Geoff Dyer’s topics can be feints. An essay about doughnuts turns out to be more about Nietzsche’s eternal return and the dissolution of place, while one about Marvel Comics hops to The Ice Storm, hallucinogens and the Renaissance. It’s easy to peg him as a riffer, the writerly equivalent of a jazz musician, especially since he’s written a book about jazz, but a bass player never knew such breadth—you’d need to envision a trio that’s able to move seamlessly from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue to M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming in the course of one song. At one point in Out of Sheer Rage, Mr. Dyer’s study on D.H. Lawrence, he quotes a letter by Lawrence in which the author looks out a window and progressively sees all of England; as Mr. Dyer describes the letter, “each paragraph pulses into life from the seed of the preceding one … his attempt[s] to fix an experience that is vast, shifting, apocalyptic.” It’s not a bad summary of Out of Sheer Rage itself, or, for that matter, much of Mr. Dyer’s prose.
Not all of his writing is in this outward-sprawling mode. At other times, his topic is a construct, David Foster Wallace’s tennis court, where infinity exists between the lines. His photography essays rival Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida in their ability to return, with a snap, to the image after what appeared to be a digression, and The Missing of the Somme, his book on the First World War, holds a mirror to Britain’s stiff-upper-lip mourning with this elegant observation: “The most horrific aspect of the Great War was a waste of lives as men were sent to the front in battles of meaningless attrition. Is their cause served appropriately, one wonders, by a verbal strategy which relies, for its meaning, on constantly reinforcing attrition?”
His latest offering, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Pantheon, 240 pages, $24.00), a 200-page essay on the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky sci-fi movie Stalker, is in this vein. It hugs its source material and enriches it without straying too close to the barbed wire of the real world. In it, three men journey to the Zone, a pre-Chernobyl area of otherworldly contamination where psychological traps abound, and protect the Room, a place where, it is understood, the occupant’s deepest desires will be made true. Stalkers guide tourists through the Zone and the men are known only by their callings—Professor, Stalker and Writer, the last of whom came to this thorny region for inspiration. “Man, I know how he feels,” Mr. Dyer quips early on. “I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action—not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take—if I was capable of writing anything else?” (Another feint—he loves this movie. He sees it whenever it’s in a theater near him and refuses to watch it on a television.)
Mr. Dyer’s language is at its most efficient in this book, conversational and spare. You can’t move backward in the Zone, for reasons that are never explained, and you get the sense that Mr. Dyer has taken this to heart. He decides not to dwell on a scene when Writer, for absolutely no reason, places a crown of thorns on his own head, or when Stalker’s daughter, at the very end of the movie, displays telekinetic abilities. Some pages are given to a trippy sequence in which Writer is trapped in a room of sand, birds and self-doubt, but ties everything up at the end by noting that there’s nothing left in the visual field of this aftermath, just “the sand, slightly disturbed but unconcerned.” And he seemed so qualified to expound upon this scene; can it be that we’ve finally found the one instance in which we can fault Geoff Dyer for not bringing up Burning Man?
Professor at one point wants to return to his bag, which he forgot outside the building that houses the Room and Stalker tells him to forget it. This inspires a detailed aside from Mr. Dyer about how he recently lost his Freitag bag at an arts festival. What seems at first to be a yuppie gripe becomes much more on the following page, when Stalker reminds Professor that he can drown in knapsacks when they reach the Room. “Good point,” Mr. Dyer writes, “though people have set their hearts on stranger, more trivial things,” like vast wealth.
Like Mr. Dyer’s language, Tarkovsky’s film is marked by spareness; the director apparently disdained the usual trappings of science fiction and was regretful of not having been able to remove them from Solaris. The burden of creating the Zone’s terror lies with our Stalker, and his “zek haircut,” as Mr. Dyer describes it. You don’t know why you can’t walk a straight path in the Zone, but you’d better believe Stalker, since he looks so frightened, and he’s throwing these weighted bandages as a way to determine the path. The dangers are real—Writer wanders off at one point and a supernatural voice, apparently generated from his own mind, yells at him to return to the others—but it’s up to Stalker to tell us the portent of a nut found dangling on a string in their path.
Mr. Dyer is our Stalker. He guides us through the film, imbuing each shot with meaning or explaining why, in some instances, their nonmeaning is actually better than meaning. Stalker was shot on a shoddy green expanse of Estonia, and looks about as romantic as the overgrowth behind a swap-meet. But Tarkovsky turns it into Eden—you’ll never look at a weed the same way again. “Many forms of landscapes depend on a particular artist, or writer or artistic movement to render them beautiful, to make the rest of us see what has always been there (as the romantics did for the mountains, or John C. Van Dyke for the deserts of the American West),” Mr. Dyer writes. On an individual shot basis, Stalker’s beauty is apparent, but our guide keeps us attuned to every last detail, rendering them weighty. Without him, would we ever have dwelled on the way light bulbs flicker on over people’s heads, as they do twice in this film?
You’re never sure whether or not the three men enter the Room, but in the baffling context of the Zone, it hardly matters. Here, Mr. Dyer quotes a line from an insane character in Don Delillo’s novel White Noise, a line he has used before, in an essay about sex in hotel rooms: “The point of rooms is that they’re inside … to enter a room is to agree to a certain kind of behavior.” To conceive of the Room is to create it. Mr. Dyer takes this opportunity to reflect upon his own desires, and in so doing is at his most ramblingly Dyerian. He’d like to have had a three-way, or bought property in the right neighborhood before it became too expensive. He has no idea what he’d do if he were told that he’s going to die in a week. “Given that I probably am going to be around for a while, this is pretty much my deepest desire at the moment,” he writes, “to sit here scribbling, trying to fathom out what my deepest desire might be.”
This is Mr. Dyer at his most internal. The density of his subject, in its parsing, expands to encapsulate everything. At one point he argues that because of the way some shots jump perspective, disembodied as if the three men were actually being watched by the surrounding landscape, “the Zone is film.” We’re way past doughnuts here—Mr. Dyer seems to have met his match in Stalker, and risen to the occasion. One scene, he tells us, had to be redone because Tarkovsky noticed dandelions ruining his shot. Even after the crew gingerly picked them, careful not to taint the wild look of the Zone, the director was still displeased. “The flowers are not here but their presence can be felt,” he apparently said, annoyed. Cultural artifacts worthy of this degree of obsession are rare and it’s a pleasure to read Mr. Dyer’s wrestling with one.
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