For those planning to enter Geoffrey Dyer’s book, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, I’m here with advice. Before setting off to explore, pay attention to the posted signs, unless, like the hapless, eager reader I was, you simply bumble in - at your own peril.
I’d been curious to read Dyer, so when I learned that his new work concerned a film that had made a great impression on me, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the time seemed ripe to get acquainted. For those unfamiliar with Tarkovsky’s 1974 film or the 1971 novel on which it is based, Arkady and Boris Strugasky’s Roadside Picnic[i], the premise is this: some mysterious event has occurred that has resulted in the cordoning off of a “Zone” where bizarre, unpredictable and dangerous phenomena occur and that seems to possess a capacity [the “Room” in Dyer’s title] for answering one’s innermost desire. Alas, the Zone can only be accessed with the aid of an illegal “stalker” willing to lead clients around high security and through the Zone’s capricious and dangerous traps. This conceit has a quality both inevitable and ingenious, given resonant depth - as Dyer points out - by its cleverly disguised inversion of the Soviet gulag as well as by its eerily prescient anticipation of Chernobyl.
Given my own appreciation of the film, I’d expected a strong reaction to Dyer’s. What blindsided me was his informal, free-associative, intensely personal style. Upon the structure of a scene-by-scene summary of Stalker, Dyer applies material gleaned from articles about the film and director, then liberally decorates his narrative with, well, apparently whatever seems to cross his mind: cultural references high and low, observations ranging from keen insights to remotely tangential asides, and a plethora of autobiographical details, from fond memories of his movie-going childhood to speculation about whether he and his spouse should acquire a dog.
New York poet Frank O’Hara, in a delightful essay entitled “Personism: A Manifesto,” makes some observations about bringing the personal into one’s work, noting that one of Personism’s chief aims was
to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet's feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person…this would put “the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem [would be] correspondingly gratified.
I’m don’t know whether or not - in expressing his love of Stalker – Dyer had something like this in mind, but his injection of the personal into a work that in other aspects follows the recognizable form of an empirically-based, academic treatment of its subject, certainly moves his comments about Stalker squarely between himself and the reader, running the risk – as personal revelations do (particularly when writing about innermost desires, which as Dyer notes are difficult to identify even in oneself) – of alienating readers, leaving his book the only thing in the room (my room, in which I’d been reading Zona) to feel “correspondingly gratified.” I didn’t so much dislike this strategy as find it rubbing me wrong in maddening ways that only such a personal approach could - all the more irritating for its cutting close to my own sensitivities and for my failure to watch where I was stepping.
From the beginning Dyer and I got off on the wrong foot. I winced at Dyer’s occasionally leaden epiphanies (“The Zone is cinema”), name-dropping so thick it could form stalagmites, and a use of footnotes so wanton that it could out-Wallace David Foster Wallace. More to the honest point, I found (as though on a disastrous first date) many of Dyer’s tastes simply diverging from my own. He’s never seen The Wizard of Oz and asserts proudly that he feels no need to see it. He’s bored by Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The Coen brothers are dispatched with a blunt blow from a single adjective: “witless.” Dyer laments the loss of a treasured shoulder bag, a brand I’ve always disliked for its almost fascistic aesthetic. Dyer rhapsodizes over the Burning Man festival and over dogs; as a San Francisco resident, I’m peeved by the rampant fetishism of both. Even concerning Stalker, I found – despite Dyer’s many fine observations – elements I love about the film that Dyer neglects or even fails to mention (one trivial example: the flora of the Zone in which the stalker takes a nap appears, in a blunt Tarkovskian witticism, to be a field of marijuana). How maddening for our egos, when a critic doesn’t appreciate the things we ourselves appreciate!
