Book Review

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Photo on 02-02-2016 at 00.09

I’m on a flight, heading eastwards for 36 hours in Bucharest[1]. Flying out of Luton at 10pm on a Monday evening, I seem to be the only British national on the flight, every Wizz Air announcement being made in Romanian, a language whose semantic structure I can’t quite place. I believe it is a Romance language grounded in a sea of Russo-Germanic speech, but I may be wrong. I don’t know. I don’t tend to pay attention to the conversations of those around me when I can understand them, and when I can’t… The only thing I did overhear was a Romanian man being grilled (in English) about whether or not he was sober enough to board the flight, as his travel companion had been detained, wankered, in the departure lounge bar. There was a delay of 30 minutes. A thirsty man can drink a lot of beers in 30 minutes. I had one, because I wasn’t thirsty, I was reading Geoff Dyer.

Geoff Dyer is one of my favourites. Ah, that’s not true: he’s one of my favourites some of the time. I.e. some of his books are amongst the greatest I’ve ever read and others are mediocre, but horrendously disappointing due to the promise made by But Beautiful, Out of Sheer Rage, The Missing of the Somme and the good bits in his essay collections. Zona – I am happy to announce (and it is an announcement, none of my Dyer-loving friends have read it before me (at least they hadn’t done so when I last had a conversation about Dyer[2]) – is a good one. A brilliant one. A fucking ace to the face.

Zona (subtitle: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room) is nothing more than Dyer summarising his favourite film: Stalker, a 1978 Russian production directed by Tarkovsky (no first name given here). He describes the film, from first shot to last shot, with occasional analysis and more occasional discursive autobiographical footnotes (these include: an abandoned railway station he used to play on as a child, whether or not he and his wife should buy a dog, and (most typically Dyer) confused reminiscences about the two times he might’ve been able to have a threesome). But the body of the text is a description of a film, a 200 page (granted, detailed) summary of a film, discussing its production, its influence and its sources. It’s a book about a film. A film I have never seen.

In fact, Stalker is a film I have only heard of in the context of descriptions of this book, but unless Dyer is lying, it is broadly considered a high point of cinematic art. He quotes a lot of people, and in fact Zona contains the most in-depth referencing of any book by Dyer, making it apparent that this is not the “desperate for a subject matter” writing-down-a-film chancing-it that the premise kinda implies. This is heavily researched, very well informed and IT FUCKING SHOWS.

Dyer knows Stalker, he writes about the first few times he saw it (in the days before VHS and DVDs, yo), how he’d seek it out in film festivals and at art house cinemas, about the growing hold it had over him. The plot is about a man, Stalker, taking two people – Writer and Professor – into “the Zone”, a forbidden area of land controlled (but no longer entered by) the military. The Zone is mysterious, possibly the site of a crashed meteorite, and it has become a location of covert pilgrimages, because at the centre of the Zone is the Room, a space that is rumoured to give whoever enters it their innermost desire.

What I’m not going to do is to summarise the plot included in the summary of a film, because I can’t make that engaging for two hundred words, because SUMMARISING A FILM SHOULDN’T BE ENGAGING. This is the magic of Dyer, he is able to take these stupid premises and produce Art. Out of Sheer Rage is a shit, self-indulgent idea: writing about writing a book about D. H. Lawrence. Zona is a shit, self-indulgent idea: writing a summary of a film you like. But neither of these books are just that: the elevator pitch works for neither, but both fold out on the page as something wonderful.

Zona is far more than it promises to be. It is a crash course in avant garde cinema, it is a slow-paced dystopian road novel (if you read the summary as a plot within the text – is this appropriate ?), it is an autobiographic guide to an individual’s emersion into an art form, it is a work on obsession, about faith, about religion, about nature, about portents, about civilisation, about the evolution of thought and the evolution of Art.

It is discursive and it is witty in places, it is thought-provoking and it is thought-filled. It is Dyer doing what he does best – approaching a topic in an unobvious way and educating.

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever watch Stalker, not because “I know what happens”, but because I prefer literature to film and would only be watching it out of impulses rooted in being a Geoff Dyer #fanboy (hate that term). I put off reading Zona for years, thinking I’d enjoy it more once I’d seen the film, but I haven’t found the time to watch a two hour piece of Russian art cinema since 2012[3] and I wanted to read some Dyer this week. I don’t regret my decision, in fact I feel that approaching Zona with a knowledge of Tarkovsky and Stalker specifically would offer a different readerly experience, and not necessarily one I would enjoy more.

For me, the only thing I’ve read remotely like this is Malcolm Lowry’s confused “treatment” of Tender is the Night, which is similarly the writing down of a film in the language and format of a novel. The difference is that Dyer’s was a real film, and his text was a new and final artistic product, whereas Lowry’s was totally imaginary and was intended to be used by a director as a script. (Of course it wasn’t.)

Zona, in contrast to Lowry’s work, is a complete text – despite sounding in description to be the similar desperate scribblings of a writer running out of topic, it’s not. Although Zona didn’t make me cry, as Dyer has on many occasions, it includes discussion of ideas that are profound and important. I would recommend this, and it makes me optimistic about the new book (no idea what it’s about) that he has coming out this year. Then again, Another Great Day at Sea was published more recently than Zona, and that allows levity to almost overwhelm the book’s moving exploration of mourning. Not quite, but almost.

I believe in Dyer again, like Stalker believes in the Zone and in the faith of the people he guides to the Room.

Now, back to my flight. I’m pretty certain the people beside me are watching Home and Away on a smartphone. Where the fuck am I going???


[1] “You’ve seen the best, now see the Bucharest!” A potential tourist tagline I find hilarious and have been repeating to myself as a mantra all day.

[2] Though when did I last have a conversation about Dyer??? Bond Quixote may be dripping out, I’m reading more, I did a bit of exercise and it’s the first of February and this year I’ve already been to Milan, Skegness, on two benders WITH OTHER PEOPLE and am travelling outta das capital (I don’t understand that reference) again. I’m keeping busy and not being reclusive, which is nice, but I haven’t seen any of my literary friends in a while. Actually, I have tickets for a literary event next week. What’s the date of that? Sorry, this has shifted into inner monologue, pointless. Apologies.

[3] That is an untruth, I have. I’ve seen Leviathan and I watched something Russian I can’t remember the name of at the London Film Festival in 2013.

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