Jeff Atman is a London-based journalist – divorced, in his forties, jaded, a self-confessed hack – sent to Venice to cover the Biennale. He's got a line about Venice that he trots out more than once: "It's impossible to say anything about Venice that's not been said before... including this remark." To prove the point, it isn't even his idea, it's from Mary McCarthy's Venice Observed. He hasn't much to say about the art that he's there to review: "Overall, it's of a banality that beggars belief." But what he is attentive to are the "laws of social physics" describing the behaviour of his fellow art-world liggers. Peripheral characters flit in and out of view, Bellinis in hand and witticisms on tap, and it hardly seems to matter what is said or by whom, only that the conversation continues. "The Biennale was like A Dance to the Music of Time compressed into four days," says Jeff. "The same people cropping up, expectedly and unexpectedly, generally looking somewhat the worse for wear." Actually, it sounds more like the kind of superficial and deadening milieus satirised in novels by Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis.
Which makes what happens to Jeff in Venice the more miraculous. Against all expectations – Jeff's included – this is a love story. Or, if not exactly a love story, as it lasts only four days, then a story about the mysterious chemistry of mutual attraction and desire; the transcendental state of happiness a person can attain if they unexpectedly make a connection, far from home, with someone they can communicate with effortlessly and wittily – almost as if they were a different and better person – in between bouts of cocaine-fuelled sex.
So, that's Jeff in Venice. What about the death in Varanasi (a city on the banks of the Ganges)? Geoff Dyer's novel is actually a diptych; two discrete novellas set in two ancient, watery cities. In the second, the narration switches from the third to the first person. It is probably, though you can't say for certain, an older, and arguably wiser, Jeff who has been commissioned to write this travel piece. His first impressions – of the colour, noise, chaos, poverty – are overwhelming, so he tends to relate to the experience as if he were playing a computer game called Varanasi Death Match. He watches pilgrims bathing in the Ganges during the daily ceremony at Dashaswamedh, and thinks it an exhausted pageant drummed up for tourists. His opinion of Hinduism is the same as his opinion of magical realism, which he doesn't have any time for. Yet, a few days later, the decision not to catch his return flight, but to stay on, somehow seems as though it had already been made. Before long he has gone native, shaved off his hair and donned a dhoti, and is either experiencing or hallucinating communion with a god of his own devising called Ganoona.
If part one of Dyer's novel is all about male ego and sexual desire, then part two is about the dissolving of ego and the renunciation of desire. (Probably not coincidentally, there is a lot of cocaine imbibed in part one, and hash in part two.) It is a book about states of mind and sublime experiences, secular and divine. It's also a meditation on relationships, impermanence, art and aesthetics, knowledge and experience, travel and travel writing. It is not without flaws: there is a fundamental disconnect built into its structure and the narrative never regains the momentum it loses in the jolt from part one to part two; it is willfully disorienting; and the title is not the weakest of its puns. But the writing seems effortlessly good, and it is erudite, full of subtle allusion and foreshadowing, highly observant and frequently funny. It is slippery, evasive even, and is liable to provoke wildly varying responses. It struck me as an ultimately sad novel, asking the question of whether 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and finding the answer inconclusive.