Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room

Overview

The spellbinding new book from the acclaimed author of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a wide-ranging investigation into the masterpiece of cinema that has haunted him since he first saw it thirty years ago.

The putative subject of Zona is the film Stalker, by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. As Dyer immerses us more and more deeply in the movie, it becomes apparent that Stalker, for all its power to obsess him, is only the point of departure for a wonderfully ...

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Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room

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Overview

The spellbinding new book from the acclaimed author of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a wide-ranging investigation into the masterpiece of cinema that has haunted him since he first saw it thirty years ago.

The putative subject of Zona is the film Stalker, by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. As Dyer immerses us more and more deeply in the movie, it becomes apparent that Stalker, for all its power to obsess him, is only the point of departure for a wonderfully digressive exploration of cinema in general and European cinema in particular; of how we try to understand what we cherish; and of how we try to fathom—and realize—our deepest wishes. Magnificently unpredictable, frequently hilarious (and, surely, one of the most unusual books ever written about cinema), Zona is thoroughly enthralling and thought-provoking from first to last—even if you have not seen the film.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A personal meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker--though, this being a Dyer (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, 2011, etc.) book, it's about plenty more besides. Stalker is a relatively obscure entry in Russian director Tarkovsky's oeuvre, but it's exceedingly receptive to critical analysis. The film follows three archetypes--Writer, Professor and Stalker--in a mysterious and heavily guarded wilderness as they ponder the meaning of life. Dyer doesn't provide a critical analysis of the film so much as a scene-by-scene walkthrough of it, just to see where it takes him--which is pretty far. He riffs on The Last of the Mohicans, Chernobyl, his affinity for particular brands of knapsack, the effect of aging on one's enthusiasm for cultural consumption, and more. At his most far-flung, he recalls his squandered opportunities for ménages à trois. Such digressions are vintage Dyer: Inserted as footnotes or parentheticals, they sometimes go on for so long that it can be hard to recall the scene in the movie that prompted the comment in the first place. He delivers a few too many hokey puns, and he sometimes overreaches to argue for the film's ongoing influence. (A claim that the film works as a 9/11 allegory is particularly forced.) The lack of a strong thesis is frustrating, and ultimately this is a lesser Dyer book. However, it gets over on his enthusiasm for the film and on his infectious admiration of Tarkovsky's philosophical reach. The "room" at the center of Stalker represents our need to locate our deepest desires, Dyer explains, and in that context maybe talking about those failed three-ways was necessary after all. A digressive but impassioned mash note to a film that defies easy summary.
J. Hoberman
At once audacious post-postmodernist memoir and après-DVD monograph, Zona considers…the last movie the great Russian director [Tarkovsky] would make in his native land…Dyer's evocation of Stalker is vivid; his reading is acute and sometimes brilliant…Zona is extremely clever…
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
“Extremely clever. . . . Dyer’s evocation of Stalker is vivid; his reading is acute and sometimes brilliant.” —New York Times Book Review

"The most stimulating book on a film in year." —The New Republic

"We all know what it is like to feel indebted to, and inadequate before, a towering work, but few people have ever described that feeling with the ingenuity or the candor of Dyer. . . . [T]he book is not only readable, it is hard to put down." —The New York Review of Books

“Testifying to the greatness of an underappreciated work of art is the core purpose of criticism, and Dyer has delivered a loving example that’s executed with as much care and craft as he finds in his subject.” —Los Angeles Times

“An unclassifiable little gem. . . . Very funny and very personal.” —San Francisco Chronicle 

“An engaging piece of writing that asks questions about the nature of art and provides a new way to write about film.” —The Atlantic

“Irresistible. . . . Dyer is an enormously seductive writer. He has a wide-ranging intellect, an effortless facility with language, and a keen sense of humor.” —Slate
 
“[Dyer] finds elements along the way that will keep even non-cinéastes onboard. While he dedicates ample energy to how the movie’s deliberate pacing runs contrary to modern cinema, its troubled production and the nuts and bolts of its deceptively simple parts, Dyer’s rich, restless mind draws the reader in with specific, personal details.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“Geoff Dyer is at his discursive best in Zona.” —New York Times Magazine
 
