How Dare He?

Jenny Turner

  • Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
    Canongate, 295 pp, £12.99, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 84767 270 4

‘I had envied them sometimes,’ Geoff Dyer writes in Out of Sheer Rage, his 1997 book about D.H. Lawrence. ‘Those in work, those with jobs. Especially on a Friday night when, relieved that it was over for another week, they could down tools and look forward to two days of uninterrupted idleness.’ He’s sitting in hot sunshine outside a café in Taormina, supposedly researching his subject’s ‘savage pilgrimage’ but actually getting on with what turns out to be the book’s real business, which is to obsess at length about what he himself, writer, flâneur, free-floating stoner, is supposedly doing with his life. He envies them sometimes, ‘those with jobs’, because unlike him they have a structure to fit into, a way of staving off anxiety and depression; maybe, when the suitboys go to Taormina, they really can relax. Whereas Dyer can only sit there with his Coca-Cola, fretting about writing this ‘half-arsed book’. If writers need to be ‘interested in everything’ – as Susan Sontag once said – when do they ever get time off?

Loafing, getting stoned, hanging about on sun-kissed café terraces: for most people, such things are rare, and about the best that life can offer (Dyer also writes, frequently and unruffledly, about sex, usually but not always with ‘my girlfriend’). Writers, on the other hand, are well known to get more than their fair share of such bounty: it’s one of the things for which the world admires them, and/or envies them, and/or hates their guts. And writers don’t often discuss how it feels to hold such freedom, though travelling, idling, quasi-colonial carousing surely contributes as much to literature now as it ever did. Dyer, however, writes about it all the time, in his novel of 1980s Brixton and in the one set in Oberkampf in the 1990s, and in his photography book and in his jazz book, and in the one about John Berger he did in 1986, as he was starting out. He writes, often, about romance and glamour and pleasure and excitement. Even more, he writes about listlessness and ambivalence and prevarication, the digressions and distractions that seem to stop him getting anything done.

Dyer was born in Cheltenham in 1958, and formed in what he has called ‘the aristocracy of welfare dependence’ – grammar school, Oxford on a grant, the easy-if-you’re-young-and-single 1980s dole. So he’s well read and fittingly self-conscious, aware that the unease he feels is not his alone, but one of the classic modernist positions. He’d like to be ‘no more than a single human man’, in the words of his hero, DHL, but somehow finds himself more like Kierkegaard’s unhappiest one, completely unable to inhabit the present moment; and his writing follows him, forking into self-contradiction, kinking up in the middle, sliding out from underfoot. Except he doesn’t do it in the classically modernist aphoristic way, but as something lighter, quippier: ‘In my experience, the thing about life-changing experiences is that they wear off surprisingly quickly,’ he observes in Jeff in Venice. ‘Nine times out of ten, in fact, it’s precisely the life-changing experience that enables you to come to terms with the unchangingness of your own life.’ Arriving in Varanasi, he walks calmly, ‘trying to look as if I had been here for weeks, was no stranger to lepers, was in no hurry to see bodies being burned at Manikarnika ghat’; only ‘that’s where I was hurrying, to see bodies being burned. (On arriving in a new place, it’s no bad thing to simply do what everyone else does.)’ The timing and rhythm have the flippancy of stand-up comedy. The voice has Eeyore in it, and Morrissey and Victor Meldrew, and could only be English and from that postwar, post-punk generation, with its never-before-or-since education, and opportunities for buying stuff, and unmistakeable spoilt-brat whine.

The current book starts forking and doubling before it has even begun. Jeff in Venice is presented as fiction, written in the third person, with a hero called Jeff Atman; Death in Varanasi is written in the first, with a nameless narrator, and presented as memoir. But both are about jaded, lonely English journalists in their forties (the age, apparently at which male travellers start ‘spending evenings on their own, reading Mr Nice’), and each puns both with the other and with a sort of hidden third – Mann, of course, and his great tale of ageing and disavowal and the ‘longing to travel . . . beneath a reeking sky’. Some echoes are explicit: crumbling buildings, ashy water, return legs of journeys mysteriously mislaid. Others are more subtle, to do with dreams of death and mystical merging. And the arrangement teeters on a joke so silly and self-centred, it’s easy not to notice it: like Aschenbach, Atman tries to cheat death by getting his hair dyed, dyed by a Geoff Dyer, dying into death. When did Dyer first notice this flimsy correspondence? Is this the book he’s been longing to write his whole life?

