Zona by Geoff Dyer. Pantheon, 228 pp., $24.00.
Late last century, Geoff Dyer visited the Leptis Magna ruins in Libya and experienced the atheist’s equivalent of a revelation. In a Prospect essay from 2000 he describes walking through the Palaestra, “an expanse of grass and scattered columns,” where he was suddenly seized by
the sense—which I’ve had in only a few places in the world—of entering not so much a physical space as a force-field, where time stands its ground . . . [Leptis Magna] is not a place you enter, but the dream-space of the past: a zone.
Grass and scattered columns? Metaphysical insights and implications? A force-field beyond time? Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker—in which the unnamed title character leads two men, known only as “Writer” and “Professor,” into an abandoned disaster area called the Zone—will recognize the terrain immediately. When Dyer published an expanded version of the essay in his 2003 travel book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, he didn’t settle for mere allusion; in the book Leptis Magna is no longer a zone; it is now the Zone. Pivoting off the sight of the ruins, Dyer writes in Yoga,
If it weren’t for Stalker, I’m not sure I would ever have realized that the place I wanted to be—and the state I wanted to be in—was the Zone. Before I saw Stalker, I only had the need, the longing. In some sense I might have been to the Zone prior to seeing Stalker, but part of being in the Zone is realizing you’re in the Zone, and since I didn’t know there was such a thing as the Zone, I was not really in it.
Now we have Zona, Dyer’s book-length explication of the film that he has been mulling over in print for more than a decade. Like the film’s journeying hero, who devises his route by randomly tossing bolt nuts and trudging after them, he’s taken his time getting to the point. But the end result is revealing; despite its critical trappings, Zona reads like a personal history, even more so than Dyer’s many actual personal histories.
Of Dyer’s other books, Zona most resembles Out of Sheer Rage, his 1997 paean to D.H. Lawrence. That too is a self-examination disguised as an exegesis—of “the writer who had made [Dyer] want to become a writer.” But he barely discusses his initial encounters with Lawrence’s writing or the reasons why Lawrence made him want to write in the first place. (For that you’ll have to read his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Sons and Lovers, included in his 2011 omnibus Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.) Instead, Out of Sheer Rage is infamously a record of its own creation, a book about writing a book. At every point the action is occurring now, because every anecdote, digression, and close reading exists only to explain how the book came to be. Like everything that Dyer has written to this point, it feels relentlessly youthful, a celebration of the here and now and all the ways—sex, travel, drugs, books, nervous breakdowns—that we can fill it.
Same for the wonderful essay “Sacked,” also from Otherwise. Ostensibly a chronicle of Dyer’s first and only experience being fired, it’s actually a tour through his post-collegiate years. The job itself is a MacGuffin— it turns out that the initial ten pages of memoir are merely a setup for Dyer’s explanation of who he is, at the desk, at the very moment he writes. Looking at his diary from that time, Dyer boasts,
It meant nothing to me, that job. Compared to the books, the films, the parties, the drugs, the women, the sex, the laughing, the drinking, the clubs, and the friends, that job—and the career of which, had I been unlucky, it might have formed a part—was insignificant.
The soul of Zona, however, is defiantly in the past, amid that riotous procession of drugs and movies that “Sacked” commemorates. As such, this is the first of his books that that reads like the work of an older man. Which isn’t to say that the book is crotchety or nostalgic or even more stylistically reserved than usual—he still writes in the same charming, scholarly free-associative register, and his ability to synthesize arts criticism and memoir remains nonpareil. But Zona, though structured as a present-tense tour through Tarkovsky’s ruminative pseudo-sci-fi film, is really a reminiscence of Dyer’s past viewings. “This book is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings,” he writes in an early footnote, “it is not the record of a dissection.” Out of Sheer Rage, by contrast, unspools into wilder, more unforeseen territory, but could nevertheless be aptly described as a dissection.
“The first few times I saw Stalker were during a phase in my life when I took LSD and magic mushrooms quite regularly,” Dyer explains, as if we couldn’t have guessed. This admission comes during his description of a scene midway through the film, when the three exhausted travelers lie down by a stream and fall asleep while discussing the role of art and artists in society. We then get an extended footnote about the role of age in determining one’s own personal canon of films. “I suspect it is rare for anyone to see their—what they consider to be the—greatest film after the age of thirty,” Dyer writes. “After fifty, impossible.” (Incidentally, he turns 54 this year.) By seeing Stalker when he did, his “capacity for wonder was . . . subtly enlarged and changed.”
