Zona (2012) By Geoff Dyer – Then, after about 15 minutes, you’re spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike!
Geoff Dyer is a man who knows the value of an unconventional job title. Rather than sauntering through life as a simple novelist, critic, travel writer, historian or essayist, Dyer has tried his hand at many different forms and somehow evaded becoming particularly associated with any of them. Geoff Dyer is not a novelist who writes criticism or a travel writer who produces novels, he is all of these things and yet none of them. Like a Renaissance princeling or Imperial Khan, his name is habitually appended with an ever-growing succession of baroque and idiosyncratic job titles ranging from the mundane (writer) and the old fashioned (intellectual) to the endearingly preposterous (intellectual gate-crasher). Frankly, if Dyer began describing himself as a servant of the Secret Fire and wielder of the Flame of Anor I doubt that anyone would be particularly surprised. Dyer evades encapsulation in the same way as Pynchon evades publicity… his elusiveness is central to his charm.
In a typically warm, insightful and engaging interview conducted by Colin Marshall, Dyer explains the reasoning behind his steadfast refusal to either commit to any particular form or abide by the rules of any of the forms he operates in. Dyer’s end game is to create a body of work whose allure bears no relation to its actual subject matter. For example, you may have no interest in the life and work of D.H. Lawrence but this should not prevent you from being entertained by Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (1997), a book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. Similarly, you might prefer the idea of burying your face in an ants nest to reading another novel about spiritually disaffected upper-middle class people but this should in no way prevent you from enjoying Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009).
With no apparent form or subject matter to call his own, the seat of Dyer’s charm is… well… Dyer himself. As Michael Silverblatt put it when he interviewed Dyer, there is something decidedly likeable about a man who travels the world only to obsess over finding the correct local iteration of his preferred breakfast. There is something instantly recognisable about a man who loves books and films but never the ones that he is supposed to be reading at any given moment. As in the works of J.G. Ballard, this persona may change slightly from book to book and from article to article but that voice and that character are present in everything that Dyer writes. Chances are that if you like the persona that Dyer presents in all of his writings then you will happily read anything that Dyer has to say as the true subject of Dyer’s books and articles is invariably himself.
Those immune to Dyer’s charms may well view Dyer’s methodology as supremely egocentric and dishonest. Indeed, how many people have purchased Out of Sheer Rage expecting an award-winning biography of Lawrence only to discover that the book is actually the amusing tale of a hapless writer who scoffs almond croissants goes on holiday and crashes his moped? These un-named and potentially fictitious critics may well be completely right about Dyer but they are also missing the point.
There are many reasons for deciding to read a particular book (plot, characterisation, social commentary, prose style) but one of the most compelling is that the process of reading someone else’s thoughts allows you to gain access to that person’s headspace for extended periods of time. To read a book is to experience something – a time, a place, a film, a relationship – through the eyes of an author and when that author has a set of sensibilities as distinct and engaging as those of Geoff Dyer then sharing that author’s headspace can become an end in itself. If the point of Dyer’s writing is to allow us to hear the world described by his voice then his latest work Zona (2012) is his most successful to date.
Zona purportedly began life as a series of paragraphs describing each of the 150-odd shots that make up Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). However, as Dyer began writing, he rapidly realised that this kind of structure was far too rigid to contain his reaction to what it was that he was seeing on screen. We are, after all, talking about a man who wrote a book about his failure to write a book about D. H. Lawrence. This rigid structure abandoned, Dyer proceeded to build a book along a spine comprising plot synopsis and visual descriptions of every scene in the film from beginning to end in chronological order. Were this a novel or a short story, one might call Dyer’s approach a close reading but a close reading is designed to uncover how words cohere into sentences and sentences cohere into thoughts whereas Dyer’s close reading is really only the foundation for the real meat of the book, namely his subjective reaction to re-watching Stalker for the umpteenth time.
Every time Zona reaches a particularly juicy point in Stalker, Dyer wrenches us out of the film and into a digression drawing on film theory, the history of film, the life of Tarkovsky or the life of Geoff Dyer. Sometimes, these digressions will go on for a number of pages before returning to the film itself and sometimes these digressions will be unpacked in a series of footnotes that can also go on for a number of pages before returning us either to the original digression or to the substance of the film itself. As a result of this somewhat unorthodox structure, reading Zona is an exercise in juggling book marks and flipping back and forth between different points in the book in order to a) follow Dyer’s unravelling lines and thought and b) remember how these vast digressions relate back to the substance of the film. Initially, I took all of this page-flipping to be nothing more than a product of the same authorial insensitivity that prompts academics to produce works that have all of their footnotes at the end of the text despite there frequently being hundreds of the fuckers. However, around the time I had two fingers jammed between pages of Zona and Dyer was encouraging me to flip forward thirty or forty pages, the penny finally dropped: Dyer is intentionally wrenching us out of the flow of the text. Far from being a bug, Zona’s tendency to spiral away from a train of thought or the text of the film is actually a feature, a deliberate aesthetic choice.