Jeff in Venice is the slighter of the two pieces, but acute and elegant and very funny. Unlike Mann’s protagonist, ‘the poet-author of the life of Frederick the Great’, ‘overwrought by a morning of hard, nerve-taxing work’, Atman is a freelance journalist, ‘more FHM than TLS’, and his morning’s work has ‘bored the crap out of him’. But he’s off tomorrow to cover the Venice Biennale, so he’s excited about the prospective jolly, with its opportunities for ‘high-quality freeloading’: he is, we’ve already been told, ‘the kind of person who could be bought relatively cheaply – a few glasses of prosecco, an Asian-inflected canapé’. On the other hand, he’s also bored of it already. ‘And when he got to Venice? More shit to set up and churn out.’

Things look up once the Moët starts flowing round the ‘celebriarchy’ and the ‘liggers’, all on the make, all on expense accounts, all looking over their shoulders with ‘the fear that there were better parties you’d not been invited to, a higher tier of pleasure that was forbidden to you’. There is a satirical element, but really Dyer is interested in the geometry of these situations, the way they spiral round and round: ‘A journalist like Jeff was really just a successful ligger, a ligger with accreditation; come to think of it, many of the artists were liggers with paintbrushes or cameras, and the curators were liggers with power.’

The biggest joke of all – the thing that made him more depressed than anything – was that at a certain level he was considered successful. People envied his getting assignments like this. One of the people who envied his getting assignments like this was Jeff. He bitched and griped but he would have bitched and griped even more if some other hack had got this junket instead.

Luckily for Jeff, though, he quickly meets a good-looking, witty, remarkably complaisant American called Laura, with pleasingly Jeff-friendly tastes in underwear and pubic grooming, not to mention drink (prosecco, beer, Bellinis), drugs (freebie cocaine) and, of course, sex: ‘What was it about women’s assholes? Where did it come from, this irresistible desire to stick one’s fingers, cock and tongue up them? Shit was horrible, revolting stuff, but women’s assholes . . .’ So off they go, Jeff and Laura, witticising and opining, allowing Dyer to empty his notebooks of bits and pieces presumably accumulated from the three Biennales he says in a note he has attended with his wife. On Venice: ‘There was no real Venice: the real Venice was – and had always been – the Venice of postcards.’ On Mary McCarthy on Venice: ‘Except she’d taken it a step further and said that the thing about Venice was that it was impossible to say anything about Venice that had not been said before, “including this statement”.’ The work of Gilbert and George he considers ‘as weary as some harmless sin’; the same pretty much goes for contemporary art in general: ‘So what if they were just snaps of someone jerking off in a leather armchair in an apartment in Zurich? Blow ’em up big enough and they looked . . . Well, they looked like shit, frankly, but they looked like art too.’ It’s great stuff: sharp, but more Tiggerish than cynical. ‘It’s like we’re living through a conceptual breakthrough . . . The thing is, the bubble has burst but it keeps expanding anyway.’ Or it was, at least, the last time Dyer was in Venice, a couple of years ago now.

