the circular runner

Geoff Dyer and death and you–the antidote to Eat,Pray,Love

In writers & books on October 10, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I have a lot of books in my house, and I recently noticed that among the obvious stuff: the novels and short story collections and the history and philosophy books I kept from college days, I have a shelf devoted to books about people who go off the grid. I guess you could call it my Eat, Pray, Love section, though I don’t own that book. (My wife does, but that doesn’t count because she, like me, hasn’t read it.) Actually, now that I think about it, the books I’m talking about are more of the Leave, Starve, Die variety. There are the obvious ones, like Into the Wild, The Razor’s Edge, essays by Denis Johnson. There are a lot of books about hobos, like William T. Vollman‘s Riding Toward Everywhere. Like Vollman, I love hobos and trains, though unlike him, I’ve never “caught out.” I have no idea why I read these books, why I feel a strong connection with people who are off not connecting with anyone. Maybe because they are stories about people who are searching for something–extreme versions of the kind of searching that we all do to lesser and varying degrees. Maybe, probably, I like these books because I feel some sort of connection with people who don’t connect.

My most recent addition to this shelf of sadness is Geoff Dyer‘s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. Like any interesting book, you can read it in a number of ways. I don’t know if other people would include it in the Leave,Starve,Die genre as I described it above. For one thing, no one starves. Also, the main character is not a misfit (like Vollman) or overly idealistic (like the guy from Into the Wild). (Misfits and idealists seem to be a common thread in the Leave,Starve,Die collection.) Most importantly, the death the title promises is more of a social death than a physical one. But the general idea is there. This is a story about someone seeking and failing to find connections, and how he reacts accordingly. So, yes, when I’m done with this post, I will shelve Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi with my other beloved, sad books about unconnected people. And here’s why, even if you’re more on the happy/positive Eat,Pray,Love side of things, you should read this book, as well:

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a book in two parts. The first half is about a journalist named Jeff, a freelance writer who is assigned to cover the Biennale in Venice for a British arts and culture magazine. He doesn’t much care for his work and doesn’t think much of it. Early on, when asked what he does, he says “that freelancing is the the something else that you do after you’ve packed in your job.” Even so, he still gets assignments to places like the Biennale and invited to parties by people who seem to like him. On the surface, we see him as an aging hipsters who is out there enjoying his life without a worry. He may not be a brilliant writer, but he’s ok with that as long as there’s a party to go to. But that’s only on the outside. Dyer treats us to page-long interior monologues that are at once funny and painful to get through. At one point, when thinking about quitting his job, Dyer writes, “[Jeff] knew also that as soon he was told that they did not want him to do this shit any more he would realize how desperately he wanted to keep doing this shit that he did not want to do anymore.” It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but then again, it is probably not so different from the conflicted feelings many of us have about what we do.

For the most part, with the help of a younger woman and a lot of booze and drugs, he manages to push these neurotic back-and-forths aside, but as this section of the book ends, we see that all his fixes are only temporary: the booze and the drugs peter out, and sadly for Jeff, so does his relationship with the younger woman. Dyer is a clever writer, and I enjoyed the first half of the book the way one enjoys any witty, summer read. The relationship Jeff has is fun and it reminds you of how exciting it can be when you’re just getting to know someone with whom you are vibing on every level. You root for Jeff. Maybe he’s imperfect, but he’s not just some hipster without a soul. If only he can find love, this middle-aged hack could find love.

Left there, the book would’ve been like a good burger from your favorite upscale burger joint–not completely without nutritional merit, but not exactly a literary square meal, either. (Also, left here, there is no way, it would make it into my beloved Leave, Starve, Die shelf.) But when you turn the page and start the second section, you find something completely different going on. The energy and the mile-a-minute wit have been traded up for a slower, more sedate first-person narrator who is never identified by name, but who seems to be the same person we just left in Venice.

This narrator tells us that he is on a new assignment to cover some of the culture of Varanasi and because the narrator is, like Jeff, middle-aged, British, and a journalist, we assume this has to be the same character. Of course, he might not be, and that is part of what makes the book clever. Though for a minute, I’m going to ask you to give up that option and read the book as if you are seeing two sides of the same Jeff. For me, this is how the book goes from being a fun read to being a great book. It shows a transformation or a stripping-down of social persona that is unusual and yet completely believable. Partly, this has something to do with environment. Booze are a lot harder to come by in Varanasi, and though there’s some pot to be had, (which the narrator does try toward the end of the book), there also seems to be something about the city itself that makes him seem less interested in partying. It’s not that he’s getting more spiritual by being India. Remember, this is not Eat, Pray, Love. It’s more that whether he knew it or not, in a social sense, this narrator, this Jeff, is preparing to die.

Over the course of the second section, he is letting go of social connections to people, to his identity, to the things that make him who he is back home in England. And by doing that, he is becoming one of the invisible people, one of the ghosts who walk the streets of Varanasi, though if you think about it, he just as easily could be walking the streets of San Francisco or New York or any other city. This is why the book moves me. It takes someone who is basically successful at his job, a person with friends and financial means, and over three hundred pages, shows that person who could be me, who could be you, becoming that strange, unbathed, mumbling, invisible person you pass on your way to work (and ignore) every morning. (You know the one.)

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself that that guy you pass (and ignore) is insane, not dead, and by extension, that the narrator in Dyer’s book must be insane as well, then let me say that you might be right. In fact, you very likely are right (at least you are about the guy you keep ignoring). But then again….

My point is that mental illness is sort of a catch-all phrase that is so broad and, at times, so vague that it starts to lose meaning. Is it crazy for someone to jump off the grid? Maybe. Then again, I’m sure there are a lot of people in other cultures who see the way we live our lives, the way we sit in hours of traffic and buy too much stuff and eat too much stuff, and they probably think we’re nuts. In a sense, being mentally ill is not as objective as it might seem on first glance. I’m not denying that mental illness, but what I am saying is that the term needs to be examined before we slap it in on people like the narrator in Dyer’s book and that guy you keep ignoring. It’s just too easy to dismiss people that way. That’s the lesson I take from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The novel is not about a guy named Jeff, some depressive who finally fell off the grid–that would be familiar. You’ve heard that story before. You may have even known someone like that. Instead, Dyer’s book asks us to imagine how anyone can jump off that grid we hold on to for dear life–not because he’s struggling with illness, but just because he has decided to let go. It’s about the randomness and precariousness of our social lives and connections. It’s about the possibility of a social death. Most importantly, it’s about people like me and you and, maybe even that guy you ignore every morning.

After writing all these words and thinking about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi for the last week, maybe I should rename that shelf of mine. Maybe what I love about these books is the combination of bravery and cowardice involved in letting it all go–everything and everyone. In the end, it’s not for me. I love my wife and my fiends and family. But still, seeing someone letting go is interesting and scary and exciting to think about.

And if that doesn’t convince you, then let me say this: at the very least, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi has to be a better read than Eat,Pray,Love.

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