‘So what kind of a writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film?’ wonders Geoff Dyer half way through Zona. Such casual questions of ‘kind’ are in fact germane to his enterprise. For, as he follows Tarkovsky’s Stalker, itself an unorthodox masterpiece, Dyer is discreetly redefining his own genre. Zona poses an alternative model for the academic essay.
Dyer identifies himself as one of those writers ‘for whom commentary is absolutely central to their own creative project’. A relatively non-specific type, with an only slightly more specific duty: ‘not to judge objectively or critically assess works of art, but to articulate [his] feelings about them with as much precision as possible’. However, his literary role becomes increasingly pronounced as he continues the book, raising many questions along the way. What is the difference between critic, commentator and essayist? What distinguishes a private consideration from a scholarly treatise? And, of course, why might any of this matter?
These questions of definition converge on the value of genre, important insofar as it defines the dialogic context within which we relate to an artwork. By effectively inventing his own critical genre, Dyer makes a case for style trumping taxonomy, celebrating intellectual freedom over school of thought. Writing as both specialist and everyman, he cultivates from a rugged individualism a surprisingly inclusive academic form that does much to liberate critical theory in artistic appreciation from its historic ivory tower.
Zona maintains a dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a story of three men (Stalker, Writer and Professor) on a quest from which Dyer, true to the exploratory cause, often strays. It is a composite of errant paths, superficially streamlined by the equally superficial chronology of the film. Dyer reaches no conclusions and his tangents demonstratively debunk the mythology of singular, rational sense that leads so much rhetoric. The book’s creed could be Donne’s celebrated counsel:
On a huge hill
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go.
A belief in the indirection of truth and, accordingly, the virtue of wandering is inherent to both Stalker and Zona, shaping both works and effecting their formal originality.
Stalker is, as Dyer sees it, ‘a test of the viewer’s ability to appreciate it’; within the film, the Zone is also a ‘test’ of its visitors. Zona follows suit. The unknown nature of the book involves reader and writer in an exercise of trust. In this sense it revisits the original sense of an ‘essay’ as ‘a trial, testing, proof; or experiment’(OED). Rather than fashioning his book from a nice knock-down argument, Dyer improvises a set of responses, risking failure in the final outcome, as he modestly boasts: ‘whether it will amount to anything – whether it will add up to a worthwhile commentary, and whether this commentary might become a work of art in its own right – is still unclear’. His apparent lack of agenda actually serves the book’s interests well. It thrives on the creative potential of his personal reactions, which are probably sharpened by all this uncertainty. Like live performance, the writing is also energised by unpredictability and, consequently, also makes better reading. It is like the difference between, on the one hand, talking to someone who charmlessly steers the exchange towards a winning point and, on the other hand, speaking to a dynamic and open conversationist.
Dyer’s project continues a vital legacy. He claims, ‘if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished’. He shares with his idol an artistic ideal of awareness, describing Tarkovsky’s aesthetic as a length of take demanding ‘a special intensity of attention’. The inverse dominates much contemporary culture where, ‘a lot of what’s being shown on the world’s screens is fit only for morons’ with the result that ‘there are more and more things from which one has to avert one’s ears and eyes’. Rubbish art that warrants ignorance. A bit broad-brush and heavy-handed, but its Dyer’s reason for writing. Against a social dystopia of willed numbness, Zona documents a profound engagement with an artwork. It is not so much homage to the film alone, but to the dialogue it inspires.
Among other things, ‘the book is a catalogue or compendium of proposals for potentially interesting studies’, partly because, as Dyer concedes, these are more interesting as hypotheses than realities. However, his restless proposals also pay tribute to a film that stimulates an excess of ideas. In spite of which, Dyer does follow many of Stalker’s leads and in a wondrous variety of directions. For instance, the Zone’s mystic ‘Room’, a potent objective correlative for ‘the birth of a myth and religion’, prompts him to compare unlikely bedfellows Slavoj Žižek and Rainer Maria Rilke in discussing the myriad ways in which language has been part of the anthropology of spiritual belief. The passage shows off the astonishing scope and specific relevance of his references, and in so doing exemplifies a signature hallmark of his writing.