The second half of the book is as funny, but in an odder, richer way. It begins when the freelance-journalist narrator gets offered a last-minute press trip to Varanasi, where dead Hindus come to be burned and scattered on the Ganges – ‘and she only wanted 1200 words.’ From the start, it’s bound to be a tougher trip than the Venice one: ‘so much of it, all blaring so loud and bright that it was impossible to tell exactly what this everything was made up of’. So although our hero does have pals with whom to share his clever, stagey little observations, we mostly see him alone, interiorised, retreating deep inside his own ‘single human man’. ‘It was an evolutionary necessity – a way of getting a bit of peace and quiet . . . You had to go in to keep the outside out.’ In other words, just as the Venice story runs, more or less, off a string of Venice clichés – hot sex, views from bridges, the single drink, with nibbles, at the Gritti Palace – so in Varanasi the narrator must lose his mind, to madness, or enlightenment, or to an imaginary god Dyer calls Ganoona, who comes in the shape of a kangaroo – with the author, head shaved, in its pouch.

The writing along the way is terrific. It’s as though, in the spectacle and clamour of Varanasi, Dyer has found an objective correlative for the moves and shapes his mind most enjoys to make: tottering piles, recursive spirals. Seeing, for the first time, the burning pyres in the twilight, he writes, is ‘like watching the dawn of the industrial revolution, as it might have occurred if there were no industry and a vast surplus of manpower all employed in the service of death’. The steps on Dashaswamedh ghat are ‘lined with beggars waving silver bowls . . . They were the lucky ones. Some didn’t have bowls. They were the lucky ones too. Some did not have hands.’ And the ‘celebriarchy’ of the local religion is animated and colourful, an all-singing, all-dancing cartoon:

That’s the thing about Hinduism, though – everyone is in with a shout and there is always room for another god. Garuda (part eagle) was there and so was Hanuman, the monkey. Hinduism is the Disney of world religions. The gods all have their consorts, and the gods and their consorts all have their own private form of transport: Vishnu travels by eagle (Garuda), Shiva by bull (Nandi) . . . Is there a single joke in the Bible or the Qu’ran? Hinduism, I saw now, was a joke . . . it did away with the idea of the ridiculous by turning it into an entire cosmology!

By the end of the story the hero is sick, weak, unkempt, with a beard like ‘Terry Waite on hunger strike’. Coughing, he finds, is ‘just a form of breathing’; thought bears ‘a curious resemblance to a headache’. ‘I am in mourning for myself,’ he says to a passing crusty. ‘My old self refuses to die. The new is struggling to be reborn. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ He buys a dhoti and starts going out in it:

I was much further gone than any of the backpackers. They had dreadlocks and wore turbans made of sarongs, but no one looked as ridiculous as me. I didn’t avoid their eyes, I met their eyes . . . I said: ‘So, what do you think?’

‘About what?’

‘This,’ I said, raising my arms, doing a slight twirl, as if showing off a new outfit from Topshop.

‘Looks good,’ he said. ‘But what does it, like, signify?’

‘You’ve heard of sadhus, right?’

‘Sure.’

  ‘Well, this is my version of it. A sadd-o,’ I said, beaming as I made this feeble little joke. I walked on.

What a terrible joke, what a silly story – twirling, Topshop, changing rooms on the English high street, in the middle of Uttar Pradesh. But wouldn’t the world be a slightly worse place if no one tried this sort of thing out?

Dyer has been writing books for about as long as I’ve been reviewing them, and I’d picked up the idea that he was entirely the 1980s Oxbridge-graduate hipster, going on about Heidegger and Adorno, all his Verso books piled on top of all his copies of the Face. How dare he write as Trane and Mingus – as he did in the early But Beautiful (1991)? How dare he write about enjoying drugs and chasing women; how dare he go on doing so throughout his forties and beyond? How dare he live in New Orleans, Rome, Thailand, in apparently rapid succession? Which is to say – as is so often true of How dare he utterances – Dyer provokes a lot of envy, particularly from people whose background and interests are much the same as his own. Except that most of them long ago joined the ranks of ‘those in work, those with jobs’, and Dyer hasn’t. He’s still a writer, a flâneur, a free-floating intellectual. He’s found a way of making work from his passions, and a living, and a personal voice.