Perfectly understandable. As he says, we’ve all had our own moments of “enlargement” thanks to art, moments that are by definition the product of our being a certain age. But then, Dyer, who (I say with great gratitude and respect) has written some of the most irrepressibly immature and self-obsessed books I’ve ever read—but whose saving grace has always been his self-awareness—goes full Dad:
It happens that the phase of my getting into serious cinema . . . overlapped with the intensely creative period of what might be called mainstream independent filmmaking, when American directors, having absorbed the influences of the European auteurs, carved out the freedom to realize their cinematic ambitions. I saw Taxi Driver when it was first released, and Apocalypse Now (and Jaws and Star Wars, which, together with the financial catastrophe of Heaven’s Gate, heralded the end of this phase).
I saw Stalker slightly later but I saw it when it came out, within a month of its release, when Tarkovsky was at his artistic peak. I saw it, so to speak, live.
Beyond the first paragraph’s cursory, obvious treatment of contemporary film history, this passage is unique in Dyer’s writing for being so blatantly nostalgic. Even when he occasionally wrote with a blasé, seen-it-all-before weariness, it never before registered as so resigned and reflective. In “Editions of Contemporary Me,” an essay on jazz in Otherwise, he describes the “evangelical zeal” that he developed for house and techno music in the early 1990s, when he would have been in his early 30s. More recently, in 2006, Dyer rapturously described the artist Idris Khan’s composite photographs as “an out-of-body experience made flesh.” In both cases Dyer appears to have experienced the “wonder” that he values so strongly in Zona, despite his relatively advanced age. Perhaps music and visual art are different; tellingly, Zona’s age-specific criteria for valuing art only extends to movies, though this seems bizarre coming from a writer who has so seamlessly integrated photography, prose, poetry, music, and now film into his personal canon.
So, what could account for the sudden fuddy-duddification of Geoff Dyer, whose recent novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi contained extended odes to cocaine and anilingus? It’s worth considering his subject. Stalker is foremost a movie about time and epiphany. The Stalker himself (played by the hunched and looming Alexander Kaidanovsky) is a beaten man with a beleaguered family and a prison record. The Zone, assumed to be the byproduct of a meteorite or alien invasion, is heavily guarded by police, and the “stalkers” who guide people across its border are more like underground shamans than a discrete professional class. This particular monkish journeyer routinely risks his life to escort other lost souls because the Zone is the only place on earth he feels useful and fulfilled; outside he has only a harried and angry wife and a disabled daughter, who may or may not have inherited her handicap because of her father’s experience in the potentially radioactive Zone. The Stalker is a natural born seeker, but one with a rapidly declining faith in his only reliable source of transcendence.
When the Stalker returns from his trip with Writer and Professor, he is in despair, convinced that no one cares about the Zone as much as he does. He’s a proselytizer without an audience, which is nearly indistinguishable from a madman. But the movie’s final shot is haunting, miraculous even. Dyer calls it “one of the all-redeeming moments of any art form,” and I would add: Spoiler Alert. Stalker’s daughter, Monkey, alone in a room at home, directs her silent attention to a table, where three glasses begin to move as if by telepathy. Visually the shot is magnificent, simultaneously simple and unbelievable. But its thematic implications are even more inspiring: rather than a failure and the possible cause of his daughter’s handicap, the Stalker is revealed to be a true seer. The supernatural forces to which he’s devoted his scanty life do indeed exist, not in a quarantined no-man’s land but in his own home.
Though his life may be tragic, the Stalker’s faith is heroic—he’s right about the one thing in life that he cares most about, even if he likely won’t ever know it. Stalker is open-ended enough to function widely as a metaphor, but my preferred reading corresponds with Dyer’s: Stalker is an artist, sacrificing his own stability to guide strangers to profundity. By Dyer’s own admission he himself has passed the point of ever again finding a new Zone, a film that will move or unsettle him like Stalker did. So Zona is more soberly pensive than Out of Sheer Rage, and lacks its structure of ongoing inquiry. It is Dyer’s attempt to guide people down the path he took to get to an earlier revelation decades ago. It’s not his most inspired work, but it’s essential for anyone looking to discover the origins of his extraordinary voice and career.
John Lingan is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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