David Hajdu knows music. As the biographer of Billy Strayhorn (“Lush Life”) and chronicler of both pop (“Love for Sale”) and folk music scenes (“Positively 4th Street”), he has an intimate and thorough knowledge of not only the artists but also the producers and promoters, critics and fans who populate the music world. It makes sense, therefore, that Hajdu would set his first work of fiction in this artistic milieu. But while much of his nonfiction necessarily centers on the stars, “Adrianne Geffel” focuses instead on the periphery. Although this novel is a purported oral history of the title character, a mysterious avant-garde musician, hers is the one voice we never hear. Instead, as we seemingly learn about this fictional pianist-composer we are treated to a revealing — and at times hilarious — satire of the music business, fame, and the cult of personality.
The setup is simple. After a brief introduction, which assumes we are already aware of the genius of the fictional Geffel, the unnamed narrator expounds on her societal impact. He places her, Zelig-like, with various cultural touchstones: Geffel is the subject of a Jill Sobule song, the unnamed author says, and has “inspired” a “semi-factual, semi-fictional” Sofia Coppola film. She is referenced in an off-color Cardi B lyric. He then presents interviews with family members, teachers, friends, lovers, critics, doctors, and business associates cut and compiled to create a portrait of the musician, who has apparently disappeared. As the interviews alternate, they sketch out the biography of a misunderstood artist. More to the point, they expose the blinding narcissism of nearly everyone drawn to her strange art, skewering the institutions that define and market taste.
Much of the humor in this short comic novel is broad. Geffel’s mother, Carolyn, may have proudly framed one of her daughter’s albums, for example, but she hasn’t played it. “I’d have to take it off the wall and unframe it, and get the record player out,” she explains. A music critic, meanwhile, can’t resist claiming credit for Geffel’s genius. “[P]eople forgot the importance of my role in introducing her, until I reminded them,” he says. Pompous scenesters baldly remake themselves to sound more interesting — a Brian becomes “Biran,” “like Lord Byron … Brian’s just my legal name,” he explains, while a grasping record executive spells his name “Harvé.”
Inside jokes abound, particularly in the testimony of experts who can supposedly offer insight into Geffel or her exceedingly odd compositions, which apparently emanate directly from her emotions. Anybody who has interviewed musicians, for example, will recognize Hajdu’s parody of a spacey saxophonist, who responds to a question about his collaboration with Geffel with oblique incoherence: “We created in the same time and space,” he says. “We did not listen to one another in the historical sense.” That same wit takes down academic language when a verbose musicologist unintentionally reveals his own cluelessness as he says, “The sheer volume of scholarship on Adrianne Geffel since recordings made her music available for close examination speaks at once to the emotional-intellectual capaciousness of the work and to the inversely proportionate illuminative capacity of the musicologists engaged in unpacking it.” Likewise, an early reference to an editor at Boston’s now-defunct Real Paper will have local music journalists guessing at its inspiration.
Other jokes are a little more welcoming to a wider readership: When that music critic, who tries to take credit for Geffel’s fame, quotes his own first review of her — “I have seen the future of the avant-garde, and her name is Adrianne Geffel” — it’s an obvious reference to Jon Landau’s similar lauding of Bruce Springsteen, for example.
At times the humor wears thin. The one-note recitals, particularly by the hypercerebral musicologist and self-important critic, become repetitive, even in this relatively short work. By the time Hajdu wields the critical doubletalk to tackle another issue — whether if great art can be created by someone who is happy — it is too little too late. A perennial debate among critics and fans of a certain sort, this question is left largely unresolved, though Hajdu does use it to hint at Geffel’s fate. What we learn, instead, is how all of us view each other as extensions of ourselves, for our own dreams and purposes, and, ultimately, how mysterious art and the act of creation really are.
By David Hajdu
Norton, 224 pp., $25.95