Is there anything duller than a book about personal enlightenment? Millions of readers of Siddhartha, The Alchemist, and Eat, Pray, Love might call this a minority opinion, but I’m sticking to it: Narratives of nirvana attained are all too often you-had-to-be-there exercises in gooey escapism. Not for me.
Except, hang on, I’ve found one, a novel about spiritual uplift for grounded skeptics. It comes from slacker intellectual Geoff Dyer, the author of appealing, dilettantish studies of jazz and photography, a brilliant non-biography biography of D.H. Lawrence called Out of Sheer Rage, and the amusing memoir-travelogue Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. He also writes fiction, though I found his last novel, Paris Trance, a woozy bummer. All is forgiven with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a bifurcated work of fiction that coheres into a highly entertaining exploration of desire—by which I mean midlife male desire, by which I mean sex with a beautiful, curiously available woman, impressive amounts of booze and cocaine, and finally ascetic renunciation on the banks of the Ganges.
Dyer’s book is a highly entertaining exploration of desire—by which I mean midlife male desire, by which I mean sex with a beautiful, curiously available woman, impressive amounts of booze and cocaine, and finally ascetic renunciation on the banks of the Ganges.
Whatever genre Dyer tackles, critical study, novel, travelogue, his true subject is generally, charmingly, Geoff Dyer. No surprise then that the protagonist here is a London-based, mid-forties freelance journalist named Jeff. His editor at Kulchur has asked him to cover the opening of the Venice Biennale art exhibition, and to interview a glamorous Venice-based celebrity—all expenses paid, of course. (The year is 2003, when such things were still possible in print journalism.) Jeff is a comic, jaded guide to the Biennale scene, confirming what you may have heard: The art is afterthought to the parties. Jeff gets soused on free Bellinis with gallery owners, art stars, and various hangers-on, just barely squeezing in installations by Gilbert & George, Ed Ruscha, James Turrell and others. (Actual works from past Biennales cameo here.) Venice provides an attractive backdrop for all of this— vaporetti motoring by, birds swooping under bridges, palazzos galore—and then Jeff meets Laura Freeman, a sexy American who almost immediately consents to a series of explicit sexual encounters, most of them charged up by cocaine.
It’s a hedonistic 150-odd pages; you keep waiting for Jeff’s miraculously successful weekend in Venice to go sour, but it never does. And yet he’s bereft at the end, which leads us cleverly to the novel’s second half. Here we’re treated to a first-person account of a junket to the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges in India. An unnamed writer (who seems to be Jeff from the first half of the book, though this is never confirmed) has been assigned to write a travel piece for The Daily Telegraph. His visit offers us a very different definition of pleasure, a funhouse vision that is, surprisingly and thought-provokingly, no less alluring than the first.
In Dyer’s hands, Varanasi is a colorful, decrepit, death-haunted place. Several of the ghats, most notably Manikarnika, are the sites of ritual cremation, so there are bodies constantly burning, and the narrator sees ghastly things: body parts floating in the river, dogs on the far bank chewing apart a corpse. He’s also constantly hustled by boatmen and beggars, a pack of “hyena children” attacks him while he’s in a rickshaw, and he suffers through bouts of enthusiastically described diarrhea. All this, and yet he lingers on in Varanasi, never sure why he’s staying.
An answer of sorts comes toward the end, in an encounter with a holy man sitting in the street. The narrator pays him some rupees to sit with him and stare into his eyes. He experiences an apparition of himself: “The face I saw, the face that was my face, was full of something, trembling like a glass brimful of water, trembling like a whippet.” His affliction feels familiar, that what-next? what-next? agitation of modern life. To be released from it, to be like the holy man, is to find calm and peace. “How had he got there? How had he managed that?”
Looking for an answer, the narrator slides away from his former self, succumbing in the end to something that looks like madness—babbling to tourists, hardly eating and bathing in the polluted Ganges. He is happy though, and it is a tribute to Dyer’s method here that this achievement has a seductive pull. Are sex, drugs, and art parties in Venice all they’re cracked up to be? I enjoyed the first half of this unconventional, companionable novel, but by the end I wasn’t so sure.
Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.