“Intimate, engaging, often brilliant.” —Michael Wood, London Review of Books
 
“You can read this book in 162 minutes and come away refreshed, enlivened, infuriated, amused, thoughtful, and mystified. An invigorating mixture of responses, but this is a Geoff Dyer book. . . . The most stimulating book on a film in years.” —David Thomson, The New Republic
 
“If any film demands book-length explication from a writer of Geoff Dyer’s caliber, it’s surely Stalker. . . . Dyer is, as the book amply demonstrates, the perfect counterpart to Tarkovsky. Where the film director is stubbornly slow and obscure, Dyer is a fleet and amusing raconteur with a knack for amusing digressions.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“[Dyer] combines a rigorous scholarship and criticism with whimsical digressions, both fictional and autobiographical, to create the light but heady concoction that’s become his signature.” —Time Out New York
 
“Dyer has been just under the radar for many years now, but [he] deserves the widest of audiences as he writes books that are funny, off-beat and hugely informative. This latest is ostensibly about the Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky, but it’s really about life, love and death—with many jokes and painful-but-true bits along the way.” —Details
 
Zona is an unpretentious yet deeply involving discussion of why art can move us, and an examination of how our relationship to art changes throughout our lives. It’s also funny, moving and unlike any other piece of writing about a movie.” —The Huffington Post
 
“Dyer’s language is at its most efficient in this book, conversational and spare. . . . Cultural artifacts worthy of this degree of obsession are rare and it’s a pleasure to read Dyer’s wrestling with one.” —New York Observer 
 
“Fascinating. . . . Dyer remains a uniquely relevant voice. In his genre-jumping refusal to be pinned down, he’s an exemplar of our era. And invariably, he leaves you both satiated and hungry to know where he’s going next.” —NPR
 
“The comedy and stoner’s straining for meaning is always present. And, when it is rewarded, as it so often is with rich associative memoir and creative criticism in Zona, we feel complicit, we celebrate the sensation at the end of all that straining, alongside with him.” —The Daily Beast
 
“Fascinating. . . . Dyer’s unpredictable and illuminating observations delighted and amused . . . all the way through.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“Wickedly funny. . . . The definitive work of an author whose work refuses definition.” —Austin American-Statesman
 
“[Zona] is about the power of art. It is a case study in how something created by anyone but you can seem like your creation, so deeply does it resonate with the details of your life. This is what Stalker calls the ‘unselfishness of art’ and it is Geoff Dyer’s gift to his readers.” —The Millions
 
“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.” —Wichita Eagle
 
“Dyer’s musings on everything from on-set disasters to his desire to join a threesome make for a rich and wacky sojourn.” —Mother Jones

The Barnes & Noble Review

Toward the middle of Zona, Geoff Dyer's book-length treatment of Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, the author quotes the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The passage, taken from the obscure theorist's intensely intimidating, 700-page Phenomenology of Perception, is direct and affecting, as though it were written by Kafka. It reads in part, "once I was a man, with a soul and a living body and now I am no more than a being.... I hear and see, but no longer know anything.... I now live in eternity."

Dyer is mining Merleau-Ponty for insight into what schizophrenia might feel like, which in turn offers insight into what the three protagonists of Stalker must be feeling as they cross over into "the Zone," a depopulated, militarily guarded, surreal landscape that seems to hold the truth of existence within it. Dyer's invocation of Merleau-Ponty shows us why he has become a leading, celebrated critic/artist: he speaks eruditely about the most challenging of subjects in an Everyman's language. He never condescends, and he's unpretentious, but he gives readers the impression that they are receiving the finest insight available. For the past two decades he has delivered subtle, acute reflections on art in an original, engaging voice, actively pioneering a mode of writing that blends autobiography, criticism, and travel narrative. In this hybrid genre Dyer stands alongside writers as varied as Nicholson Baker, John Berger, and Roland Barthes, all their work flowing out of the insight that all art is really commentary on other art.

