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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer [in San Francisco Chronicle]

Jeff in Venice, Death in VaranasiGeoff Dyer’s latest novel, teasingly titled Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, is quite the mind game. To play, you obviously have to read the book.

Here’s the initial setup: two distinct parts with a few overlapping similarities. In the first, “Jeff in Venice,” London journalist Jeff Atman is sent to the Venice Biennial to chase down an elusive subject for an article. Amid the booze and drug-filled parties (with a few forays into checking out a bit of art), he meets the attractive Laura and has the time of his life. In the second, “Death in Varanasi,” an unnamed London journalist (also Jeff, we would assume) is sent to Varanasi as a last-minute replacement to write a travel piece. He is initially overwhelmed upon arrival in the holiest of India’s holy cities, home to the ultimate in Hindu cremations along the Ganges River. He makes friends, files his article and decides to stay.

So once the final page is finished, the reader is left with two different stories, nominally related by a single character. While one is a hedonistic, status-seeking idyll of near-debauchery told in the third person, the other is a first-person narrative about paring down and letting go. Both are interesting enough stories, detailed and engaging, and certainly the reader could leave it as one man’s life journey from one extreme to another.

But why stop there? And are the stories so different? Yes, both Venice and Varanasi are legendary waterlogged cities with ubiquitous boats ferrying travelers, and awash in stifling heat as a journalist chases down a story. But look deeper, and the two seemingly distinct parts begin to flow in and out of each other. … [click here for more]

Review: San Francisco Chronicle, April 17, 2009

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009


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