First, some gushing: Geoff Dyer is my favorite non-fiction writer ever and probably the best and most interesting author that you’ve never heard of. In these desperate days of tell-all memoirs, dry scholarly works, and self-help books, Dyer has forged ahead at full speed, writing self-deprecating, smart, and funny genre-bending essays and books. And you can tell how much fun he’s having.
His book Out of Sheer Rage, which is simply impossible to categorize, forever changed the way I look at writing. The book, which is about him wanting to write a book about D. H. Lawrence, read like a 300-page preface to a book that doesn’t exist and promoted replacing literary criticism with, well, more literature. Reading it felt like someone embracing me and whispering in my ear, “It’s okay to have fun, Sarah. It’s okay to try new things. Really, it’s probably what you have to do.” In fact, in writing about him publicly, I feel like I’m giving away a secret.
So – why did it take me so long to read But Beautiful? I bought it a few years ago just because Dyer wrote it, but never read it because I didn’t really have an interest in or knowledge of jazz. Fortunately, though, I picked it off the bookshelf last week and found myself in love all over again.
How should a person write about jazz? After a typical Dyer-esque inner struggle in which he tried everything and then dismissed it all, the answer was clear: he would follow the rules and ways of the music. The result is a collection of eight chapters, each focused on a different jazz legend: Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker.
Are these chapters fiction or non-fiction? True or not? Well, Dyer says, um, yes and no. He took from a lot of famous stories and quotes (standards) and then adapted them (improvised) and basically did what he felt like. The result captures the spirit of jazz more than any academic essay or novel or biography ever could. As I learned the tenets and tendencies of the music, I saw them being utilized by Dyer in his own prose at the same time. And this is all on top of his beautiful, funny, and straightforward writing style.
Just like Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane ” Or Charles Mingus’ “Open Letter to Duke” (see how much I learned about jazz?), Dyer’s book is a tribute and also a work of art in it’s own right – it steals, echoes, references, riffs, and retells. It’s word jazz. Those who know a lot about jazz will pick up on many more of the allusions and the hidden quotes while those who don’t know much can just sit back and enjoy the music of the prose and learn as they go.
Not to mention the heartbreaking portraits it paints of the artists themselves and their often-tragic lives on the road and on stage – in between drug and alcohol addictions, discrimination, violence, mental illness, and, well, the blues. As someone who has always had trouble listening to jazz, I can now access it and understand it better – envisioning Mingus sitting at the piano that could only fit in the kitchen of his small apartment, composing among the daily lives of his wife and children. Seeing Lester Young’s young talent be destroyed by life in the army (the most jazz-killing environment you can imagine). Sitting in the car with Duke, perpetually on the road.
And for those readers still itching to know some facts and read some traditional criticism, Dyer attached a 30-page essay to the back of the book. Although the essay is interesting and solidifies much of what you’ve just read in the body of the book, it seems a bit like an apology for being so whimsical (or, perhaps, something his editor made him add). Either way, it doesn’t take away from the bulk of Dyer’s project.
This is just one of those books – I want to scream its name from the rooftops.