Geoff Dyer draws no distinction between a work of art—a book, a film, a photograph—and his own encounter with it. He may be congenitally unable to distance the object of his critical attention from its relationship to his personal history, or else just unwilling. But to read Dyer is to have a conversation about art with a fiercely intelligent yet deeply self-involved friend.
Obversely, Dyer seems just as unable to discuss his own life—even innocuous events from his childhood—without recourse to the authors and artists he feels have shaped it. So a memory of his father’s stinginess buying sweets on vacation will necessarily summon a line of Camus and a reference to the Andrei Tarkovsky film Mirror. In other words, it’s not mere narcissism that fuels Dyer’s style, but a self-image braided inextricably around other artists and writers; accordingly, Dyer's wide-ranging essays and book-length studies of jazz and photography test the tensile strength of terms like “critical study” and “personal essay,” and his lightly fictionalized novel-memoirs (such as Out of Sheer Rage, an account of his frustrated attempts to write a book on D.H. Lawrence, or Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which follows a Dyer-like writer on assignment to a European art festival and an Indian village) fold criticism, biography, and narrative into a sui generis origami of forms.
Or sui generis-ish. For in all these digressive, freewheeling narratives, Dyer is working in the tradition of his mentor, John Berger, as well as other masters of the immersive critical monologue, such as Roland Barthes and W.G. Sebald. What these writers share is the question they ask of the source of their criticisms. The question might go: “Can an account of the journey toward it serve as a surrogate description of the source itself?”
It is this question that opens an essay (found in Dyer’s collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition) about the relationship between the sculptor Rodin and Rainer Maria Rilke, whose devotion to Rodin’s work deeply influenced his own, despite a language barrier and difference in medium. While Dyer lacks the personal connection to Tarkovsky that Rilke enjoyed with Rodin—the poet even briefly served as the artist’s personal secretary—Dyer clearly intends his latest book as a loving devotional to Tarkovsky’s oeuvre and its influence on the writer’s own aesthetic (despite—naturally—a language barrier and difference in medium).
In fact, Zona may be the purest distillation yet of Dyer’s career-long attempt to answer this question of surrogate description. There is no fictional narrative here on which to hang the author’s musings, nor is there any attempt to arrange the book in imitation of an academic study or travel guide. Rather, Zona’s circumlocutory subtitle, “A book about a film about a journey to a room,” suggests the wandering, unmoored structure that dominates within.
Zona’s stated subject is Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece about three men who journey to a desire-granting room in a forbidden, supernatural landscape called “the zone.” And indeed, Dyer describes the film scene-by-scene—nearly shot-by-shot—annotating his description with quotations culled from the works of Whitman, William James, Slavoj Žižek, and Rilke himself. But Zona’s subject is also, and equally, film itself. And it is also Tarkovsky the man, and the aleatory, uncontrollable process of making art. And of course, it is the eternal subject of any Dyer study: the author’s own cantankerous, improbable existence.
So personal digressions and footnotes creep into and eventually dominate the text, which becomes less about the film than about Dyer’s experiences watching it across decades and countries, about his childhood and prodigal twenties, about old girlfriends, lost bags, reading Wordsworth, going to Burning Man, about middle age and sexual regrets. These regular departures from the film—which plays along in the background, a pedal point against which Dyer’s monologues may harmonize—are the book’s true mode of discourse. “If I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties,” Dyer writes, “my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.” His tangential commentary describing said responsiveness is quite the point.
There’s also a running commentary to this running commentary, one that speaks to Dyer’s concerns about the book even as it is being read. Like Woody Allen’s habit of addressing the camera to suggest rewrites mid-scene, Dyer butts into his own summary to revise the book’s stated project. At one point, he claims that he’d wanted to stick to a shot-by-shot autopsy, but that instead “this book is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” Elsewhere, he revises this thesis:
Stalker is a film that can be summarized in about two sentences. So if summary means reducing to a synopsis, then this is the opposite of a summary; it’s an amplification and expansion. …Whether it will amount to anything—whether it will add up to a worthwhile commentary, and whether this commentary might also become a work of art in its own right—is still unclear.
