Sunday, 19 April 2009

Dyer straits

It reads like a quote from the cover of one of his books: Geoff Dyer is the type of writer whose work you want to press onto loved ones or, better still, lovers. My best mate apparently gauges his friends by their response to John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany (LOTS OF UPPER CASE TEXT); you don't expect people to have read Dyer but you want to pass his books on, as a reflection of you, and so much the better if people like him.

Another friend recently received a signed copy of Dyer's latest, Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi, from her new boyfriend. I urged his books onto a girlfriend; I may have hoped that they would come back to me, in a sense, if our book collections were joined, as we were, but things didn't turn out that way.

As someone who has written on photography (The Ongoing Moment), war memorials (The Missing Of The Somme) and jazz and photography (But Beautiful), it's been a while since Dyer has produced what is nominally a novel. You'll have gathered that Dyer is not someone who sticks to one genre; he skips from one the subject to the next, usually finishing a book as he grasps its topic.

In his fiction, you can replace "subject" with "place": The Colour Of Memory, The Search and Paris Trance are all steeped in their setting, as is this latest. The punning of the title continues through its first half, which features a skinny art critic called Jeff who travels to Venice to cover the Biennale. The city defies original description, so Geoff describes the art, the art world (perhaps in a little too much detail) and the sex Jeff has there. Dyer's familiar foibles are here: U-boats (Paris Trance, I think), being pissed on (Paris Trance, again, I think) and women's anuses (erm, Paris Trance?).

As well as a great critique of Tom Hanks' movies, Dyer also offers a form of raison d'etre for his own unique voice: "People say it's not what happens in your life that matters, it's what you think happened… It was quite possible that the central event of your life could be something that didn't happen, or something you thought didn't happen. Otherwise there'd be no need for fiction, there'd only be memoirs and histories, case histories; what happened – what actually happened and what you thought happened – would be enough."

The book's second half, also familiarly, is essentially travelogue: an unnamed first person narrator travels to Varanasi in India, which has been namechecked as a possible destination in the first part. There are other connections as well as the watery settings (both starting with V) notwithstanding; both Jeff and this narrator are described as looking like monkeys when they eat bananas.

Breakdown is another familiar motif for Dyer, whether in Detroit (Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It) or on the beach in Mexico (Out Of Sheer Rage, his excellent DH Lawrence book). As in the latter, "I's" collapse here is brought on by drugs but it's probably the most consummate of Dyer's finales; it is, as a cover blurb might have it, a triumph.

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