"Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi"
Geoff Dyer's astonishingly original two-part novel "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi" contrasts cynical worldliness in the first part -- the art world at the Venice Biennale and its themes of sex, drugs and social status -- with unworldliness in the second part, the passage to nonbeing that is Varanasi, the city of burning funeral pyres alongside the Ganges.
Sex, drugs and status surface again in Varanasi, but the world has changed: Life isn't about the thing anymore but becomes the thing. Most astonishing is how cleverly Dyer pulls off this audacious philosophical meditation as he recounts an often funny, deceptively straightforward tale of Jeff, a neurotic British writer on assignment in Venice, then in Varanasi.
Dyer is known as a writer of passion, sudden insights and finely tuned powers of observation, able to write wonderfully about anything, or nothing at all. His prizewinning 1997 book about jazz, "But Beautiful," won raves, even from readers not fascinated by jazz. Now, in Dyer's new novel, the jaded Jeff's annoyingly trivial life in part one, a life he calls "vague," takes on heft just when you imagine it never will. The Venice Biennale is described vividly, if cynically, and Jeff develops as a character when he is no longer allowed to be cynical, when he meets an American girl named Laura.
Dyer writes about sex like no one else, and Jeff's sex with Laura, fueled by longing and cocaine, is memorable for its specificity. How can this ecstatic coupling continue to evolve, we ask ourselves, as Jeff drops his existential living-in-the-moment happiness to become instead the last Victorian: He can't have this happiness forever; therefore, he's miserable. After Laura is gone, Jeff finds himself sitting beside a foul canal when a gull flies by, a dead pigeon in its beak. It is the perfect transition to slow death in Varanasi.
Sent to Varanasi by a British newspaper for five days to write a 1,200-word travel piece, our character, who may or may not be the Jeff from part one, now drops his guard and narrates in the first person, whereas the voice in part one was third person distant, or omniscient. He at first delivers almost a real travel piece, and not at all a snobby or posh one. He watches and describes in detail bodies burning on the ghats, the pyres. Not the modern India at all, Varanasi's filth, its excrement-splattered lanes, crowds and markets, offer up much to be funny about, the narrator finds, and he opines that whereas monotheisms have no sense of humor (no jokes in the Bible or the Quran), Hinduism, with its elephants riding on the backs of mice, is sublimely funny.
If in London (or perhaps the modern Western world in general) the whole point of existence is to draw attention to yourself, our narrator in Varanasi eventually absorbs an entirely different notion of self without ever intending to do so. He settles into life in a run-down riverside hotel, the Ganges View. He makes two friends who live in the same hotel, an American man and an English/Indian woman. He observes their romance, an interesting reminder of the earlier story, and we wonder suddenly if we are somehow reading the same story cosmologically transformed. This is, of course, the point, and after the books ends we find, on the next page, the Katha Upanishad: "What is here is also there, and what is there is also here."
After a sacred cow in the street flicks his excrement-soaked tail in our narrator's mouth, he falls ill. Recovering partially but very much a changed man, he begins bathing in the foul Ganges. Staying on and on, perhaps until death, he understands that renunciation is gradual, not a decision. And we, as readers of this unclassifiable novel, are left with the memory of an unforgettable book.
"The Lost City of Z"
British explorer Percy Fawcett's obsessive search in the early 1900s for the vanished civilization of Z arose from the underpinnings of our own civilization, now seriously teetering on the brink. Fawcett was among those who first went forth to wrestle the unknown world to the mat, to convert it to capitalism and Christianity.
Yet while the news of collapse today is harrowing,
"The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon," writer David Grann's account of Fawcett's push to map the unknown and find the mythical El Dorado is a thrilling yarn. It's satisfying despite what we've learned about the follies of imperialism and taming nature, despite the knowledge that Fawcett failed in his quest and vanished, leaving no trace. Satisfying, for Grann also writes about his own sometimes clumsy search for the true end to Fawcett's saga, and in so doing he delivers a gratifying way of looking at a failure that may well have been a success.
Fawcett's was the age of the amateur -- amateur naturalist, amateur inventor, amateur explorer. The whole future asked to be invented. The Royal Geographical Society supported many an adventurer playing the "Great Game," as Kipling called colonial competition for supremacy. For 15 years, Fawcett rose rapidly in the ranks, successfully conducting one death-defying expedition after another to define the borders between Bolivia and Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil.
Fawcett was ruthless on a trek. Those accompanying him often perished, exhausted, while Fawcett survived and thrived, seemingly untouchable. He was unafraid and had an uncanny knack for communicating with tribes he encountered. He wasn't killed like others before him. Unlike other explorers, he did not believe indigenous peoples were half-man, half-animal and did not treat them as such. He learned their secrets of herbal medicine and several tribal languages, eventually giving up defining boundaries for anthropology.
