Review: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

Caution: this review contains spoilers. This book is crap.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
was recommended to me by an old school friend. (To be clear: the school is old. She isn’t). And I hated it. Awkward, as they say on Twitter.

It was, I thought, so to speak, not so much Uttar Pradesh as Utter Rubbish. I had such a strong allergic reaction to Geoff Dyer I had to get a friend staying in a nearby chalet to rush three Kate Atkinson novels over as an antidote.

To be fair to my school friend (she reads my blog – well, someone has to – hello!), she hadn’t finished it when she recommended it. And I actually really rather liked the first half. It was pretty funny. I liked the free sample on the Kindle – that thing he does, muttering thoughts almost out loud. I do that. My wife also says ‘you’re doing that thing again’. He must be just like me! I am going to like this book, I thought.

I’ve never been to Venice or the Biennale; in fact I’d never even heard of the Biennale until the last one. I saw a piece on the BBC Ten O’Clock News about it, and was horrified by what a self-indulgent junket it seemed to be. A call to a friend who works in the ‘Arts & Entertainment cluster’, or ‘nut cluster’, confirmed my suspicions, and the first section of Geoff in Venice rang true.

The problem starts at the half-way point. I sensed trouble was afoot as soon as we handbrake-turned into a new narrative voice. An amusing third-person tale of a loser journalist having an stupidly good time in Venice gives way to a first person account of a life falling to pieces in India amid mystics and illness and dope.

Half way through the second half, I got an uneasy sense that nothing at all was going to happen. Jeff’s new homespun religion reminded me of the sort of pseudo-mystical tosh an alcoholic (and now dead) colleague used to come out with – and other people’s drug experiences are about as interesting as other people’s dreams or yesterday’s weather forecast. Or yesterday’s dreams. Or other people’s weather.

I kept reading because I wanted to slag it off and thought I could only do that if I actually finished it, because I’d paid for it dammit (a tweep says that’s the latent Northerner in me) – and because I thought there might just be a sliver of a ghost of a chance of the one character you are expecting from the first half to re-appear, even if she only sails past on the Ganges, unseen, to, in some small way, tie the two halves of the book together. But no.

This book feels like a couple of bits of travel writing, or a slight novella and a really, really annoying bit of travel writing, stuck together. I don’t get it. Maybe it would help if I’d even read Death in Venice. Maybe I need to go to Venice and snort coke and go to Varanasi and smoke dope. I never wanted to do the latter, and I know for sure now that I never will.

It did, however, inspire me to write. Because I think I can do better. And I have my (old school) friend to thank for that.

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One Response to Review: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

  1. Ian says:

    Dear Constance,

    Dyer’s writing is not meant to be taken literally. To me he is constantly flitting around his characters and riffing on subjects with a brilliance few others match. I would die to write something like:-

    ‘When he was seventeen Jeff had read The French Lieutenant’s Woman and 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. It had stayed with him ever since but it seemed absurd, now, to have any pretensions to existential contentment. Sat on the bench with Laura as the afternoon shadows lengthened Jeff knew he was finally getting in touch with his inner Victorian. He felt with Laura strange, modern form of intimacy – not Victorian at all – that made it easier to lick someone’s ass than to ask when you might see them again.”

    Good he got you writing again.

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