Book review: ‘Zona’ by Geoff Dyer

Apart from his three novels, Geoff Dyer has written books on subjects as diverse as jazz, photography, and the First World War. He has written an entire book about his failure to write a book about DH Lawrence, and his essay collections are some of the greatest contemporary models of the form. Of course, the books about jazz, photography and the First World War are not just about jazz, photography and the First World War – they’re also about Geoff Dyer; or rather, they’re about the education of a sensibility, and about the development of Dyer’s particular interest in those subjects at that time. If something obsesses him, you sense the only way Dyer can exorcise that obsession is to write a book about it. At the same time, he is able to cloak that obsession in a style that is both perceptive and invigoratingly light. Although he is obviously very well-read and capable of acute and original insight, reading Dyer never feels in the least bit like hard work. ‘But Beautiful’, a matchless amalgamation of musical criticism, lyrical essay and fictionalised biography, is clearly the result of very hard thinking and meticulous work. Reading it though, you have the same feeling as when listening to a John Coltrane sax solo; you know there must be years and years of practice behind it, but its construction sounds effortless in the moment.

‘Zona’ is Dyer’s first book about film, and one film in particular – ‘Stalker’, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece, a film that has obsessed him since he first saw it in 1981. What on first glance is a 200-page summary of the ‘action’ (a word that demands inverted commas in relation to Tarkovsky’s oeuvre), gradually reveals itself as Dyer’s off-beat disquisition on the nature of desire, the operation of time on the memory, and the way cinema can somehow encapsulate both within its own created space. ‘Stalker’ is science fiction of a sort; in a nameless country (which is clearly the Soviet Union), an unexplained event (possibly ‘a meteorite or alien visitation’ according to the first caption) has created something called the ‘Zone’, a mysterious, cordoned-off area of prohibited access, deserted and verdant. The main character, the ‘Stalker’ of the title, is a professional guide to the Zone, who is hired to smuggle two other characters, Professor and Writer, into the forbidden territory in search of the ‘Room’, a place where your deepest desires will be granted. Those two sentences more or less sum up the entire film. Dyer’s book is not therefore an attempt to boil a near-three hour film down to a handy synopsis. It is not even, or not specifically, an attempt to unpack or hypothesise on its possible meanings. Instead, Dyer partly uses his interrogation of ‘Stalker’, his focus on its use of time and space, to dredge up and interrogate some of his own memories and experiences, about his childhood, his cinematic education, his own wishes and desires (mainly for the chance to regain a beloved Freitag knapsack that he lost in Adelaide.) The book ‘is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.’ Dyer achieves this through the formally risky move of splitting a great deal of the book into main text and footnotes. In Martin Amis’s memoir, his masterpiece ‘Experience’, footnotes take up a running, present-tense commentary on a narrative that is by definition looking backwards. In ‘Zona’, Dyer’s main text and his footnotes can be equally digressive, the footnotes often spreading over several pages and seeming to interlink with the narrative. This isn’t as confusing as it sounds, and it becomes clear that Dyer is using this technique to replicate or reflect the film’s seemingly untethered, premonitory force, its ability to comment on or allegorise events that hadn’t actually happened at the time the film was made. At the same time, and as he makes clear towards the end of the book, a film that is conditioning us to focus on the fulfillment of our deepest desires is conditioning us to focus on our own past, and what it is in that past that has most disappointed us. By moving forwards and backwards between the pages, by splitting the text into saying and said, Dyer is giving us clearer idea of how powerful he finds this film than if he had stated it directly. Which he does anyway.

Unafraid to alienate its audience with incredibly slow panning shots, its epic length, with scenes and imagery that defy and are given no explanation, ‘Stalker’ remains a provocatively unsettling film because it defies all the conventions of its genre and because it has somehow positioned itself outside of its own created space. The central conceit has all the force of an allegory to start with, and Tarkovsky’s  unhurried treatment of this theme, the originality of his staging, has given it, as Dyer says, ‘the quality of a prophecy.’ Most obviously, this prophecy is of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the result of which was the creation of a large, 30 km uninhabited ‘Exclusion Zone’, or ‘Zone of Alienation’ around the power plant. Given over to an irradiated nature, the Zone has apparently thrived. ‘Stalker’ obsesses Dyer not just because he saw it at a formative time in his life, but because it seems more than just a film, or a work of art. Also, you suspect, because it is the only film he has ever seen which can take the load of having a book written about it by Geoff Dyer.

To review anything by Dyer is to measure it against the scale of his previous achievements. On first reading, ‘Zona’ might seem a slightly thinner offering than his previous non-fiction books. In many ways, it really is just a running commentary on a film that he happens to love and which, as he admits, few people will have seen. (Full disclosure – I’ve seen the first half. When the words ‘End of Disc One’ came up, I couldn’t find the energy to put on disc two. I will do someday though, particularly after reading ‘Zona.’) But, returning to it, skimming through it, I began to think that Dyer is expanding his range here, stepping out of what has become comfortable, if no less entertaining, territory. While the form is more experimental, the language is more relaxed and the tone more ruminative and autobiographical. There are familiar motifs – Rilke, Roland Barthes, John Berger, his father’s unwillingness to fork out money for a choc-ice – but rather than follow the trail of his interest in this film, Dyer uses it to push beyond the formative influence it may have had on him to the continuing influence it is having and will have on him. It’s as much about the nature of our formative influences and the way our relationship to them changes as it is about ‘Stalker’. It almost goes without saying that anything Dyer writes is going to be entertaining; passionate, never dry no matter how academic the subject, and very funny. Less immediately brilliant than ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ or his collections of essays perhaps, ‘Zona’ is a slow-burning and profound piece of work – much like Tarkovsky’s film itself.

(With thanks to Matt Oldfield at Canongate for the review copy.)

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