Few writers seem to do facetious erudition with the obtrusively self-aggrandizing more completely than Geoff Dyer. Whether it is calling a novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, or the references in Zona to Kundera, T. S. Eliot, Camus, Coleridge, Rilke, Fitzgerald, Conrad, Bernhard, Unamuno, Coetzee, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Bukowski, Oe and Kafka, Dyer is both autobiographically self-promoting and incorrigibly name-dropping. Though Zona is a book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Dyer devotes a couple of pages to the similarities between Dyer’s wife and Natasha McIlhone in the remake of Solaris (Soderbergh, 2002). This should make for an infuriating read, but instead it allows for an agreeable if trivial one. Dyer would no doubt be aware of what Kundera calls ‘digression’, the moment when a writer seems to abandon the story to focus on some thematic point of interest, but where in Kundera’s work the purpose of digression is to give texture to the theme, in Zona it seems close to an attention deficit disorder: to someone who can’t quite keep his mind on the topic when a hundred and one other things float through his head.
Yet, one’s frustration with the book doesn’t reside in the notion that Dyer is a bore, since his digressive approach is often more interesting than many an academic tome that appears to have been written with the metaphorical windows shut and the blinds down, airlessly focused on the work to hand. Dyer’s is closer to a house on the Hollywood hills – wide windows, endless vistas. The problem is more one of the digressive leading to the arbitrary. Dyer manages to engage the reader but doesn’t quite deepen our responses to the film, and in this sense is the opposite of one his heroes, the art critic John Berger. In his book on Berger, Ways of Telling, Dyer talks of Berger’s talent “for bringing material from diverse sources into provocative proximity” (1), and adds, “Berger’s is a method that yields startling insights and produces breakthroughs that are denied the expert who digs a deeper trench of specialized knowledge.” (2) Dyer shares Berger’s interest in provocative proximity, but the insights yielded seem too far away from the material to hand to enlighten us concerning it.
At one moment in Zona Dyer talks of the room which is at the centre of the Zone, the place in which the three characters, the stalker, the writer and the professor are trying to reach, and where various wishes may come true. “The truth revealed by the room is ontological”, Dyer says, and quotes Berger and Nella Bielski’s play, A Question of Geography, where “the job of our lives is to become – day by day, year by year, more conscious of this aim so that it can at last be realized.” Instead of exploring this idea, Dyer offers a needless aside. “Unless you’re a paedophile, say, or any one of a dozen other types of sicko.” (p. 182) At another moment when he notices the use of Ravel’s Bolero, he adds, “a piece of music whose place in film history is indelibly linked with Bo Derek and Dudley Moore in 10”. (p. 190) It is true that both films came out in 1979 (a point Dyer doesn’t make), and perhaps a few audience members who happened to have seen Blake Edwards’ film before Tarkovsky’s might have been unable to get the music’s use in one film out of their mind to give it to give it due credence in another. However, in a book on Stalker written thirty years later it seems an irrelevant remark.
If Berger is a writer who so often offers provocative proximity, Dyer frequently practises instead superfluous associationism: making connections between things that add little to the understanding of the thing itself, but instead allude to the assumptions Dyer is making of his reader. Dyer’s range of reading may be healthily broad, but his placing of the reader can be surprisingly parochial. When commenting on Stalker’s presence in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak, Dyer says when the central character and his cousin are watching TV “it’s not Top Gear [which gets at least three mentions in the book] or Turkey’s Got Talent they’re watching; it’s Stalker…” (p. 50) Later he adds, when the cousin goes to bed, the central character puts on a girl-on-girl porno. “The only difference now, is that instead of this long magical sequence of three men clanging toward the Zone, we‘ve got a silicone-breasted woman sucking the enormous tits of a Page Three Model”. (p. 51)
In such moments we sense Dyer’s purpose isn’t to comprehend Stalker but to popularise it, to try and find contexts in which its weight can be alleviated by pop cultural levity. Even Tarkovsky’s attire gets a mention as he determines to keep the book’s tone chirpy: Tarkovsky is seen while scouting for locations in a documentary on Nostalgia, Tempo di Viaggo “wearing a pale yellow T-shirt and the shortest, cutest, tightest little pair of white shorts imaginable.” (p. 23) The most elevated of artists can be caught if not with their trousers down, then with their fashion victim shorts on. This isn’t quite Roland Barthes’ attention to semiotic detail; more Dyer’s determined need to retain the irreverent. As he says, “one of the things I thought I would love as a writer, one of the perks of the job, would be having people come up to me to say how much they loved my books.” (p. 160) He still does like it, but what he isn’t so keen on is when it is applied to him rather than the work. As he says, “I have a sizeable capacity for admiring people’s work, but I suspect that the verb ‘to revere’ describes relation to people rather than things.” But what happens when one’s irreverence towards a person becomes irreverent towards the thing itself? Does one not arrive at the trivialising? If an overt respect for the person can lead to the portentous, where anything an artist touches is a mark of their unequivocal genius; equally, the refusal to take seriously the object of admiration can lead to irreverent’s flip side: the irrelevant. It is one thing to mock the teller but shouldn’t we at least trust the tale?