Dyer has written a whole lot of commentary, and some of it is indeed art. Last spring he released a career-spanning volume of collected criticism that recently earned a National Book Critics Circle Award; before that he published very good books on photography, D. H. Lawrence, and jazz. Zona is his self- professed "amplification and expansion" of Stalker, which he assures us is his favorite film of all time. The format of Zona is simplicity itself: Dyer traces the plot of the movie from beginning to end, skipping over the parts he finds uninspiring, lingering over those that strike him deeply, riffing heavily throughout. Although the form of Zona implies just one viewing of the film, reading the book actually feels like many: it comes across as a pastiche of the scores of times Dyer has watched Stalker, plus the scores more times when something in his life made him reflect on the film.

Occasionally Dyer's riffs on Stalker are amazing. In a six-page footnote (there are many lengthy footnotes in this book), Dyer digresses through "the subject of quotation within film," zeroing in on a hilarious set piece in the Turkish film Distant. In this set piece the intellectual Mahmut is visited by his "clodhopping" cousin Yusuf, but the two men can't decide what to watch on TV. As Dyer puts it, "Mahmut is not about to compromise his high aesthetic standards just because a dull-witted cousin has come to stay." The film that Mahmut forces Yusuf to watch turns out to be none other than Stalker, but eventually the latter gets bored and goes to bed, upon which Mahmut promptly switches from Stalker to porn. Yusef later comes down, and Mahmut, "who has not budged, who is not jerking off, whose fly is not even open, just about has time to flip to a broadcast channel." Eventually the men settle on a kung fu flick, and now it is Mahmut who gets bored. He switches the TV off, thus ending the scene. "If you wanted a definition of deadpan," glosses Dyer, "you could do a lot worse than choose this sequence to illustrate your point." After taking us through this "joke in all its precise levels of denotation," Dyer goes on to make his case that Austrian director Michael Haneke also quotes Stalker in his post-apocalyptic film Time of the Wolf, albeit in a distinctly different manner. Dyer concludes that Haneke "can allude to Stalker without doing so — and, by the same token, can't not do so." This is classic Dyer: a premise opened up through a hilarious anecdote that deconstructs itself charmingly, then an expansion of the premise that zeroes back to the subject at hand, leaving us sighing in quiet wonder. Here is Dyer's signature capacity to make a work of art his own without diminishing the source material, nor seeming diminished.

Alas, for all the talent Dyer brings to this book, it never becomes anything more than a series of pleasant riffs. Zona recalls Roland Barthes's book S/Z, wherein the French poststructuralist takes readers word by word through Balzac's short story "Sarrasine." Richard Howard has referred to S/Z as "the most sustained yet pulverized meditation on reading I know in all of Western critical literature," and Zona similarly foregrounds the act of watching film. Dyer's constant movement in and out of Stalker mirror Barthes's movement through "Sarrasine," implying that Zona is more a book about watching film than about watching Tarkovsky. The problem is that Dyer never makes this purpose — if this is indeed the purpose of the book — central enough to be persuasive. In fact, nothing comes to ground this book — it registers only as Dyer meandering through the film. To compare to S/Z once again: Barthes shatters "Sarrasine" into exactly 561 fragments, classifying each one into one of five different categories and examining them as under a microscope. He takes a text and submits it to his method, in the process dredging out insights that feel substantial enough to strike to the core of what reading and writing are about.

Zona, by comparison, feels like an improvisation. This is obviously Dyer's aim — at one point he even flatly states that he considered dividing Zona into 142 sections, one for each shot in the film, but he realized this would not be true to his experience of watching and remembering the film. Fair enough, but in previous, similarly chaotic works, like Out of Sheer Rage and The Ongoing Moment, Dyer attains a palpable sense that the book is about something, despite his ad hoc method. Those books mesh with the idiosyncrasy of Dyer's enthusiast personality; they receive their persuasiveness from the very intimacy and literariness of a voice that makes art from its commitment to not being scientific.

But with Zona Dyer has misfired. Too much of its prose is flabby, too many of its conclusions are easily won. Perhaps it was a mistake to follow the film on a linear course instead of rearranging the material to suit his argument, as he did in Out of Sheer Rage and The Ongoing Moment. Lacking a structure to give them greater force, Dyer's riffs, though generally interesting, feel insubstantial and are easily forgotten. Dyer himself seems to recognize this. Toward the end of the book, wondering whether his exercise in "summary" has been worthwhile, Dyer writes, "whether [this summary] 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." He goes on to make a case for commentary as a valid pursuit on the level of writing novels, but at this point it feels too little, too late. In Dyer's strongest work he never makes the case for commentary as an art because the books themselves are the best argument that could be made. Here one senses his uncertainty surrounding the project, his occasional quips and self- inflicted insults feeling not like good old Dyerian braggadocio but the faltering steps of a writer who has not found his form. Sometimes art leaves us with a sense of its grandeur but also with an inability to articulate just what we find so grand, no matter how hard we try, nor how articulate we've been elsewhere.

