The premise of this book could be the definition of what I generally look to avoid in a novel: a semi-autobiographical travelogue in which the protagonist, a British journalist approaching middle age, lives the high life at the Venice Biennale and then goes off to “find himself” in India. It seemed horribly certain to involve smugness and midlife crisis-related oversharing. Neither did the title, with its naff pun, bode well. Remarkably, from this material Geoff Dyer has fashioned a novel that is both funny and insightful.
Dyer, who is 50, has tackled a diverse range of subjects in his 10 previous books, ranging from the missing of the Somme to the pleasures of drug-taking, but the central preoccupation of his work is usually himself. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is no exception. The novel is divided into two sections, the first telling the story of a Dyer alter-ego, Jeff Atman, a recently divorced hack sent to Venice to cover the Biennale for Kulchur magazine. Obviously, the art shows are merely the fringe entertainment on this trip; a pleasant means of passing the time while recovering from the previous night’s bellini-induced hangover. Jeff is further distracted from his ostensible purpose by the beautiful Laura, an American gallerist.
Much to his amazement, she is undeterred by his age and skinniness, and together they embark on a three-day sex and booze and drug-fuelled bender. At a party aboard a millionaire’s yacht, blasted on coke and with this gorgeous creature on his arm, Jeff experiences a joyous epiphany: “The last six or however many hours it was were like a concentrated version of everything he had ever wanted from his life.”
That feeling is an illusion, both real and unreal, like much of the art on show and like Venice itself. As befits a novel about two watery cities, this book is filled with shimmering apparitions that never quite resolve themselves. The morning after the party, Jeff and Laura go and sit in a light installation by James Turrell: “It was an illusion, but because it was an illusion this did not mean it was less real than anything else, than things which were not illusory.”
Jeff’s story, which could have been mundane, is rescued by this mystical quality and by Dyer’s very funny — and accurate — portrait of the contemporary art world in all its ridiculousness. After several nights on the lash, a colleague of Jeff’s proposes a toast to the only artist worth remembering from the Biennale: Bellini. This is greeted by a great — and by no means entirely ironic — cheer.
While the art world is neatly skewered, however, it is not dismissed. Jeff’s responses to the work he sees are acute and deeply felt. Dyer, or, rather, Jeff (Dyer makes a point of distancing himself from Jeff’s critical opinions in an end note), manages to find meaning in contemporary art without falling into the emperor’s new clothes trap: “The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances, any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.”
Unfortunately, Dyer’s control evaporates as soon as Laura’s kit comes off. In order to enjoy a sex scene, one needs to feel at some level attracted to the characters involved, and as much as Jeff is funny and likable, he was not someone I wanted to picture at it in quite the forensic level of detail provided.