Zona - Geoff Dyer
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
A gambler trying to guess the topic of a future Geoff Dyer book would always be destined to lose. Not only is Dyer versatile in form (novels, novellas, essays, non-fiction books), but his range of chosen topics has been so eclectic to date that predicting the next would be impossible.
As far as non-fiction is concerned, Dyer's panoramic sweep has included the sacred - *history, literature, photography, jazz - as well as the profane - sex, drugs, Burning Man. Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival he said in 2010 that the conventional notion that one had to be an expert in a subject before writing about it was one he rebelled against, and that with some of his chosen subjects, he embarked on writing the book with an interest in his topic but limited detailed knowledge, allowing the research process to educate him while he wrote the book.
Dyer was certainly very knowledgeable about the iconic Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 art-house movie Stalker before he started writing this book, having seen it repeatedly over the more than thirty years since its release. The first time he saw it he didn't enjoy it that much, but its slow, haunting scenes lodged in his mind, and he was compelled to see it again and again.
Stalker is a typical Tarkovsky film, slow, mysterious, allegorical. The central story involves a guide, the Stalker, taking a Writer and a Professor to a forbidden zone where, it is rumoured, one's deepest desires come true. There is a constant drizzle during filming, and the industrial wasteland the three travel through to reach the zone is scattered with the deserted warehouses, disused railway stations and debris of urban life - abandoned cars, telegraph poles - *that was characteristic of parts of north London, where I lived when I saw the movie. Tarkovsky was Russian Orthodox by religion, and his rendering of an inaccessible place where dreams come true had spiritual undertones.
Dyer is eloquent on how the mindless immediacy of modern living taints our appreciation of a film like Stalker. We are conditioned to not wait longer than a few seconds for anything, we become impatient quickly, and western films are quick-fire productions where action and dialogue fill the space around us constantly. This engenders impatience when we are asked by a director to sit and watch scenes where nothing much happens for what seems like long periods of time. But once we give ourselves over to the dreamy, unhurried pace, we can sink into the film and become mesmerised.
Dyer's writing is as precise and crisp as ever. His insights are perceptive and intelligent, his mind quick, sharp and witty. On almost every page his discursive style probes into related topics. There is a lot of fascinating information about filming, such as how Tarkovsky's first choice of site was unavailable. Since the damp, drizzly urban wasteland seems so well suited to the film, it seems fortuitous that this was the case. But the river that flowed near the site of filming was a dumping site for industrial waste, and Tarkovsky's wife among others, died of cancer. The film also suffered many set-backs, including damage to the reels of film that meant that months of work had to be re-shot.
Because this is Dyer, the book is laugh out loud funny. Some of the anecdotes are about Tarkovsky, who colourfully described various crew members as `childish degenerates', `cretins', `lightweight shallow people with no self respect', and `behaving like bastards'. Others are about other films. For example, the Turkish director Nuri Ceylan referenced Stalker in his 2002 film Distant by having the protagonist transfixed to a videotape of Stalker playing on his living room TV, while his uncouth cousin, an uninvited guest is visibly bored. *His cousin, unimpressed by the art house movie, *leaves the room, whereupon the protagonist switches to watching pornography. But the cousin returns to the room, causing the main character to switch hastily over to some brainless programme which the guest enjoys. The host grumpily announces that the TV is being switched off for the night.
Just as delightful are the snippets of autobiographical detail. We hear about Dyer's parents' frugality, in particular his mother's illogical refusal to spend a little more on buying the kind of steak she actually enjoyed eating. We find out about Dyer's *friendlessness in sixth form, and his mother pressurising his father to go out to the pub with Geoff, and his knowledge that his father would far rather stay at home and save the money. There is an interesting anecdote about Dyer's wife's one time resemblance to Natascha McElhone, the actress. It is fabulous learning more about Dyer, such as his desire not simply for a dog but for the very dog that belongs to close friends, and no other. Dyer is such a charming raconteur, so effortlessly hilarious, that it would be impossible to become bored by his side-tracks. Like David Foster Wallace, his footnotes and side-tracks are often greater gems than the main subject he is exploring.
Dyer is, as Zadie Smith said, a national treasure. Zona is another example of the way his brilliant mind takes high culture and makes it not only understandable, but creates a fabulously entertaining journey along the way.