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

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.

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