by Geoff Dyer
A two part novel. The first part chronicles Jeff’s visit to the Venice Biennale art modern art exhibition. The account begins before the beginning: with Jeff strolling home down Marylebone High Street and getting a haircut and dye in preparation for his trip. He reads a guide book, drinks a coffee, eats a pastry, and thinks about how crappy and superficial it is to work as a journalist. Next morning he goes to Stansted and queues at check-in …
This is a wilful return to naïve novel-writing, where you simply describe the protagonist’s exploits minute by minute. It’s very easy-going, and doesn’t linger long enough on one scene for things to get boring. One of the blurbs describes Dyer’s writing as similar to being in the company of a new friend who is just as silly but a bit more clever than you. He gets to Venice and runs into several journalist friends. Everything is on a surface level. I don’t want to use the word ‘superficial’, because the word carries connotations that a deeper level exists. Jeff’s wanderings from party to party and on to gallery feels like the lead-in to an art-world thriller. But this is not that kind of novel. In fact it’s a love story of sorts, but – as suggested – above all it’s a couple of days wandering around in the company of Jeff. He is lightly ironic about some of the art, he meets a very attractive woman, there’s plenty of name-dropping of (real) artists and curators, a few trips by vaporetto, more galleries, and a cocaine party.
Jeff describes the trip thus in his thoughts:
“You came to Venice, you went to parties, you drank up a storm, you talked bollocks for hours on end and went back to London with a hangover …”
And when thinking about the greater importance of ambition over talent:
“The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.”
To me it feels like watching a seventies TV serial, where you catch a glimpse into life in the fast lane, where everyone is beautiful, there is casual sex with no fear of AIDS, everyone offers a drink at any time of the day, and every time a character turns a corner he’ll by chance run into someone he knows. I suppose this sounds a bit dismissive, but I fact it’s a pleasure to read this account which is not trying to hide things, but, in keeping so close to Jeff’s moment by moment experiences may well prompt the reader to pose the questions which don’t occur to Jeff himself.
At one point, when the narrative builds up tension about whether there will be free risotto, Jeff voices some thoughts that sound harshly critical of such shallowness. But a few pages later the story of the free risotto, and whether there was any at all, crops up again as a source of much wit and fun. I kept feeling that new depths would be revealed. Jeff is in his mid-forties, the reader might suspect the constant partying and hob-nobbing is beginning to jade him. And it does jade him, but not to any great existential level.
He describes a party on board a boat:
“all the people aboard were part of the international art crowd, intellectuals, artists, connoisseurs and appreciators of the fine things in life – which meant basically that everyone wanted to drink champagne and snort coke.”
And so it goes. In the second half you travel with Jeff to Varanasi, and see the funeral pyres and ghats and have narrow escapes from pickpockets. I kept waiting for Laura to re-enter the story and the plot to resume. After dozens of pages I realised the narrator of this trip remains unnamed and seems to be older than Jeff in Venice. Presumably it’s Jeff a few years later. I was a bit annoyed at this ambiguity, which sent me searching back through the text to see if I had missed some obvious pointer.
(Incidentally Jeff vividly describes the Ganges View hotel where he is staying. The real author Geoff has an article in The Guardian where he also describes this hotel. I came across it be chance when I googled the name.) Jeff is an affable travel companion, it’s hard to dislike him. Some readers however will get bored with the journey and check out early.
But what to make of the blurbs by some famous literary writers? I’m genuinely confused. It’s not a bad novel, it’s fun and a kind of male equivalent of chick lit. But chick lit novels don’t usually have accolades such as “rare voices in contemporary literature” “this is serious fiction” “a post-modern Kingsley Amis” “a national treasure”.
The novel + blurb combo poses questions about the literary world and how it operates. What are these writers doing lavishing such high praise? Very few novels have such a battery of support. Maybe Geoff has written weightier novels and they are throwing in their support of this new work.
If Jeff took a three-day visit to the literary world he would no doubt poke fun at it, but without getting seriously annoyed.