Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A nice and entertaining story of a quick love affair in Venice is spoilt by the near-disposable second half.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847672711

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Meet Jeff. He's a journalist living in London, with a fine line in delaying his work effort and a keen eye for detail. He can see how the world is made better by a smile from a random shopkeeper - yet seems too grumpy to try it himself. Instead he suspects his habit of walking round, mouthing or speaking out his own inner thoughts is making him seem a scary old man. He can partly address this, by dying his hair. And he can stop walking round London when he gets commissions to report back from the modern arts Biennale in Venice. Soon, however, the only work of art he's at all worried about goes by the name of Laura...

You might suspect from their first encounter across a tray of complimentary Bellinis that this will be another modern comedy of errors, with a hapless man and his unrequited love, but this is not. Their relationship, for one, is very graphically requited. He ostensibly does his work, they get to spend more time together, before they both must part...

Him, for one, because he is destined to end up as first-person narrator of an utterly disappointing second half, set in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges. Dyer's Venice seemed completely accurate, and so does this locale, but for different reasons. We're bludgeoned with everything, just as a tourist swamped by beggars, pushy street hawkers, dopehead dropouts and temple bells. We see all there is to be seen - corpses, illness, poverty, bounties of ordure (if that's possible). In fact we're not invited only to see it, we have it all picked out in vivid colour. "Show, don't tell" - the basic lesson to all actors. Here I sought for any subtlety, anything not presented as interminable, near-plotless travelog. He doesn't even have the decency to go mad entertainingly.

Before then we had a welter of realistic comedy. Leaving the completely different beast of part two behind, we see a man typically an English tourist. Jeff can never find his hotel, and often gets lost walking short distances in Venice. He can show himself up quite easily among the community of British journalists and artists he hangs with. But not everything is done for laughs - a lesser writer would have had the modern art Jess sees as sarcastic jokes. Dyer's knowledgeable enough to use real creations, and not faux, arch concepts of his own, or OTT nonsense such as Jeff might have seen.

Some of this part, however, remains too arch. The narrative voice, a melange of straight narration, and Jeff's more internalised thoughts, sometimes turns to the too-wry-by-far opinions of a narrative god who's swallowed an observational stand-up comic. I might deign to quote some jokes, but won't - they're not that great or memorable, and that's my point. On the whole this can be passed over, and certainly when we're in the stride of things with our strongly-wrought hero we engage with the plot as much as the comic window on the world.

I will remain forever ignorant of why we had to suffer window number two. Both sides have a strong interest in sensual life - art and sex, vivid exotica and diarrhoea. But you could possibly finish the book convinced they're two different characters - where does the tennis suddenly appear from? - were it not from some artful mirroring of events. We near the end with a further trip to the hairdressers, another liking of random smiles, and more people disarmed by mouthing rubbishy thoughts.

This is to me a completely schizophrenic pair of novellas, and if Venice and Varanasi are twinned, I know the only one of the two I'd choose to revisit. The Bookbag rating then is the average demanded of four stars meeting two.

I must still thank Canongate for my review copy.

This put me in mind of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe, for a vaguely linked journey to self-destruction by a modern man - but then I could happily read 99% and not just 55%.

Buy Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer at Amazon.com.


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