Elsewhere, Stalker elicits more expressive responses. These are perhaps the most intriguing parts of the book because they allow us to see the direct effect of the film on the man watching it; and so to spy into the intimate process of someone relating to an artwork. In a particularly beautiful passage, Dyer recalls a boyhood playing place that the Zone evokes in his mind. The memory reveals, perhaps more successfully than criticism could, a primal, childish element in the cinematic landscape. By projecting private sensations of his own that it taps into, he reveals unexpected ways in which the film powerfully resonates.
Occasionally, the risk of failure is awkwardly realised in his more creative moments. Certain poetic accounts of Tarkovsky’s imagery fall flat: ‘the camera lingers on the wind moving through the weeds and plants, on the weeds and plants as the wind moves through them’; or ‘we see the breeze and vegetation twitching in the breeze, watched and watching’. The tone here is unclear and the repetition without rhyme or reason. Is it a genuine attempt at poetry? Is it mock-Romanticism? Or is it simply a parody of the slow self-indulgence he and Tarkovsky endorse? In any case, he fails to bring it off through an uncharacteristic lack of stylistic conviction or skill.
Although the least novel aspect of Zona is its simple merit as a summary, it would be a shame to overlook Dyer’s peculiar talent for neatly apprehending another’s project. Especially where the particular project informs his own. To initiate Tarkovsky virgins into his obsession, Dyer verbally reruns Stalker as he discusses it. This allows him to realise the film’s specifically visual credentials, before wading into its obscurer dimensions. In accordance with Robert Bird’s insistence that ‘the single most important force in Tarkovsky’s construction of space is the motion of the camera’, Dyer duly tracks it’s movements in scene after scene (in an unignorable pun on the feature’s title).
The opening act of ekphrasis is especially impressive. He describes the first shot in economic detail but, significantly, without a main verb, thereby effectively conveying Tarkovsky’s in his own linguistic terms. Expect nothing finite; time will not pass conventionally. The verbless first line, like Tarkovsky’s actionless opening scene, also informs us that what happens is less pertinent than what we might imagine. Such eloquent readings and rewritings witness a particular sensitivity to Tarkovsky’s language, which validates Dyer’s later discussion of cinematic intent. Sanctimonious though this might sound, it is in fact what distinguishes Dyer from other suspiciously pious cinema theorists, whose appraisals of subjects and themes bypass language or suffer it as an inevitable obstacle. Dyer grasps that the two are inextricable; the medium is certainly the matter.
At the heart of Stalker is a discourse of desire, centred in a Room inside the Zone where dreams come true. Crucially, though, neither space is metaphoric, each simply is; as clarified by Dyer and director:
Tarkovsky’s hostility to symbolic readings of his films extended to questions about the meaning of the Zone itself: ‘I’m reduced to a state of fury and despair by such questions. The Zone doesn’t symbolise anything, any more than anything else does in my films: the zone is the zone, it’s life.’
Language exists in the world; the Room is a place we can pool our wishes and it is as real as any other promise-delivering device. Established. Now Stalker, Writer, Professor, Tarkovsky and Dyer can wax speculative.
Stalker claims that what people most desire is happiness. While topically relevant, the subject is hard to broach afresh, plagued by media-antagonism and exhausted rhetoric as it is. Dyer’s compelling insights are, therefore, no small feat. He succeeds via circuitry; for instance, musing, ‘John Updike reckoned that America was a vast conspiracy to make people happy. Soviet Russia was perhaps its equally vast antithesis.’ Its happiness is grumpiness; by casting Russia as the world’s Eyore, Dyer implies similarity in difference. His consideration of national agenda dismantles familiar categories of emotion, pitching us into the chaos of cultural variety. Hap-piness as the archetypal luck of the draw: where in the world you are born.