Dyer reverses this by asking us to trust the teller, as in Dyer, but mock the tale, or rather not so much mock it as half ignore it, with Dyer focusing on his own biography to the detriment of the film. At one moment he talks about his greatest regret: a regret “I share with the vast majority of middle-aged heterosexual men: that I’ve never had a three way, never had a sex with two women at once.” (p. 169) At another moment he talks of how he thought for a change his mum had eaten all of her steak at a restaurant only to find out later that she took half of it home with her, “wrapped up in a napkin in her handbag.” (p. 168) Whether it is the hypothetical or the autobiographical, Dyer amusingly asks for only the slightest of premises to go off on a tangent. The three in bed comes from the notion of one’s deepest wishes concerning the Room in the film, the tale of his mother out of wondering whether our goals in life are quite as large as we might think. His mother’s ambition didn’t stretch much further than a decent steak it seems. Perhaps it is an apt metaphor for Dyer’s own modestly immodest aims here.
As a postscript Dyer quotes David Markson on books that are sui generis, asking for a book to be “nothing more or less than a read.” Dyer’s book is a good read, but isn’t that a claim many will make for a book by John Grisham (also name checked here)? But Dyer would rightly claim where a Grisham novel is decidedly generic, Zona is a book which has no recognizable place, and nevertheless is readable without all the generic codification of a pre-packaged best-seller. Yet Dyer’s book is so readable partly because it seems to have its own mode of address that affirms assumption rather than questions it, with Dyer’s book constantly cosying up to the assumed person reading the book. Its very uncoupling from generic expectation leads to a clingy relationship with the reader: “I am aware that this is not the first time that I have referred in print to my dad’s fear of the over-priced choc-ice.” (p. 27) As he starts the second section of the book, Dyer asks: “Glad of the break? Of course you are.” (p. 99) He even indicates there is a very good reason why he needs to be chummy: “I sometimes think writers’ love of money is purer than that of hedge fund managers or bankers; only serious writers really appreciate the delicious, improbable perfection of getting paid.” Dyer is of course right there is a pleasure in payment, but that pleasure is often mitigated when a newspaper or magazine expects the writer to assume an overly fawning relationship with the reader whom they hope will part with the cash. In such instances writing resembles less an art or a craft than the oldest of professions.
The consequence of this is less intimacy than bravado, less Dyer’s profound relationship with Stalker, than his need to drag the reader into a kind of literary three in bed: Tarkovsky, Dyer and the reader all in it together. Talking about his and his wife’s ambivalence about getting a household pet, Dyer says, “But then….the reason why we have not got a dog yet is because there is only one dog we want, Dotty, our friend’s lurcher” (p. 199) Even when discussing the film the tone is over-familiar, as if denying the “felt strangeness”, as Heidegger would put it, of Tarkovsky’s images for the matey tone. “Anyway, they’re standing around the table in the bar, having a good old chat and a drink, though really Writer is the one doing most of the drinking – and in the time-honoured tradition of the drunkard, he’s repeating himself.” (p. 30) The point of Tarkovsky’s film is to arrive at this felt strangeness; the point of Dyer’s book seems the opposite – to arrive at the cosily comfortable. Dyer may usefully reference Rilke’s “overcrowded gaze” to capture something of the singularity of Tarkovsky’s images against the predictable construction of the visual in most films, but in literary terms Dyer has an overcrowded gaze of his own. It is the gaze of someone who knows their football (José Mourinho gets a mention), knows British TV (Jeremy Clarkson, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and Graham Norton are duly referenced), and will know what a lucky and (self-confessedly) selfish bugger Dyer was in buying an ex-council flat in Brixton before the London property boom. Very few people will be coming to a book on Stalker for details on the London house market, yet it is partly what keeps the book easygoing and relaxed.
However, there are many films that Dyer could presumably write more interestingly on than Stalker, where phrases like “perhaps he’ll even get his round in?” (p. 29) would sit more pertinently with the material. What about My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears, 1985) or Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears, 1987), possibly Withnail and I (Robinson, 1987) or The Last of England (Jarman, 1988)? Dyer can write and he can entertain, but he seems to be confusing here the irrelevant with the irreverent. It is great that he doesn’t go the academic route of referencing all the sources on the film, but when Emmanuel Carrere (in Positif), Serge Daney (in Cahiers du Cinéma) and Zizek (in The Fright of Real Tears) have all written interestingly on Stalker, and are all writers who happen like Dyer to incorporate the digressive and even autobiographical in their work, these seem like major omissions. All the more so when there is space for Clarkson, Brand and the Brixton property market.
In conclusion, Dyer’s work lacks the gnomic gravity we expect from Tarkovsky, from phrases like, “truth does not exist in itself; it lies in the Method – it is – the way.” (p. 2) Dyer prefaces the book with a comment by Camus: “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly”. Yet the worst way is to speak of it frivolously, and just as one often feels Dyer confuses the irrelevant with the irreverent, so also lightness with frivolity. For all the writer’s hallowed respect for the image, there seems little respect for the film’s capacity to search out the metaphysical, metaphysical in the sense offered by Schopenhauer when he says: “by metaphysics I understand all knowledge that pretends to transcend the possibility of experience, thus to transcend nature of the given phenomenal appearance of things, in order to give an explanation of that by which, in some sense or other, this experience or nature is conditioned.” (1) Dyer occasionally tiptoes into the metaphysical, allied to the phenomenological, evident in a passage he quotes from Merleau Ponty: “Once I was man, with a soul, 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…the branches sway on the trees, other people come and go in the room, but for me time no longer passes.”(p. 82) Most of the way, though, Dyer’s book is a work of ontological timidity, no matter the autobiographical recklessness. Perhaps even because of it. Yet at the same time it is the sort of book we need more of, books written by writers who do not feel obliged to devote many hours of their life to searching out every last word written on a film, but instead can feel free to roam over the text, picking out from it moments that illuminate their own thinking. There are many films Dyer could write intelligently about, but just not, it seems, Stalker.
Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, Pantheon Books, New York, 2012.