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.