Friday, May 15, 2009

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

A few years ago I read Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer's original hybrid-memoir/literary meditation about his procrastination writing about D. H. Lawrence. Committed to the project, but too busy dithering about where to live to take his work seriously (or at least so his meta-self claims), he is dismayed at the prospect of rereading the novels, and inexplicably prefers the letters. This eccentric preference makes sense as Dyer’s blase, offbeat voice meanders along, like a seemingly effortless, charming, witty, book-length letter. He goes on and on about himself, then suddenly tosses in quite a few facts and insights about Lawrence, without appearing to do any work. As he writes the book, he retraces at least some of Lawrence’s travels with his girlfriend in search of inspiration. And of course he does paradoxically write a lot about Lawrence in the process of not writing about Lawrence. I remember being delighted when he finally views Lawrence’s paintings in a motel gallery somewhere in New Mexico (I think) and says how bad they are. There are some limits to his love of Lawrence.

Dyer’s witty new novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, has received a lot of press, but I resisted the press: why I don’t know. This novel turned up serendipitously at a suburban library where I took a bicycle break, and as I began to read, I realized that I’ve wasted a lot of time NOT reading Geoff Dyer. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is absolutely a literary turn-pager. James Wood of The New Yorker wrote an enthusiastic piece in the April 20th issue, and his intelligent essay gives you all the background on Dyer you need.

Dyer’s amusing, polished, jesting self-denigrating novel is divided into two parts, one set in Venice, the other in Varanasi. Jeff Atman, the protagonist (at least of the first part; there’s some controversy about the second part, where the voice switches to a first-person unnamed narrator, but I’m betting on his being Jeff, too), is a middle-aged freelance writer who hopes ironically never to have to churn out a “think” piece about art again, though he needs the money. The day before he flies to Venice to cover the Biennale (an international art event), he walks along Marylebone High Street, musing on his discontent. As he looks into the window of an expensive hairdresser, he decides impulsively to have his hair dyed: perhaps this have something to do with “dyeing” Jeff Atman so he is not Geoff Dyer? (Clumsily I meta along.) His hairdresser quotes Sylvia Plath.

Dyer writes:

He had never paid more than ten pounds (with tip), had not had his hair cut anywhere but a barber’s for thirty years, not since the unisex craze of the mid-seventies, and, most importantly of all, he didn’t need a haircut. But here he was, opening the door, taking the first steps towards doing something he’d been thinking about for years: getting his hair dyed. For a long time he’d thought of gray hair as a symptom, a synonym of inner dreariness, and had accepted it, accordingly as inevitable - but all that was about to change.

Dyeing his hair boosts his confidence and is perhaps a factor in helping him get the girl. In Venice he has an idyllic affair with beautiful woman who works at an art galley in California and who matches him quip for quip in Nick-and-Nora-style dialogue. They're amazingly compatible, though usually hungover, because they get drunk and do cocaine at the art opening parties before going back to their hotel rooms to have oral sex. It’s very, very funny, but is also a sensitive account of a love affair. Dyer knows the parties and the art talk, and we feel as though we're there: in his acknowledgements he explains that he has attended three Biennales.

The second part, set in Varanasi, is the reverse of Venice in many ways, but this assignment also gives the freelance writer character a chance to escape himself as he becomes increasingly immersed in the culture.

Very entertaining. Booker Prize-worthy!


Ellen said...

I've never read anything by this author. How much you know, Kathy, and how you keep up with the zeitgeist of each year. The title is a turn on Mann's and yes the book with its place, self-reflexity and double-plot is your Booker Prize type book.


Mad Housewife said...

Dear Ellen,

You'd love the Lawrence book. The novel is excellent, too, intellectual, but unpreetniously funny, with allusions to Lawrence as well as Mann (and I should reread Death in Venice, but I probably won't). The art world and his descriptions of the art at Biennale also shape the novel in ways I might understand better if I reread it.

Ellen said...

Thank you for the comment. I worked tonight on recreating my blog roll on Wordpress.

I like it when books are unpretentious.