Writer recounts visiting Rutgers for book on jazz


Being at Rutgers triggers a particular memory for author Geoff Dyer. As he spoke last night in the Multipurpose Room of the Rutgers Student Center, he remembered visiting the University in 1989, where he rummaged through the Institute of Jazz Studies’ collections without a clear direction or intention for the piece he was preparing to write.

The librarians noticed Dyer and asked what kind of credentials he had for writing about jazz.

“I said ‘I don’t have any except I like listening to jazz,’” he said. “On the one hand, that was kind of a stupid response, but on the other hand, it was what became a really animating thing for me. It wasn’t what I knew that mattered, it was what my passion for music gave me the intention to discover.”

Dyer visited the University as a part of the Writers at Rutgers Reading Series, co-sponsored by the Department of English and the Office of the Vice President for Undergraduate Education, among others.

Jonah Siegel, acting chair of the English Department, said Dyer authored four novels: “Paris Trance,” “The Search,” “The Colour of Memory” and, most recently, “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” along with many essays and introductions.

Siegel said Dyer has explored writing five genre-defying titles: “But Beautiful,” “The Missing of the Somme,” “Out of Sheer Rage,” “Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It” and “The Ongoing Moment.” These titles explore a variety of topics, including jazz, World War I and photography.

His most recent project is “Zona,” a book centered on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”

Siegel described Dyer’s style as recursive, recirculating and self-conscious.  He described Dyer’s disarming frankness and slipperiness as comparable with the styles of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Henry David Thoreau.

“The usual narrative pleasures are constantly curtailed. A drive on a Greek Island ends in a crash. The planned book never gets written,” he said. “These are some of the traumas in his work we might say that they are closely related to the pleasures he represents. The fact of nothing happening, nothing new.”

Dyer read excerpts from “But Beautiful,” the piece that was partially inspired by the research he conducted at the University more than 20 years ago. This piece in particular does not have a genre — he said neither falls into the category of fiction or nonfiction.

His reading provided a narrative to the ending of saxophonist Lester Young’s life, as he faded out of the jazz scene into a world of alcoholism and drug addiction. In his prime years, Dyer said Young had, in a way, invented the language of jazz.

The reading described Young watching a Western movie.

“‘He liked to get high and let the images float before his eyes like the nonsense they were. He’d sit with the old and infirm, unsure of who were deputies and who were outlaws — indifferent to everything on the screen except for the bleak landscape and stagecoach clans holding their way across the sand-blue skies,’” he read.

The event’s feature presentation, as Dyer had described, was a reading from his fictional essay “White Sands.”  

The essay recounts the story of the narrator and his wife as they pick up a hitchhiker on a trip to El Paso. On the trip, a couple notice a sign that warns drivers not to pick up hitchhikers, for the area holds detention facilities, and later The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm” ominously plays on the radio.

The reading describes the car’s mood changing from a good to bad.

“‘The actual molecules in the car underwent a chemical change,’” he read.

The couple ditches the man as they take a bathroom stop, and later regret their judgmental and rash decision, acknowledging that they may not have faced real danger.

Dyer was the first writer featured in this year’s Writers at Rutgers Reading Series. Mark Doty, director of Writers House, said these readings serve the purpose of closing the gap between the reader and the author.

“When you hear a writer read his or her own work … There’s another human being who’s speaking to you directly,” he said. “You can ask questions. You can hear the tone of voice so you know more about how that works with sound. I think it makes literature more alive to us.”

This year’s series has an international theme, featuring readings by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, British novelist Zadie Smith, Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and British writer Jeanette Winterson, Doty said.

Dyer himself was born in Cheltenham, England.

“[The theme] always us to connect with people from very different backgrounds and very different cultures,” Doty said. “Some of these people are the most gifted and highly regarded writers working in the world today. What could be better than allowing Rutgers students to hear and to meet these people?”


By Alex Meier

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