“Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room” by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon, 232 pages, $24)
For 20 years or so English writer Geoff Dyer has landed his readers smack in the middle of an archly idiosyncratic search for post-postmodern literary meaning. He has written serious books about photography and jazz, books about yoga having nothing to do with yoga, and a long jesting foray about researching a biography of D.H. Lawrence, ending in a success disguised as failure.
In a way, Geoff Dyer has tricked up Tristram Shandy, cross-bred it with Lady Gaga, and come up with an insightful, audacious, deeply personal, often hilarious and entertaining approach to literature in a world which doesn’t much appreciate art or even the book itself. He is one of the most interesting writers at work today in English — even his failures inspire.
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His new book, “Zona,” will challenge readers to stick with Dyer as he submarines his way through many underwater frontiers, including Dyer’s personal feelings and aesthetic judgments about many classic and not-so-classic movies, musings on the relation between LSD trips and cinematic voyaging, old girlfriends, missed sexual opportunities in youth, and even the place of quicksand (yes, actual jungle quicksand) in imagination. Even panic-stricken, beside-the-point, or off-base, Dyer manages to connect the dots.
Ostensibly “Zona” is a book about the great Soviet movie director Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979), a dystopian masterpiece considered by some to be one of the most boring films of all time (and by others a mysterious work of genius).
Dyer muses: “What kind of writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film? Especially when there are few things I hate more than when someone, in an attempt to persuade me to see a film, starts summarizing it, explaining the plot, thereby destroying any chance of my ever seeing it?” Then, of course, Dyer proceeds to explicate the movie scene by scene (the film runs more than 2 1/2 hours).
The action of “Stalker” takes place amid industrial ruins and involves the mock odyssey of three shaven-headed Russians, the Writer, the Professor, and the leader Stalker, who, dressed in the rags and tatters of gulag inmates, wander through a polluted, apocalyptic area called the Zone in search of the Room, where one’s secret hopes and desires reach fulfillment. In a dark sepia tone, the movie creeps along, though, wondrously, Dyer’s book gallops.
Dyer, a movie fanatic of long standing, explains Tarkovsky’s many troubles filming the movie, his disputes with a jealous wife, the heart attack that sidelined the director for months, lost footage and destroyed film stock, an earthquake in Tajikistan that disrupted location filming and caused the crew to exchange the Central Asian desert for a polluted river region in Estonia where, it is thought, Tarkovsky and others were exposed to chemicals that caused cancers (Tarkovsky died of cancer).
“Zona” becomes Dyer’s Room, the place where he remembers himself remembering the movie he remembers as a great movie, simultaneously a hall of mirrors and kaleidoscope, echo-chamber and reverb-amp. “The first few times I saw “Stalker” were during a phase of my life when I took LSD and magic mushrooms regularly”, Dyer recalls.
And in an extended footnote (there are dozens of extended footnotes in Zona, some of them six pages or so in length!), Dyer observes that, “The prominent place occupied in my consciousness by “Stalker” is almost certainly bound up with the fact that I saw it at a particular time in my life … I suspect it is rare for anyone to see their — what they consider to be the greatest film after the age of thirty.” How true.
The Zone, Dyer jests, “is one of the few territories left … where the rights to ‘Top Gear’ have not been sold.” It is, thus, to the fate of art in our disoriented, materialistic and commercial world that we must turn in all seriousness. How wonderful, Dyer is saying, to be young and in love with a movie that nobody cares about or wishes to see, or, mostly, even remembers.
How wonderful it is to take one last longing look before we’re all turned to pillars of salt by the everyday grind.