To appreciate Zona, Geoff Dyer’s twelfth book, you’ll need to watch the Andrei Tarkovsky film, Stalker, among the most treasured and troubling movies in the history of cinema. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll need to take your time with the film—it is relentlessly bewitching—before reading Dyer’s discursive exploration of its maze of meanings and its thirty years’ spell upon him. If you’ve watched this 1979 Soviet-era allegory of a post-apocalyptic, ruined homeland in which three characters travel to a nearby and differently ruined space called the Zone, you’ll find its psychic disturbances less queasy with Dyer as your guide.
Perhaps the British author’s value (the American publication of his essay collection, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition, just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism) lies in how, with rigor and play, he engages his obsessions. Recall Dyer’s stunning travail with his own reluctance to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, the lively elegy, Out of Sheer Rage (1997). His subgenre, cornered by him and few others, is the book about an icon: a song, a symphony, a painting, an author, a battle (Gettysburg), a myth (Dead Elvis). The lure of icon-brooding is to activate a relationship between the writer and the object in which the writer finds his way following his passion for the object.
Works of art, the Renaissance scholar Walter Pater wrote in 1877, have generous hearts. In Pater’s day, Richard Wagner’s operas folded together music, drama, and myth. Pater thought this total artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk) was nothing new. It is in the nature of the arts, he said, that they lend each other their forces: lyric teams with melody to make song; a story’s climax gives painting a narrative; and so on. In the last century, film has enterprised these shared techniques the most: music, still and moving image, spoken language, time, visual space—all interact. The cinema revs another engine which most fiction and fantasy don’t engage: a relationship with actuality. Film is about people whose photographed identity remains theirs. Age, face, self: they are themselves, whether acting or not. What’s more, film records place, its vulnerability to time and the elements. In Stalker, Tarkovsky shoots a lake twice: in the morning when its misted calm suggests a veiled peaceableness and in the afternoon when its surface scuzz, like washing-machine discharge, suggests a toxic spill. The lake and its changing condition accommodate the filmmaker’s sensibility. Almost everything in Stalker is dank, wet, or hosed down, the unceasing drip-drops like a musical score. Such saturation seems a coproduction of nature and Tarkovsky, washing the human stench away.
In addition to cinema’s matrix of the sensorium, movies involve yet another relationship: the viewer’s engagement with a director’s vision. Which is where Dyer comes in. Stalker, as Tarkovsky’s shadow, has obsessed Dyer since he first saw the work in 1981. Why? The intrigue, its visceral charge, its filmic range. In a nuclear-ruled country where people still value human desire there is a Zone, an alien place which the authorities forbid people to enter, though it draws them largely for that restriction. A man called Stalker takes people there for a fee. In the Zone is the Room where, in Dyer’s words, “what you get is not what you think you wish for but what you most deeply wish for.” To go, a person must first escape the urban ruins in which he lives (where nature has been obliterated), follow Stalker’s neurotic path and commands to the Zone (where nature is reasserting itself), and believe in the Room’s power to reinvent oneself. The film asks, Why wouldn’t you want your deepest desire to manifest? Believe in the Zone and it will reward you.
Stalker leads two men, Writer and Professor, into the Zone. The closer they get to the Room, the more their hopes are revealed to them. But those hopes are not the ones they brought; they’ve been altered by the journey, which commands most of the movie’s two hours and forty-five minutes. Film and book underscore how the truly arduous trek remakes our expectations, our faith. And isn’t it true? Voyages always produce ends we do not expect. That’s why we go.
Dyer’s narrative purpose with this book seems to come down to this: If he describes the movie in minute detail, if he comments on its tastiest morsels, and if he follows wherever those morsels take him, his tour through Stalker will push him to fathom himself in ways he had not considered possible.
The three-page opening section about the movie’s initial scene, running behind the credits, sets up his tack. It’s a bar in which Professor awaits the arrival of Stalker and Writer. Dyer first fixes on the bartender who enters and gazes at a flickering fluorescent light. His gaze mixes hope that the light will stop flashing and resignation that it’s another day of the same. Next, Dyer stops on Professor’s unobtrusive knapsack (the kind of thing we miss the first time through a movie): “There’s no way that his knapsack,” Dyer writes, “could contain a bomb, but this unremarkable action—putting a knapsack under the table in a bar—is not one that can now go unremarked, especially by someone who first saw Stalker (on Sunday, February 8, 1981) shortly after seeing Battle of Algiers.” Dyer crafts a context then inserts himself. As the book proceeds, this self-insertion develops until the author shares equal billing with the film.
And so it goes: Zona—a book about a film about a journey—becomes Dyer’s zone of discovery. A sequence emerges: a) he launches his personal turn in the middle of W.G. Sebald-like long paragraphs, which might be footnoted with just-as-lengthy excursions; b) there, Dyer unloads an idea, memory, or opinion, often about sex, his parents, Tarkovsky’s life, or the history of cinema; and c) once vented, he turns back to the film, transformed by the wildness the movie has awakened in him.