Scott Esposito is a critic, writer, and editor whose work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. In 2004 he created the widely praised literary website Conversational Reading, which can be found at http://conversationalreading.com.

Reviewer: Scott Esposito

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307377388
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/21/2012
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Geoff Dyer

GEOFF DYER is the author of four novels (most recently Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi); a critical study of John Berger; and five highly original nonfiction books including But Beautiful, which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, and Out of Sheer Rage, an NBCC finalist. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Zona

A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
By Geoff Dyer

Pantheon

Copyright © 2012 Geoff Dyer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307377388

An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against—there are no stools—while you stand and drink. If floorboards could speak these look like they could tell a tale or two, though the tales would turn out to be one and the same, ending with the same old lament (after a few drinks people think they can walk all over me), not just in terms of what happens here but in bars the world over. We are, in other words, already in a realm of universal truth. The barman comes in from the back—he’s wearing a white barman’s jacket—lights a cigarette and turns on the lights, two fluorescent tubes, one of which doesn’t work properly: it flickers. He looks at the flickering light. You can see him thinking, ‘That needs fixing’, which is not the same thing at all as ‘I’ll fix that today’, but which is very nearly the same as ‘It’ll never be fixed.’ Daily life is full of these small repeated astonishments, hopes (that it might somehow have fixed itself overnight) and resignations (it hasn’t and won’t). A tall man—a customer!—enters the bar, puts his knapsack under the table, the small round table you lean against while drinking. He’s tall but not young, balding, obviously not a terrorist, and there’s no way that his knapsack 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. He orders something from the barman. The fact that the barman’s jacket is white emphasizes how not terribly clean it is. Although it’s a jacket it also serves as a towel, possibly as a dishcloth, and maybe as a hankie too. The whole place looks like it could be dirty but it’s too dingy to tell and the credits in yellow Russian letters—sci-fi Cyrillic—do not exactly clarify the situation.
 
It’s the kind of bar men meet in prior to a bank job that is destined to go horribly wrong, and the barman is the type to take no notice of anything that’s not his business and the more things that are not his business the better it is for him, even if it means that business is so slow as to be almost nonexistent. Far as he’s concerned, long as he’s here, minding his own business and wearing his grubby barman’s jacket, he’s doing his job, and if no one comes and no one wants anything and nothing needs doing (the wonky light can wait, as can most things) it’s all the same to him. Still smoking, he trudges over with a coffeepot (he’s one of those barmen who has the knack of imbuing the simplest task with grudge, making it feel like one of the labours of a minimum-wage Hercules), pours some coffee for the stranger, goes out back again and leaves him to it, to his coffee, to his sipping and waiting. Of that there can be no doubt: the stranger is defi nitely waiting for something or someone. 
 
***
A caption: some kind of meteorite or alien visitation has led to the creation of a miracle: the Zone. Troops were sent in and never returned. It was surrounded by barbed wire and a police cordon. . . .
 
This caption was added at the behest of the studio, Mosfilm, who wanted to stress the fantastical nature of the Zone (where the subsequent action will be set). They also wanted to make sure that the ‘bourgeois’ country where all this happened could not be identified with the USSR. Hence this mysterious business of the Zone all happened—according to the caption—‘in our small country’, which put everyone off the scent because the USSR, as we all know, covered a very large area and Russia was (still is) huge too. ‘Russia . . .’, I can hear Laurence Olivier saying it now, in the Barbarossa episode of The World at War. ‘The boundless motherland of Russia.’ Faced with the German invasion of 1941, Russians fell back on the traditional strategy, the strategy that had done for Napoleon and would do for Hitler too: ‘Trade space for time’, a message Tarkovsky took to heart.



Continues...

Excerpted from Zona by Geoff Dyer Copyright © 2012 by Geoff Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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