In his seminal text on cinematic story-telling Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), David Bordwell describes the European art house approach to cinematic storytelling as a process of opening up gaps:
The art film is nonclassical in that it creates permanent narrational gaps and calls attention to the processes of fabula construction. But these very deviations are placed within new extrinsic norms, resituated as realism or authorial commentary. Eventually, the art-film narration solicits not only denotative comprehension but connotative reading, a higher-level interpretation. Whenever confronted with a problem in causality, time, or space, we tend to seek realistic motivation. Is a character’s mental state creating the difficulty? Is “life” just leaving loose ends? If we are thwarted, we appeal to the narration, and perhaps also to the author. Is the narrator violating the norm to achieve a specific effect? In particular, what thematic significance justifies the deviation? What range of judgemental connotations or symbolic meanings can be produced from this point or pattern? Ideally, the film hesitates, hovering between realistic and authorial rationales. Uncertainties persist but are understood as such, obvious uncertainties. Put crudely, the procedural slogan of art-cinema narration might be: “Interpret this film, and interpret it so as to maximize ambiguity.” [Pp. 212]
In other (less theoretically pregnant) words, art house films do not just deviate from the norms of traditional storytelling, they do so with the intent of forcing the audience to think about why the story is not moving in the direction that genre expectations suggest it should. What was Antonioni trying to say when the characters in L’Avventura (1960) pointedly got bored of looking for the friend who mysteriously disappeared? What was Tarkovsky trying to say when the three characters in Stalker returned from The Zone with nothing to show for their travails other than a (admittedly adorable) dog? Many art house films are slow-paced precisely because their directors wish us to mull over what it is that we have just seen, they fully expect our minds to wander and slow down the pace precisely in order to enable these flights of interpretative fancy. As a director who fully identified with the European art house tradition and the creator of some of the most beautiful, entrancing and spiritually confusing films ever made, Tarkovsky is a worthy ambassador for precisely this kind of filmmaking. In fact, one could quite reasonably argue that Stalker is one of the exemplars of the European art house tradition. Once you realise that the point of Stalker is to invite speculation, Zona snaps into focus: This is not a traditional work of criticism, it is an account of Geoff Dyer’s subjective response to viewing Stalker and each of his dalliances, tangents and footnotes represents an attempt to fill one of the gaps created in Dyer’s mind by Tarkovsky.
As Bordwell predicted back in 1985, Dyer reacts to the gaps in his understanding by drawing on his understanding of film, his knowledge of literature and his biographical insight into Tarkovsky himself. When neither realistic nor authorial interpretative strategies fill the gaps then Dyer shifts into a more autobiographical register where he relates the film both to his personal experience and to his wider cultural interests. It is in these dalliances that Dyer’s voice is at its strongest and most recognisable, habitués of Dyer’s writing may feel like taking a drink every time he references the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, the mundane irritations of travel or the experience of being an intelligent 20-something with too much time and too little to do. Ultimately, Zona is not just ‘a Geoff Dyer book’ it is arguably the most Geoff Dyer book that Geoff Dyer has thus far written. By using Stalker as a jumping off point for his tangents and dalliances, Dyer’s writing acquires a degree of tonal and thematic coherence that is sometimes lacking in many of his other works. To borrow a term from the Colin Marshall interview I linked to above, Zona is not just Geoff Dyer doing the same old shtick, it is Geoff Dyer doing the same old shtick and allowing that shtick to be transformed by the themes and concerns of Tarkovsky’s film. Yes, Dyer complains about losing his backpack and yes, Dyer quotes the same Austrian poet he always quotes but Dyer also reflects upon the point of his writing and what it is that he hopes to achieve by writing this kind of book. Consider the following passage:
What is the point in coming here? The purpose of coming here was to get to the point where that question could be asked of oneself rather than someone else. There always comes a moment in the writing of a book when its purpose is revealed: the moment when the urge – Nabokov’s famous ‘throb’ – that led one to consider writing it is made plain. Actually there are two moments, or, if it makes sense to put it like this, the moment comes in two phases. First when one realises that yes, there is a book here – however faintly it can be discerned – not just a haphazard collection of jottings and crossings-out clustered around an inadequately formed idea. Since, in principle, getting to that point should be easy, it’s disheartening to find that so much time and energy have to be wasted, that so many pointless detours, irritating obstacles, self-imposed tests and excuses (that voice constantly whispering or crying out ‘Stop!’) conspire to get in the way. But at that point when you realise that there is a book, even a short one with little hope of critical approval or large sales, you see that all these diversions were necessary and so, strictly speaking, were not diversions at all. [Pp 185-186]
Here, Dyer is not only empathising with Stalker’s protagonist, he is seeing his own life reflected in that of the character and this reflection is creating a gap in Dyer’s understanding of his own life. It would have been so easy for Geoff Dyer to write a book about Stalker that was nothing more than elegant descriptive passages and accounts of much-lamented attempts at talking women into having a threesome but Dyer’s book is much more than that. It is an account of how a film can impact an individual and how that individual reacts to that impact. In short, Zona is the experience of watching art house film raised to the status of literature; it is criticism stripped of both the affected pseudo-objectivity of the film reviewer and the pointless rigour of the academic film theorist. Zona is a book about what it is like to be Geoff Dyer when Geoff Dyer is watching a work of staggering cinematic beauty and, unsurprisingly, Dyer is a good deal more sombre and reflective when watching Stalker than he is when doing many of the other things he does.
