But Beautiful (1991) by Geoff Dyer: art read by art
Playing like a jazz man possessed, Dyer hits the sweet spot of critical musical insight
Geoff Dyer: But Beautiful is criticism in the form of fiction, though it’s not really criticism so much as rhapsodic evangelism. Photograph: Jason Oddy
With this sequence of portraits of famous jazz musicians, Geoff Dyer commenced a streak of dauntingly good books that calls to mind Maradona’s run to score against England in the 1986 World Cup: no matter how often you watch, you’re not quite sure how he pulled it off. Unlike Maradona, Dyer is a working-class son of Gloucestershire, but he speaks fluent American, and this is the work of a man in love – with jazz and the whole national mythoscape behind it.
But Beautiful is criticism in the form of fiction, though it’s not really criticism so much as rhapsodic evangelism – which is the best kind of criticism. In a long afterword, Dyer quotes George Steiner: “The best readings of art are art” (a phrase which has two pertinent meanings here) – and insists that “all art is also criticism”. Whether he knew it or not, Dyer was thus setting the terms for the body of work he has been unfurling ever since, which effects a complete dissolution of the boundary between commentary and artwork, as in a mystical experience wherein subject and object merge. Incidentally, But Beautiful is strong proof of the exquisitely sensitising effects of cannabis, which Dyer has claimed was indispensable to the book’s creation.
The prose is dulcet and superfine, soloing rapturously alongside the music it invokes. It makes for brilliant portraiture: Lester Young as fragile as porcelain, “landlocked in the middle of a century”; Charles Mingus the juggernaut; Thelonious Monk the man-baby; Chet Baker; Duke Ellington; Bud Powell; Art Pepper; Ben Webster. These were damaged and neurotic men, often addicted to alcohol or heroin, blowing the blues of being black in unformed America. Playing like a man possessed, Dyer keeps hitting the sweet spot of critical insight: Monk “played each note as though astonished by the previous one”; Young’s sound “was soft and lazy but there was always an edge in it somewhere”. Crucially, But Beautiful passes the litmus test for any work of this kind. It makes you thirst for the music.