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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An intense, vivid trip, June 9, 2010
This review is from: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi: A Novel (Hardcover)
Geoff Dyer's fourth work of fiction is a brilliantly bifurcated exploration of the emotional poles of sensual pleasure and spiritual quest. It's a smart, funny, eyes-wide-open take on our search for meaning, one of those rare novels that begs to be read again the moment you have turned to the final page.

In the novel's first half, "Jeff in Venice," Dyer introduces Jeff Atman (in a sly nod to the second part of the book, the word means "soul" or "true self" in Hinduism), a cynical 45-year-old British journalist who has just dyed his hair for the first time and taken off for Venice. He is headed there on assignment to cover the Biennale and write a piece on the ex-girlfriend of a prominent artist (the latter a task he bungles spectacularly). Jeff seems more intent on sampling the pleasures of the Italian city (a torrent of bellinis and never-ending helpings of risotto the most prominent). There, he meets Laura Freeman, a ravishing young woman who works for a Los Angeles art gallery. The two zip around the city's waterways on its fleet of vaporettos and quickly tumble into a relationship that features copious bouts of sex (described in NC-17 detail) and cocaine, interspersed with a mind-numbing swirl of parties and gallery visits.

Astonished by the ample, unanticipated pleasures of his encounter with Laura, Jeff strides the streets, dumbly celebrating his good fortune: "He swaggered through Venice as if he owned the place, as if it had been created entirely for his benefit. Life! So full of inconvenience, irritation, boredom and annoyance and yet, at the same time, so utterly fantastic." Though it seems the two have made a connection that transcends the purely carnal, Laura departs for Los Angeles after three magical, if inexplicable, days. They enact the obligatory exchange of email addresses and phone numbers, and we're left with a feeling that seems both inevitable and somehow fitting that they'll never see each other again.

The second section of the book, recounted in the first person by an unnamed narrator with enough similarities to Jeff to let us conclude it's the same protagonist, is set in India's holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River. After polishing off the magazine piece that has brought him there, the narrator abandons any plan to return home, slowly adapting to the rituals and rhythms of the ancient city ("I'd come to Varanasi because there was nothing to keep me in London, and I stayed on for the same reason: because there was nothing to go home for."). But as he does so, he undergoes an emotional transformation that becomes more profound as time glides past like the spiritually pure, dreadfully polluted Ganges. "All I'm saying," he concludes, "is that in Varanasi I no longer felt like I was waiting. The waiting was over. I was over. I had taken myself out of the equation." He shaves his head, dons a dhoti and in one of the most striking demonstrations of Dyer's art, we ponder whether "Jeff" is evolving toward some higher plane of spiritual ecstasy or descending into the depths of madness.

The novel is suffused with a sharp, picturesque description of its disparate yet strikingly similar settings. "Every day, for hundreds of years," Dyer writes, "Venice had woken up and put on this guise of being a real place even though everyone knew it existed only for tourists." Varanasi, with its ubiquitous ghats and their cremation pyres, is drenched in an almost hallucinatory swirl of colors, sights and smells: "The colours made the rainbow look muted. Lolly-pink, a temple pointed skywards like a rocket whose launch, delayed by centuries, was still believed possible, even imminent, by the Brahmins lounging in the warm shade of mushroom umbrellas."

Given the superficially unconnected stories, it's fair to ask whether the work really is a "novel," or, more correctly, two novellas with interwoven themes. Regardless, the effort of teasing out the links between the two sections is one of the book's numerous pleasures. To start, both are set in watery cities steeped in history. And with a deft touch, the stories' language and images echo each other, illustrated by this handful of many such examples: begging bowls, real and metaphorical appear in both cities; the term "otter" does double duty as the way Jeff hears Venetians describe the heat and how "Jeff" imagines his "sleek" appearance at the end of the novel; there's an image of a kangaroo that surfaces at the climax of both stories; and Jeff's Venice dream of having his arm devoured by a dog becomes frighteningly real when that fate befalls a corpse in Varanasi.

Strikingly contemporary and utterly timeless, JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI is an intense, vivid trip to a pair of exotic cities and an equally provocative journey into the twisted passageways of the human soul.
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