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

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, their work all 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.