We share in this pleasure, whichever way the film pulls. Among the best meanders are these. The mystical hold the movie has on him each time he sees it. The “fury and despair” of its director, an auteur whose dedication was both feared and worshipped. Stalker’s history—how it got made, how the Soviets decried its mystery, how it compares to Tarkovsky’s other six films. The movie’s Zen passages when the camera is transfixed by bombed-out landscapes or the dirty faces and balding domes of the three main actors. A few scenes that don’t work, especially the “nap,” during which the men, who stretch out on puddles, argue about each other’s “purchased inspiration” and “psychological abysses.” The several self-mocking asides when Dyer plumbs his motivations: “What kind of writer am I, writing a summary of a film?” And his own deepest wish (one he still holds dear), an unrealized sexual fantasy, comic-cum-serious, that opens the valve of regret: why it is that when we finally get close to what we “deeply wish for,” we turn and run.
Of the three, Stalker is the most haunted. Why is never clear. Though previously imprisoned for leading people to the Zone, he cannot stay away. Each trip is cathartic, which we know from his mania and his wife’s cracked behavior. She berates his going before he leaves, then justifies it after he returns. Perhaps it’s for his crippled daughter that he plods, in homage to or guilt for her condition. (That condition marks the film’s beguiling end.) Stalker preserves the Zone’s aura, applies what small apparatchik authority he has over those he escorts.
While Professor has his own agenda (I won’t spoil it), Writer is, for me, the one truly lost. He may shoulder the worst case of writer’s block ever filmed. In the bar, Writer tells Professor, a chemist, that both men dig for the truth. But, Writer says, “while I am digging for the truth, so much happens to it, that instead of discovering the truth, I dig up a heap of, pardon—I better not name it.” In a later soliloquy (Stalker is a film of speeches and recited poetry), Writer describes his writing as “a squeezing out of a hemorrhoid.” To counter, he hopes the Room grants him genius, which, he realizes is absurd because he’d have no desire to write; he’d lose what scant longing he still has for words. Acknowledging his ambivalence about talent is as close as he gets to his deepest desire. At the Room’s lip, he concludes a visit is unnecessary. The decision frees him but the block remains.
All this speechifying unlocks a prime ambiguity about film and speech. What is said in cinema is secondary to what is heard and seen. What’s heard and seen is felt, first and foremost, by viewers and by characters. Words lag behind the shock of jump cuts, the awe of sound/visual textures. Think of Bergman and Goddard. Though critics call such plotless, moody, avant-garde films abstractions, we experience Breathless and Wild Strawberries nothing like Wittgenstein. How could these films be anything but visceral? “The Zone,” Tarkovsky said in an interview, “doesn’t symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films: the zone is the zone, it’s life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through.” Film is life. In Dyer’s loving regard of this director’s world, we are reminded how cinema fixes the reality it witnesses, how cinema preserves time. And I would add the reality and time it fixes and preserves is far more actual than mythic.
Dyer follows the chronology of the film, which organizes the book and lets him chart his emotional logic. Because Tarkovsky’s images are so vivid, they are emblazoned in our mind and, thus, Dyer need not recount them. Instead, he chases after those episodes that capture and elude him. An example. When the three men are at the Room’s threshold and Stalker is ready to usher them in, Stalker lights up with a kind of neurotic ecstasy. He claims that a man, before he enters and receives his wish, should think about the past as such thoughts will make him kinder. Dyer responds.
A lovely idea, but manifestly untrue. There comes a point in your life when you realize that most of the significant experiences—aside from illness and death—lie in the past. To that extent the past is far more appealing than the future. The older you get the more time you spend thinking about the past, the things that have happened. Old people spend almost all of their time thinking about the past. But if their faces are anything to go by, this past fills them with bitterness as often as tenderness. The past becomes a source of regret; you think of hopes that were unrealized, disappointments, betrayals, failures, deceptions, all the things that led this point which could be so different . . .
And so on.
The film’s climax, to be sure, is anticlimactic. The men’s stamina is spent, the promise of salvation lopped off at the knees. Their moccasin creep, traversing the Zone slows to a crawl until the camera stands guard inside the Room and, looking out, stares at the three men, cowered and defeated, gazing in. To wit, Dyer launches a six-page, single paragraph in which he ponders their breakdown. “Not to have to face up to the truth about oneself,” he writes, “is probably high up on anyone’s actual—as opposed to imagined—wish list. Jung claimed that ‘people will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.’”
Zona corrals a writer and a subject, who and which, astride their bubbly comradeship, invite a reviewer to do the same. I admit to (an extended) mulling (of) the film’s conundrums and Dyer’s virtuoso performance massaging them. But I, too, must stop mid-mull, more than a touch forlorn that I can’t say any more about this most Eros-driven of reading adventures, courtesy of contemporary literature’s best muller.