And yet, that envious voice does touch on something, as envious voices often do. No matter how much Dyer writes about being depressed and lazy, his shame at the skinniness of his body, the ‘burned-out circuitry’ of his ageing brain, you always kind of know it’s just a chat-up: secretly, he’s secure in his cleverness, and knows that women like him, and is sure, pretty much, of what he’s doing and where he needs to go. (No wonder the envious are so full of envy.) Anxiety, though, is essential to serious writing. It gives you traction on the negative, without which your investigations can only get so far. But Dyer doesn’t ever really go there, though he is attracted to travel in difficult countries, and to artists who risked their almost everything, almost every single day. DHL, for example, scored at least one belly flop for every moment of artistic triumph – fascism, ludicrousness, plain bad taste. Dyer writes with such poise – self-conscious but not self-serious, brainy but not opaque, aware but not self-flagellating about the basic indecency of tourism – that he sometimes drains a situation of its spontaneity and danger. He wants to give us risk, mess, transgression – so what exactly was it about women’s assholes? – only with the risk and messiness cleaned up. Compare, for example, Dyer’s anti-travel writing with that of the late David Foster Wallace, another sort-of post-mod sort-of slacker, with many similar interests and of much the same generation. Dyer could not, as Wallace did in ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ (1996), study the horror of embodiment while luxuriating on a Caribbean cruise ship, ‘an enormous primordial engine of death and decay’. He could not, as Wallace did in ‘Consider the Lobster’ (2004), spend most of an essay commissioned by a foodie glossy examining the scientific evidence for crustacean suffering.

In Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003), Dyer and his girlfriend are in Cambodia, and about to buy a can of Coke from a girl on the street, when they decide instead to buy from a boy who has lost both legs to a landmine. ‘If the boy seemed to us the incarnation of Cambodia, to (the girl) we were the incarnation of all the fickle power and wealth of the West . . . It was as simple as that. The injustice of it was almost perfect.’ In Death in Varanasi, there’s a fantastic description of the rubbish heap to end all rubbish heaps: pigs rooting through garbage, compacted down into ‘a sediment of concentrated filth, pure filth . . . devoid of everything that was not filth’, with rotting vegetables, liquefying marigolds, ‘soggy cardboard (not automatically to be discounted as a calorific source) and freshish-looking excrement (ditto)’, ‘a resilient garnish of blue plastic bags’. Then, suddenly, a ‘swarm of kids . . . like the detached, highly animated parts of a single swarming entity’ emerge to rob the author, sitting splendidly on a tuk-tuk; only he fights back, keeping his camera, his iPod, his money-belt, and speeds away. He sees the children ‘hopping round excitedly holding something aloft – something that flashed in the sunlight’. It’s another Coke can, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be, except that it’s a bit neat.

This was the first Geoff Dyer book I had ever read right through. To begin with, I was outraged by it. How dare this guy go on these expenses-paid newspaper press-trip jollies then recycle them in such indolent, plot-free treatments, how dare he pretend they amount to a unitary novel, because unitary novels are what mostly sell? How dare he write a character such as Laura, so frictionless, such a fantasy – or is she perhaps an airbrushed version of his wife? How dare he compare Hinduism to a Marvel comic, or a Disney film? After a while, though, this out-of-sheer-rage petered out, to be replaced by something more resigned. Dyer, perhaps, is a bit like Nick Hornby, singing for his supper, a bit too eager to be liked: Thomas Bernhard For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It; virtually fat-free modernist romances designed to fit the side-pockets of rich students’ gap-year rucksacks, in need of reading matter neither too heavy nor too light.

But then, I was reading the Varanasi bit when I noticed I was laughing. So then I read the book again, and the second time I thought it was great. Like making a friend, as one reviewer put it, ‘in whose company you know you will travel through life more vagrantly, intensely, joyfully’; not one you’d want to rely on, maybe, but always good to see. Or like going on your holidays, that dreamlike sense of lighter light and long horizons, and sitting down at last to read something chosen, not for work or self-improvement, but because it looks like fun. Then just as the chair, the shade, the drink are finally settled, a cloud comes, something turns over like an engine, and here’s the worry back, ready to start again.