It's no new trick in fiction for authors to write themselves into their work, whether it's Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout cameos, or Louisa May Alcott masquerading as Jo March in Little Women. In Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, British author Geoff Dyer stretches the device even further, creating both a fictional stand-in for himself, and then a stand-in for the stand-in, exploring in the process two very different approaches to resolving the nagging dissatisfaction that characterizes, if not the human condition, then at least the Western one. (One of the approaches involves lots of sex and cocaine, so it's not as dull as it sounds.)
Dyer's new novel is split into two standalone novellas. Part one is the third-person account of a journalist named Jeff Atman, on assignment to cover Venice during the Biennale. Part two describes, in the first person, an unnamed journalist in Varanasi, India, who visits the city on a writing assignment and never leaves. Dyer, Jeff Atman, and the unnamed character have many superficial traits in common—all three are writers, journalists, Londoners. And as Geoff Dyer both is and is not Jeff Atman in the first half, so the line blurs between Atman and the narrator of the second half.
Atman is an aging freelance journalist who hates his job but can't bring himself to quit; who relies on drugs and booze to make life interesting. "However much Atman despised other people, when he did the math and added things up, Atman always found himself more despicable still." He's on assignment to cover Venice's Biennale, one of the world's foremost contemporary art exhibitions, but for Atman and his friends it's little more than an excuse to swarm from party to party, open bar to open bar. The art is incidental at best—"There was all this art and yet there was very little to see, or very little worth looking at anyway," he thinks. "Some of it was a waste of one's eyes." The only piece of art at the Biennale that makes any impression on Jeff is a Finnish installation of a small wooden boat, rocking slowly over a sea of broken glass.
When Jeff meets Laura, he thinks he's found the woman who will change his life: She's beautiful, she's smart, she has a face that is "bony, slightly equine... the flaw that clinched it for him, the flaw that was not a flaw." Atman is a character study in despair, though he doesn't recognize himself as such—constantly pursuing or recovering from cocaine and alcohol, pinning all his hopes for happiness on a woman just as unreliable as he is.
In the second half of the book, an unnamed narrator visits Varanasi, India, on assignment, and just... never leaves. He comes to think of Varanasi as containing all the colors and smells of the world, and slowly loses interest in ever going anywhere else. Where Atman lunged for new experiences in a constant pursuit of sensation, the narrator here is slowly drifting away: he thinks about sleeping with women, but never does it; shaves his head; conquers his revulsion of the Ganges to take periodic swims in it.
It helps to know, going in, that Jeff in Venice is a puzzle, because most of the fun in this book lies in searching for clues. There are connections between the two parts, allusions and references that reward close attention and ensure that even while the narrative resolution isn't entirely satisfying, the reading experience is nonetheless rich.