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Review of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
By Geoff Dyer
Pantheon Books, 2009

It’s perfectly legitimate if reading a book occasionally makes you want to punch the author. Who hasn’t felt the urge to sock Hemingway in the jaw? Me, I’d keep a roll of pennies just for Truman Capote. But it’s quite another thing if reading a book makes you want to punch random strangers. That’s when you know the book you’re reading is not only bad but really bad. Throwing a book across the room out of frustration is an editorial comment; throwing a book at the cat is a criticism of the author’s choice of vocation.

It wasn’t ten pages before I could no longer safely take Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasion the subway. Hell, the title alone had me glancing angrily at my sleeping basset hound.

No surprises: the book concerns a guy named Jeff, and it splits its time between Venice and Varanasi. In the first half, Jeff is a hack journalist who gets assigned the Biennale in Venice, that orgy of art world lunacy all sane Venetians loathe and avoid, an antic interval in which crazy foreign so-called artists descend on the city with their exhibitions and installations and a separate but equally appalling horde of journalists descend to describe the descent. Jeff attends out of combination of boredom and alcoholism, until he meets the alluring Laura (get it? get it? Sigh), who transports him into ecstasy, both in bed and out. In the second half, a world away in Varanasi, a figure who may or may not be Jeff is still seeking ecstasy and may or may not find it by the time of the novel’s indeterminate (which is to say lazy) conclusion.

Long before that conclusion – in fact, mere pages from the beginning, Jeff is narcissistically mulling over life in modern-day Britain as he stops into a convenience store for a snack:

He had read, a few days earlier, that British Muslims were the most embittered, disgruntled and generally fed up of any in Europe. So why was there all this talk about the need for Muslims to integrate into British life? The fact that they were so pissed off was a sign of profound assimilation. What better proof could there be?

Chewing over this important Topic – at the last moment he’d opted for chocolate rather than gum – Jeff walked on to Regent’s Park.

Even before you realize that Topic is a type of British candy bar – and certainly afterwards – you’re experiencing the only legitimate response to finding such adolescent idiocy in a published novel: you want to punch the author squarely in his smug, class-clown face. And while he’s recoiling, you want to yell at him that moronic tricks like that – or all that wheezy blather about pissed-off Muslims – doesn’t even pass muster at the local pub, let alone in a book whose title echoes Thomas Mann.

The Varanasi parts are no better:

I had finished my banana. It had not looked that great but, taste-wise, it was one of the best bananas I had ever eaten, so I immediately unpeeled another and started eating that too, and it was every bit as good, almost, as the one I had just finished.

Yum.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi should come with a warning label for any people, cats, or basset hounds who happen to be near you when you’re reading it: Yum = Punch.

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