Yet elsewhere, he wonders whether he should have just written a book on tennis. Dyer is clearly concerned, or at least pretending toward concern, about the high-mindedness of the book’s conceit, as well as the famously difficult film, whose position in the book is reflected by the room’s position in the film: it is the ultimate focus of every scene yet remains forever indefinite and impenetrable.
These concerns are dispelled for the reader, if not the author, by the book’s chummy, disarming style. Unlike the eponymous Stalker, Dyer is an amiable, cheery guide through cinematic obscurantism—through the zone of film. At one point, he interrupts a conversation about color and truth in Antonioni’s L’Aventura to make a personal confession:
Since we’re speaking about truth and how it feels, I feel honour bound to admit that L’Aventura is the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony. I saw it one summer, in a tiny cinema in the Fifth Arrondissement of Paris where the screen was no bigger than a telly. … The only way I was able to get through it was by saying to myself I can’t bear this for another second, even though there was not actually such a thing as a second in L’Aventura. A minute was the minimum increment of temporal measurement. Every second lasted a minute, every minute lasted an hour, and an hour a year, and so on. Trade time for a bigger unit of time. When I finally emerged into the Parisian twilight I was in my early thirties.
This is trademark Dyer: the collusion of the critical and autobiographical, the bathetic drop from philosophical concern to complaint or flagellation or joke, a move that happens too quickly for the reader to see it coming.
Another Dyer trick is to switch frames of reference with dizzying speed in order to suggest a kind of unified field theory of criticism, beyond which no area of discourse goes unseen. This is the effect when, in describing the many back-of-the-head shots in Stalker, Dyer directs us by footnote to similar shots in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler but then immediately cuts to a factoid of modern physics: “Einstein said that an infinitely powerful telescope would reveal the back of the viewer’s head.” Here is Dyer’s philosophy in a nutshell. Correctly calibrated, any sufficiently powerful critical lens will direct the gaze right through the object of interest and onto the critic’s pate.
Some reviews of Zona—which has been available for a while in the U.K.—suggest that seeing the film is not a prerequisite to enjoying the book. This is wrong, or at best misleading: Dyer’s glacial (in speed and breadth) coverage of the events of Stalker is precisely the literary enactment of Tarkovsky’s filmic vocabulary, and to read the book without having seen at least some of the director’s work will be to have missed Dyer’s stylistic aim. (The critic Scott Esposito has previously noted this habit of Dyer’s: how, in Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer is “responding to Lawrence by enacting his understanding of Lawrence; hence so many bits ‘about Dyer’ and so little of what would generally be construed as literary criticism.”) If there seems to be less about Stalker in this book than there might be, this is because the film is more acutely represented in the book’s form than its supposed content.
Dyer virtually announces this fact with an extended sidelong glance toward Flaubert, whom he quotes early on in Zona as saying: “From the axiom of pure Art one might establish that there is no such thing as subject—style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.”
It is Dyer’s absolute manner of seeing things that renders all his output—despite its stylistic and formal variations—as cut from the same critical cloth, and that moreover gives the lie to another Flaubert quote: “One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist,” he wrote in 1846, “just as a man becomes a stool pigeon when he cannot be a soldier.”
Flaubert’s position, less tenable in this era of collage and commentary, is nevertheless still parroted by contemporary artists and writers who ought to know better. But if Dyer isn’t an artist, neither are Rilke’s Rodin-inspired poems art—nor, for that matter, are Tarkovsky’s films. For just as a critic influences by surrogate description the ways we see an artist, so did Tarkovsky influence the way we see. “Tarkovsky reconfigured the world,” Dyer notes with wonder, “brought this landscape—this way of seeing the world—into existence.”
Ben Mauk is a writer and performer. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and co-host of The Lit Show on KRUI.
Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room
Pantheon: February 2012
$24 hardcover, ISBN: 9780307377388