March 2012

Matt Hennessey

nonfiction

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer

About thirty pages into his new book, Zona, Geoff Dyer quotes a letter of Flaubert's from 1852, in which he announced his desire to write "a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style... a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible."

Dyer draws parallels between this literary ambition of Flaubert's and the cinematic ideals of Andrey Tarkovsky, whose film Stalker is the subject of Dyer's book. What Tarkovsky's films arguably lack in terms of content -- or "action" in movie parlance -- they amply compensate for in terms of directorial style, or vision. Quoting from Flaubert again, Dyer writes: "From the standpoint of pure Art one might establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject -- style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things."

This sentiment could reasonably be applied to Dyer's own career. Although he has written four novels, it is those trickily unclassifiable nonfiction books for which he is perhaps best known, each of which blurs genre and subject while remaining, to the initiated, instantly familiar as being of Dyer Country. This singular style and breadth of interest are among the principle joys of reading him. And though the books are never about "nothing," the subjects he chooses -- jazz in But Beautiful, photography in The Ongoing Moment, D. H. Lawrence in Out of Sheer Rage -- are merely circles around which his pen can dance. They have an addictive quality -- something that, we learn in Zona, the author himself feels about Tarkovsky's film.

His other genre-defying books were broad in their concerns, but here the focus has been narrowed right down. The main body of the book -- excluding the numerous and lengthy footnotes, the frequent appearance of which suit the digressive tone of the main text -- is essentially a frame-by-frame synopsis of the film, in which the eponymous Stalker leads the shadowy figures of Writer and Professor through the mysterious "Zone" toward "the Room," a place where, supposedly, one's deepest desires will come true.

A long, ponderously slow Russian film, made more than thirty years ago, might not be obvious fare for a writer with the comic skill of Dyer -- and is maybe too niche a subject for anyone unfamiliar with his work to begin -- yet he manages to create a frequently funny book despite or even because of the film's content. He describes the journey of the three protagonists through the starkly barren terrain with a carefree, colloquial voice ("He might be Russian but he is the embodiment of a distinctly English attitude: fuck this for a game of soldiers!"), an approach which has the effect of making accessible, and even fun, a film which is burdened with a difficult reputation.

Elsewhere there are ruminations on the allegorical readings of the film (one passage draws on the similarity between the Zone of Stalker and the zones of exclusion around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the catastrophe at which this film predates), entertaining riffs on its troubled shoot and its legacy, and insights into the characters of some of those who helped make the film. But at no point during any of this does Dyer lose that lightness of touch. Whilst some might complain about a serious film being treated this way, it feels as though Dyer has pre-empted such criticisms by including an epitaph from Camus: "...the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly."

Although Dyer is a self-confessed cinephile -- there are casual asides on, amongst others, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Antonioni, Godard, and others -- he is not a film critic, and never pretends to be one. His interest instead lies in exploring how one piece of art can have had such a hold on him for so long, and more generally about how important the things we love become to us. It is an enthusiasm both easy and learned, one that has been in evidence throughout his career, and is infectious enough to translate from the author to his readers.

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307377388
240 pages