What’s refreshing is the simple irreverence with which he collapses Victorian binaries: ‘the question, I suppose, is this: is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret?’ An equally novel turn is his reductio ad absurdum of the whole wild goose chase: ‘we want the Room to be external, to be a window on to another world, not a mirror reflecting back to ourselves the inadequate or shameful nature of our own desires.’ A more prolix theorist might have concluded we don’t want desire, but Dyer puts it in layman’s words, avoiding the paradoxical snarl-up.
So what do we want? In both the Stalker and Zona, answers aren’t ready or even necessarily existent. Zona’s great intellectual gesture is to effect a shift from the pursuit of happiness to the practice of pleasure. It verges on ham philosophy, but still manages to combine thought and play in a way that provides a sophisticated yet simple solution to the puzzle of happiness: enjoying as a more successful means of discovery than labouring over the abstract terms of that enjoyment. (Although, in an Escher-esque contortion, they are the same for Dyer, as he writes ‘this is pretty much my deepest desire at the moment, to sit here scribbling, trying to fathom out what my deepest desire might be’.)
Dyer not only keeps up with the film’s existential agenda, he approaches it in a way that makes it accessible and even entertaining, where it might seem pretentious or remote. There are certainly other essayists whose styles straddle academia and mainstream prose in a similar manner, foremost among them Jonathan Franzen, David Foster-Wallace and Alain de Botton. However, Dyer’s work differs from theirs in ways that mark it as original of its type.
First, Zona is longer than Foster Wallace and Franzen’s essays and thereby perhaps acquires the status of a more substantial treatise. In this respect, it is similar to de Botton’s devotional How Proust Can Change Your Life, but is far less dependent on its source than de Botton’s book. Moreover, it makes an intellectual virtue, rather than joke or whimsy, of the personal response; in other words, Dyer manages not to sacrifice intellectual clout for prosaic appeal.
At the other end of the spectrum, Foster-Wallace garners information primarily to drive forward debate. Since he professedly works within the conventions of the academic essay, it seems unfair to discredit him for adhering to them. Nonetheless it means that, though clearly the genius of the two, he is no competition for Dyer regarding formal innovation. He is also less adept at modifying his register, again aligning him with a more classical approach. While his politics are fiercely democratic, there is a perceived hierarchy in the way he brings his brain to bear on mass culture, which offsets the successful effect of level pegging in Dyer’s prose.
Jonathan Franzen is certainly as anomalous as Dyer, but intellectually he is altogether another animal. The essays in How to be Alone are the broad canvases of a brilliant mind; but, short and general as they are, they lack the intensity and focus that pushes Dyer into academic territory.
Zona is and isn’t an academic essay. The term is loose at any rate, both halves of it harbouring discrepancies in definition. On the basic ground that it is a serious study of a specific subject, it qualifies. It is also, as mentioned, an ‘essay’ in the true sense of the word. However, insofar as academic essays pertain to educational institutions, it isn’t one. For Zona is anti-establishment, privileging as it does first hand exposure over received intelligence. It is not of an Academy, nor typical of one; the extent to which it admits or ponders pointlessness would fail a student or don, as would its creative lapses from the object of scrutiny. Lastly, its register mounts the most provocative challenge to the genre, varying wildly as it does from scholarly precision to devil-may-care vernacularism. How long can a violator of rules acceptably stay in the game? Alternatively, do standards of etiquette quash an honest voice? For some, the book will be beyond the pale. For others, its rebel defects might make it a fine version of the form, as well as an affront.
Good art challenges its own limits. In Zona, Dyer questions both Stalker and his own work and promotes this attitude to art in his readers. In this respect, the book is quite a contribution to the intellectual community. It is anti-elitist and anti-esoteric (you don’t even have to have seen Stalker), appealing to all readers. Unlike much criticism, it doesn’t seek to analyse or explain the value of a masterpiece. In fact, it stages a critique of endgame literature that caters to the need to understand art over a desire to engage with it. Not that Dyer necessarily holds that high art means hard work. He is both puritan and voluptuary, believing above all in the personal experience of a work as its own and greatest value. It’s art for art’s and art for your own sake. There is no point in all this, as he says of Zona, ‘the exercise is, of course, its own purpose’.