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« In Which We Are Nowhere Near Venice & Nowhere Near Varanasi »




Being stupid was fine, like a premonition of enlightenment.

- Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Once, as a lowly undergrad, I had a TA hijack a discussion session to warn us that studying literature in discussion sections was going to take all the joy out of reading texts in the long run. Note that I said texts instead of books or stories and you'll see that it's already borderline late for me. As soon as you start thinking of a story as a text - something mechanical, something not just to be read but to be interpreted - you've changed the way that you approach the process in the first place. Scheherazade's whipped out a pair of librarian glasses and ordered your critical faculties on. No more sinking back in your divan and listening passively to the lazy tale unwind; you'll take notes and tease out meaning and, despite the buzz of the wine and the apple sheesha, prepare to be called on.

But maybe a 'book' is different than a text, and some stories function more effectively as one than the other. Certainly, it's is a different thing to love a work of fiction as just a book (or a movie, for that matter, or an AMC original drama) than to love it as a text. You love a book because it blooms right at the dooryard and, once you're finished, you put it down, satisfied with what it's done and not necessarily eager to take it any further.

A text, on the other hand, asks you to go further, dig deeper before it yields a sense of satisfaction. You love a text because it blooms under direction, under the weight of your supple thumbs, rewarding the time and effort you put into it. I like it best when I pick up a work that does both, that pulls me into it on the first read and, then, continues to bloom over and over as I think about it, write about it, talk about it, teach it and share it.


You usually know what you're going to get but, sometimes, an author pulls one out from under you. Recently, I read a novel by Geoff Dyer (whose work I ordinarily love) that was more maddening than anything I've read since Matt Griffin's flow-chart novel in grad school. Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a great text to talk about: it's a genre-busting palimpsestic wonder, an almost perfect book for book club reading that one day will come packaged with its own set of study questions tucked inside the back flap. It is, on its own terms: a novel, a raga, "a diptych," an art installation, a literary scavenger hunt, a pilgrimage to the graves of old masters, a reimagining of Death in Venice, a dip in a storied river, and "an explanation of the river/ that has replaced the river itself." All in all, it's a two-part wallow in the human condition, structured as epic rager followed by epic comedown.


The first part is a dogged romp through sex, drugs, Venice Biennale exhibits, endless parties and endless banalities. Not a single person feels like a real person and such is Dyer's craftiness that this is accomplished on purpose. The sex is written like a mad lib of body parts. The coke-fueled evenings are ripped from a hack Hollywood screenplay. Everyone's trashed and everyone's shallow. Every conversation is a gnarl of sly phrases and allusions.

The only relief to be found is when Dyer swings into art critic mode, meditating on the power of stillness in a Giorgione painting, the blankness of a portrait subject's gaze, or the dissolution of light as Venetian water meets Venetian sky. Dyer is great at talking about art in wholly intimate sense, and he's an expert at weaving a tangle of abstract ideas. He does it so well that, for a moment, it's like an encounter with the holy - and then it's back to coke and mirrors and women's assholes and the joke of our lives reflected in other people.


Maaria Wirkkala, "Landing Prohibited," installation, 2007.

I wish that all this gratuitous titillation was fun, but it's not, maybe because Jeff Atman, our middle-aged British journo protagonist, is too riddled with anxiety to enjoy it himself. Yet, in dragging us through the whole sordid mess, the text is trying to make a point, and it's not about the search for meaning but about the absence of it.

And so, to address that absence, the novel's second part lands us on the opposite bank of the river, the opposite side of the world, in Varanasi where a character much like Atman (that's Atman as in atma, Sanskrit for soul, as in Mahatma Gandhi, no less), arrives to research a travel piece for the Telegraph. The piece is researched and then written but the protagonist stays on, proceeding to lose himself in a maze of cars and cows and ghats and water, into a manic and uncompromising Indian landscape.


As in the first section, all the characters are merely ciphers and the text comes alive most fully in its descriptions of works of art, itinerant holiness, light and shadow, etc. There are passages here of lapidary beauty, passages that could stand on their own as flash essays, brief and lyrical. Like this, for example:

The walls and windows of the riverside palaces loomed and blazed anciently in the horizontal light. The fact that the light is horizontal does not mean that the buildings are ancient. The light is horizontal, but the buildings are ancient. The light is ancient, the buildings are not. None of them is older than the eighteenth century. The history of Varanasi is the history of how it gets razed to the ground and rebuilt, razed to the ground and rebuilt. No sooner has it been rebuilt than it looks like it's on its last legs. Every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth, so a temple built today looks, overnight, as if it's been there since the dawn of time. Every morning is the dawn of time, I wrote in my notebook. Every day is the whole of time.


from Michael Ackerman's "End Time City" (Scalo)

In the last few pages, something changes. Maybe it's not a sense of the holy that prevails, but a sense of the ridiculous. Jeff (or whoever he is; this second protagonist goes unnamed) gets smacked in the face by the shit-caked tail of a cow and gets dysentery. Jeff drinks a bhang lassi and talks to a goat. Jeff begins to lose his Jeffness. The dirt and the heat, the lack of sex, and the lack of sense break down his sensibilities. The very thing that defines him, that gives shape to his world and sets him apart from the restless animals that surround him - which is the ability to hold onto an analytic or critical distance from things, allowing him to separate himself from and retain control of his experiences - begins to collapse. It's not that the world's not a joke anymore, but that he's no longer concerned with being on the right side of the joke. Yes, unknowable India, wins again.


If the novel sounds exhausting, it's because it is: Jeff treats his world like a text and, accordingly, so must you. To get it right, you need to read like a grad student, armed with an arsenal of allusions, or at least have the back-up of an UWS book club. Or, in a pinch, the internet will do. A

At the discussion of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi at the New Yorker website, readers chime in with smart questions and the author responds with appropriately smart answers. A lot of what's revealed is how events and images from the first section are "twinned" with events and images in the second. In response to a sweetly eager reader comment, Dyer writes: "I would love it if people followed your example and read the book if not twice then at least one and half times because, yes, the Venice part does change in the light of the Varanasi part."

Of course he would, wouldn't he? Greedy author! It's just that it's a lot to ask of a reader to embark on an intertextual scavenger hunt in order to enjoy a novel. That's not book reading; that's textual analysis; that's a pseudo-professional kind of reader-text engagement dangling nuggets of enlightened dinner party conversation at a rainbow's end. Maybe I don't get my kicks that way (well, at least not today) but apparently others do, and apparently those people congregate around The New Yorker.


I imagine a community of meaning-seekers clicking determinedly through their Kindles, nowhere near Venice and nowhere near Varanasi. It would take a Philistine or an obscurantist to deny them this dearly won pleasure. After all, aren't there millions of another kind of reader out there, queuing up the latest bestsellers on their own Kindles in the comfort of their deckchairs? God forbid that the Thriller-of-the-Month club inherit the earth. What it really all comes down to is a matter of taste. You could put it this way: do you like the kind of girl who's coy about giving it up the first night, who wants you to get to know her and makes you date her? Or are you the unfussy type, happy to pick up an easy lay one evening after briefly handling her soft and good looking cover? Maybe you long to lose yourself in dreamy Joshua-Tree-like expanses? Or perhaps you're up for a bit of everything; in which case, try to hook your line for the whore of Mensa.


Shahirah Majumdar is a contributor to This Recording. You can find her previous work here.

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