The switch to anthropology coincided with his growing interest in ancient civilizations, in particular the maddening legend of El Dorado, as told by the conquistadors -- golden idols the size of men, golden palaces, giant causeways, cities surrounded by moats, millions of people in an area where Fawcett found few. He asserted in his journals that he was finding clues, traces of moats and causeways. He became obsessed with finding the monumental city he called Z. In September 1914, after a yearlong reconnaissance trip, he was ready to launch an expedition to find it.
World War I intervened, leaving millions dead, damaged or deranged, ushering in the disillusionment that plagued a generation, causing many, including Fawcett, to turn to the spiritualism of Madame Blavatsky. His reputation suffered. The Royal Geographical Society was no longer eager to finance his wild dreams. His family suffered humiliation and extreme poverty. Finally, after American geographers rallied to Fawcett's cause, the British came through with a paltry sum. Departing finally with his son and his son's friend, they all vanished in 1925 in the Amazon.
Hundreds of explorers -- literally a cult -- have tried and failed to find out what happened to Fawcett, many of them with modern equipment. Grann, after extensive research in several countries, takes up the challenge, following Fawcett's trail. He recounts how, in a visit to Brazil's National Library, he finds the evidence, a map now crumbling to powder, the very map that supported Fawcett's belief in the ancient city of Z. Grann, too, is hooked.
What he finds is what makes "The Lost City of Z" so gratifying, and in the end he, and we along with him, find ourselves stunned by what Percy Fawcett discovered.
"The Wink of the Zenith"
"It's been wealthy speaking to you," Portland writer Floyd Skloot says to his daughter on the phone when he means to say it's been lovely. But his brain has sent out wealthy instead.
It's not an entirely inappropriate word, as he does feel richer in love having talked with her. But it was a confusion of words, not what he meant, a garbled connection to his memory bank, illustrative of Skloot's two-decade struggle to retrieve his pitch-perfect writer's voice, a struggle revealed in his earlier prize-winning collections of essays "In the Shadow of Memory" and "A World of Light."
Skloot's masterful new collection, "The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life," contains 16 exquisitely interconnected essays. One of them, "The Voice of the Past," begins with The New York Times Magazine fact checkers unable to confirm that his mother had been, as she always said, radio's Melody Girl of the Air in the mid-1930s -- Skloot's pivotal point. The essay was published unverified.
The same day, Skloot received an ecstatic call from Pee-Wee Kahn, now 90, living in Boca Raton: "I used to drive your mother to the radio station for her shows!" Later another person surfaced via e-mail with the memory of Skloot's bawdy college performance in "Measure for Measure," and another with stories of his father's poultry market in Red Hook, N.Y., where Mafia ladies shopped, and so on.
Skloot rejoices that not only are other people part of, but they also contain, his memories. The more he publishes, the more his lifetime's friends, relatives or fans emerge with facts, stories or songs that trigger critical memories and, eventually, crystalline essays, each of them ultimately about the shaping of a writer's life. His past is not dead but all around him, despite his having been hit one day in 1988 by a virus that targeted his brain and, as he puts it, unbound his Book of Self.
From shards of memory collected in various file folders, Skloot has fashioned essays that never fail to touch the universal. "The Wink of the Zenith" draws its title from the round-screened Zenith television flickering at Skloot in Brooklyn, age 9, providing solace to the lonely child via Ed Sullivan or Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows, whose Ralph and Alice Kramden's fighting paralleled the constant fighting between his parents. The essay deftly captures the way early TV shaped a generation, all of it elicited by the image of the Zenith blinking at the boy Floyd, "trying to send me a message, trying to reach me, share a vital truth," and now, decades later, capturing what happens inside his brain, crackling with static, "muzzy-headed and discombobulated, out of focus, not-quite-itself."
Several of the essays deal with Skloot's mother -- "at memory's core," he writes, "the tumultuous and disordering force I must fathom." In "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," his mother, 94, suffers from Alzheimer's and communicates mainly through lyrics of songs she sings, something she had done even when she wasn't ill. For a while in the mid-1990s, Skloot recalls, they were about equally faulty, she on the way out, he stable, retrieving, on the way back in. But the faux parallel between the two of them, now shared with Skloot's wife, Beverly, is often funny, delightful, always rich with humanity.
"The Wink of the Zenith" is a book to be savored, not gulped down but tasted, essay by essay, allowing time to be amazed at how Skloot's insights beam directly into our souls.
CLIMATE OF FEAR