Roadside Picnic, for example, seems (to me) undeservedly underappreciated by Dyer, who only mentions the book in relating that Tarkovsky asked the Strugatskys to eliminate its science fiction aspects in their script for Stalker. Surely there are elements of the book worth tossing (those disinclined to like science fiction may never make it past the first unfortunate page), but Dyer leaves out the novel completely, circumventing (like Tarkovsky himself, I should add) one of its more genial ideas: that the strange phenomena of the Zone might simply be the result of litterbug extraterrestrials stopping for a roadside picnic before weaving off into the stars again, and the Zone itself not simply the consecrated space that it is in Tarkovsky’s religiously-infused vision, but perhaps a careless consequence of oblivious alien tourists who’ve had an impact like that in Ray Bradbury’s story “The Sound of Thunder,” in which a visitor to the past accidentally steps on a butterfly only to find the present irremediably altered upon his return. It’s a shame, as Roadside Picnic, despite its myriad faults, is in its own way as good as or even better than Stalker, less subtle but richer in humor, evocative of themes unexplored by the film, and delivering lightly some of what Tarkovsky delivers heavy-handedly (comparing Stalker and Roadside Picnic I can’t help but recall a curious rounded monolith in a hidden corner of Golden Gate Park that local new-agers had for years treated as a sacred altar, until the park service revealed that it was simply a discarded concrete traffic bollard). And there’s much in the novel of which Dyer might have made good use, such as a scene in which the stalker tosses a metal nut to determine the safest path to proceed through the Zone, only to see it suddenly pull hard to the side and disappear into the clay. To the stalker’s whispered question, “Did you see that?” one of his companions replies, “Only in the movies.”
But given the ample warnings that a more careful reader might have heeded before rushing into Zona, my complaints are but those of a bumbling tourist, one who, focused on seeing the Eiffel Tower, fails to appreciate the Grand Palais. After all, the title clearly promises more than merely “A Book About a Film” (and, with its string of prepositions, suggests an unreliable distancing from its real subject in the way that “my friend’s best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s uncle” does). Two epigraphs preface Zona, one from Albert Camus that almost screams an admonition - “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly” - and the other referencing the blindness that can occur from looking at something too intently. Readers might also skip ahead to the closing epigraph from novelist David Markham: “Or was it possibly nothing more than a fundamentally recognizable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred? Nothing more than a read?” This coy apologia (with its nails-on-chalkboard use of “read” as a noun) comes too late, though there’s a more contrite, less expedient one in Zona where in a sudden self-interrogation Dyer addresses whether this hyper-personalized approach is even to his own taste, much less the reader’s. Here Dyer makes clear that he’s not so much condoning what he’s doing as running with it. Zona is a running, passionate appreciation of Tarkovsky’s film, but it’s even more an unfiltered experience of falling in love with a work of art, writing about it, and playing with writing about it and with the modes of writing about a work of art (after all, one of the stalker’s clients in the film is simply “Writer,” with an ego that invites problems in the Zone). I mean, some of these elements that so grated on me are just jokes, right? When Dyer deadpans that his own innermost desire might be for a three-way with two women, might he also be implying that perhaps the truest desire of the writer is simply to bring one’s personality into art, rather than submit to the constraints of trying to hide it? To admit one’s whole flawed being in responding to and writing about art, rather than adopt a dry voice of impersonal authority? To exaggeratedly use the candor of the personal to create a form that manifests the unavoidability of the personal? And to parody, simultaneously, both the impersonality of academic responses to works of art and the often overly personal ones of increasingly powerful popular opinion made possible by the Internet (for example, in, um, blogs run by amateurs, like this one) and, by this strange dialectic, come up with some new synthetic form? Perhaps. If so, Dyer may have found his room.
There’s a suggestion in Stalker, highlighted in Zona, that the “room” in the film, though, may simply be the bar where the stalker meets his clients prior to and following their Zone visit - that in fact they’ve never left the bar. It’s an appealing interpretation, one that helped me put aside my almost exclusively personal annoyance with Zona and think of it more like an animated, intellectually stimulating, slightly tipsy conversation in a pub with an animated, intellectually stimulating, slightly tipsy stranger. I can’t say I’m unhappy to have encountered him. I’m grateful for his meandering and insightful talk about a film we both admire. And the setting is surely more convivial than a stuffy lecture hall. But I could use another drink. Dyer can pay for this round.