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I had never read any Geoff Dyer before, but according to the blurb he is much admired by the likes of David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. It appears that he has written other novels and non-fiction books, which are highly acclaimed and won various literary awards. The reason I selected this book was the title, having visited both cities relatively recently.
The first time we meet our anti-hero Jeff Atman, he has drafted a resignation e-mail to his boss and dithered over whether to click Send or Delete. Opting for the latter, this freelance writer was sent to the Venice Biennale (contemporary art festival). Here I very much enjoyed Dyer's descriptions of the city, he really brought it to life, and I enjoyed reading about Jeff's free-loading at parties and I was intrigued when he met American gallery worker Laura. Here the book took a disappointing turn for me, as nice, regular Jeff started doing coke on yachts and having lots of sex. Dyer was still quite graphic in his descriptions of the sex, but sometimes less is more and I don't think the book needed it to the extent it was featured. The gratuitousness of it cheapened the quality writing for me. It didn't really 'fit' with my expectations of the book, based on the early pages.
Each city has a separate part so when Jeff went to Varanasi I wasn't sure what to expect - would the book carry on where the last one left off, just in a different city? Or will we get a different story? Again Dyer is very descriptive in his writing about Jeff's first impressions and feelings in such a chaotic city. In fact, it was so relatable and close to my own experience I started to wonder if Dyer had read my diary! I certainly can't criticise how he builds an atmosphere. I enjoyed reading Jeff's experiences in Varanasi, it was a return to form to the early part of the first section, but I did find it was a bit strange in places. There was no mention in the novel of Jeff taking hallucinogenics, but he did converse with a talking goat and ride around in a kangaroo's pouch at one point. Quite frankly, I just didn't get it and started to wonder if two pages had got stuck together and I has missed something.
As I have mentioned, Dyer can really build a realistic image and atmosphere for his readers that immerses them in the place he is, but sometimes he just goes off at random tangents that made no sense to me. If there was a subtle or hidden analogy within the text, I missed it completely. The book has no defined plot, Jeff's meanderings have no real point and don't lead to a certain event or defined conclusion, they are just what they are - time spent in each city. If you like your books to have a bit of an event, a plot, indeed even a story, then this may not be for you. Whilst I have banged on about Dyer's writing being of a high standard and enjoyable, it just doesn't work when he has to make something happen. If he was to write a travel book I would be really interested to read it (he obviously knows the places really well), but this book is more a travel novel and doesn't work for me.