To approach Zona in search of insights into Stalker is to approach the book in entirely the wrong state of mind. Though interesting, Dyer’s insights into the film are hardly revolutionary and his method of spiralling outward from the body of a film is actually quite similar to that used by the film historian David Thomson in The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2004) and the BFI guide to The Big Sleep (2000). Indeed, when Thomson writes:
Nor can I shrug off a once youthful, now sadder sense of desire for Bacall herself, to say nothing of this wash of fur, hair, light and lip gloss on the screen. I have known trysts in cars at night (with my wife) when nothing happened more than kissing, and I know that my own romantic life has been affected by the scene and others like it. Not that it was ever done better. So no doubt, irony or maturity yet impairs this adolescent dream that it would be great to kiss such a woman in a parked car and feel that eternity was your spectator.
You can almost imagine those words coming from Dyer. Except that in Dyer’s case it would probably have been a threesome and the car would have been driving through the Brazilian rainforest on the way back from a Rilke festival. And he probably would have been pissed off because he forgot a really good pen in the hotel he was staying in. And his irritation over the lost pen would be what was souring the sexy vibe and this would be making him even more irritated about failing to pick up the pen.
One does not read Dyer’s work for its insight into the human condition or for its stylistic innovation. One reads it because it is close to the metal and because Dyer’s words and experiences are both enjoyable and instantly recognisable. The ever-insightful Richard Kovitch once pointed out that Dyer is effectively a blogger who has somehow managed to convince a mainstream publisher to stand in for WordPress. However, while the emotional openness of Dyer’s writing coupled with the relentless narcissism of his focus may lend his work a certain bloggy feel, the truth is quite a bit more interesting.
We read because we want to feel what it is like to be another person; We want to see the connections that our normal eyes miss, we want to feel the sun on our skin in a place we will never visit, we want to feel the surge of insight that comes from the spikes of emotional astuteness that only happen to normal people once or twice in a lifetime. We want these things because we want to connect with another person and writers make their living by pandering to that desire to be smarter than we are and to be close to someone else. Real close. By writing about many different topics through an autobiographical lens, Dyer is pandering to that urge to connect and to experience the world through more erudite, witty and intelligent eyes than our own.
Dyer’s literary persona is a masterpiece in and of itself, his movement between comic ineptitude, genuine insightfulness and almost absurd coolness is a balancing act conducted with absolute skill and precision. We may roll our eyes at the talk of threesomes but the croissants and misplaced bags bring our eyes back to the page and a smile to our lips. Had Dyer simply been cool and insightful then his works would appear unbearably smug and had Dyer simply been comically inept then he would simply come across as one of those Bridget Jones or Bella Swan-type characters that readers are supposed to feel superior to. By moving between these different extremes with absolute emotional honesty and biographical frankness, Dyer makes himself the perfect subject for the game of empathic aspiration that underpins so much of modern fiction. Too cool and he would appear distant. Too clutzy and he would not be a suitable subject for aspiration. Dyer does not just speak for a certain type of person, he actively invites them imagine what it would be like to be Geoff Dyer. Perhaps, instead of writing about Stalker, Dyer should have written a book about Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) as I am sure that there’s an audience for a book that allows you to experience what it is like to watch a film about a man who experiences the world through the eyes of another person. Doubtless Charlie Kaufman would be happy to adapt it for the screen and then Dyer could write a book about watching that film thereby allowing his audience to read a book about someone watching a film about a book in which they watch a film about a man who finds a way to literally see the world through someone else’s eyes. They could even get John Malkovich to play Geoff Dyer! Dyer? Dyer! Dyer. Malkovich? Dyer.