Part novel, part cultural travelogue, this latest from the British critic and novelist (The Ongoing Moment, 2005, etc.) consists of two sections, linked by the narrator’s sensibility.
Jeff Atman is on his way to Venice. The 45-year-old Londoner, a freelance journalist, has been assigned to cover the 2003 Biennale for an arts magazine. Narrator Jeff is not a big player in the art world, though he’s a familiar face on the circuit as he pursues his favorite things: drinking, drugs, parties and hitting on younger women (he’s divorced). The Biennale provides “magical excess.” The parties are nonstop; the bellinis flow and the cocaine glistens. At his first party Jeff meets the absolutely must-have girl. Laura Freeman, early 30s, is about to quit her gallery job in Los Angeles to do a grand tour of the East, including Varanasi (Benares). It’s not long before they’re having terrific sex and strolling the streets like lovers. Dyer’s dialogue is dead-on, but Laura doesn’t have much of a personality. It’s not all sex and parties though. Jeff comments provocatively on the city and the artwork before the lovers part, promising to e-mail. Then we’re launched into the second, less novelistic, section. Jeff’s latest assignment has brought him to, you guessed it, Varanasi. This holiest of Indian cities is the main character here. Jeff deals with the traffic and the unending demands for rupees as he explores the temples and the funeral pyres by the Ganges. But what about Laura? Gone with the wind, evidently, for she’s never mentioned again, a disappointment for readers expecting continuity. Jeff enjoys his new life of idleness, going native, wearing a loincloth and bathing in the Ganges. A more conventional treatment would signal a midlife crisis and breakdown. Instead, with playful nonchalance, Jeff fades slowly from view, like the Cheshire Cat.
Unsatisfying as a novel, but the observations are piquant enough to make for an enjoyable read.