Canongate £12.99. Call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or visit the Independent Bookshop. Price: £11.69 inc free UK p&p



Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, By Geoff Dyer

Set in Venice and by the Ganges, this novel delves into the depths of love – and emerges a tad puzzled

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'