atman who travels to Venice. He embarks on a journey of drugs, alcohol, and graphic sex, experiencing every pleasure that the city has to offer.
The second novella, Death in Varanasi, is a little more ambiguous. The reader isn’t entirely sure whether the narrator, who is unnamed, is the same as in the first novella. This story is much more of a travel narrative; the reader learns about the holy city of Varanasi through the anonymous narrator’s eyes. He is much more concerned with the state of his soul than the pleasures of the flesh; however, in some ways, he is just as self-indulgent as Jeff Atman (if they aren’t one and the same). He merely indulges the spirit instead of the physical. (It is interesting to note that Atman, the protagonist’s last name, is a Hindu word which roughly means “true self.”)
Dyer’s writing style is very smooth. He is obviously a talented writer; however, I’m not sure the concept of this novel actually works. It’s an interesting thought, but in the end, the reader is merely presented with two different stories of different caliber.
Jeff in Venice is not a very enjoyable novella. It is childish and extremely self-indulgent. All Jeff wants to do is get drunk, get high, and have sex with Laura. He is extremely selfish and can’t seem to commit to anything professionally. While it is well-written, it’s not a very interesting story, even with deeper analysis.
Death in Varanasi, on the other hand, is an engaging tale of extremes. The narrator’s descriptions of Varanasi are vivid; he presents a beautiful portrait of the city, in all its ugliness. The stark contrasts of Varanasi are a wonderful background for the narrator’s spiritual journey. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this part of the novel, though it, too, was a bit self-indulgent.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a novel with a very interesting concept. Though I’m not sure how well it was executed, it’s clear that Geoff Dyer is a very talented writer. I look forward to reading his future novels!
Thank you to the Amazon Vine program for sending me this book to review.