Geoff Dyer has “broken” America, as they say in Britain. This year’s National Book Critics’ Circle award for his collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, capped his rise from the occasional introducer of republished classics to a regular columnist in the New York Times Book Review, where he writes about more or less whatever he wants, more or less whenever he wants. His new book, Zona, is ostensibly a summary of the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, a director he calls “cinema’s great poet of stillness.” It is a testament to how high Dyer’s star has risen in the last few years, for while there are few people who could have written this book, there are fewer still who could have gotten it published. It is also an account of Stalker‘s production, a vicarious autobiography, a state-of-the-culture address, and a meditation on cinema and youth. It is, in other words, a secondary text that aspires to the stature of the primary.
This is not Dyer’s first attempt at this kind of book. “Certain kinds of writers are reluctant to engage in anything that distracts them from their own work,” he explains in Zona. “Commentary, for them, is a distraction, of secondary or no importance. But there are writers — and I don’t mean straight-down-the-line critics — for whom commentary is absolutely central to their own creative project, who insist that at some level commentary can turn out to be every bit as original as the primary work of the novelist.”
Other writers have entire books that fit this description. Supposedly a study of the work of Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Saint Genet ends up becoming an exhibit of Sartre’s own philosophical style. Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard’s examination of the Old Testament story of Abraham, turns out to be a presentation of the author’s own conception of faith. But insofar as it purports to analyze a single modern text, Zona probabaly bears the most striking resemblance to S/Z, Roland Barthes’ line-by-line analysis of Balzac’s Sarrassine. Granted, Dyer doesn’t write as systematically as the great semiotician (nor would we want him to try), but in Gore Vidal’s well-cut description of S/Z as wanting “not to assist either the text or the reader, but to make for his own delectation or bliss a writerly text of his own,” we find a detail that would fit Zona just as well, given one or two minor adjustments. Stitch the initials “S/Z” onto its lapels while we’re at it; let them stand for “Stalker/Zona”.
The link to Barthes is not made arbitrarily. Dyer’s writing has always betrayed both implicit and explicit admiration for Barthes’ work. He has praised his mentor, John Berger, for being “one of the first people in Britain to absorb the implications of what Barthes, Benjamin, and Foucault were saying.” In a review of Louis-Jean Calvet’s biography of Barthes, Dyer lauds him for evolving “a style of punctuation so uniquely his own that, even while holding the printed books in our hands, it feels as if we are reading his handwriting.” Dyer’s best book is his meditation on photography, The Ongoing Moment; by the same measure, Barthes’ best book is his meditation on photography, Camera Lucida, which Dyer just happens to have written a foreword to.
In Zona, Dyer once again draws on aspects of that book. Readers open Camera Lucida (subtitled ‘Note sur la photographie’) expecting to read about photography but soon find they are reading something a lot closer to autobiography. Make no mistake about it: Camera Lucida is a luminous meditation on photography, but it is one whose light is refracted through the prism of the self, as all of Barthes’ later work tends to be. So, when Barthes speaks of James Van Der Zee’s 1926 portrait of a well-dressed African-American family, he dwells not on the formal, historical or social ramifications of the photograph, but on “the necklace [the mother] was wearing; for (no doubt) it was the same necklace which I had seen worn by someone in my own family, and which, once she died, remained shut up in a family box of old jewellery.” Likewise, when Zona (subtitled ‘A Book About A Film About A Journey To A Room’) reaches the point in its summary where Stalker’s wife offers to visit the Zone with him in good faith, Dyer can think of nothing so much as the time in his adolescence when his mother volunteered his father to go the pub with him in lieu of any actual friends.
Just as in late Barthes, the author never wholly absent from Dyer’s criticism. His are judgements made through what he calls “the contingency of [his] own experiences.” Disciples of Barthes’ earlier writing abhorred this method, but it is no coincidence that Camera Lucida and A Lover’s Discourse have proved to be two of his most lasting works. Ultimately, all judgements and interpretations are made through the contingency of the reader’s own experience. “I is not an innocent subject, anterior to the text,” says even the supposedly scientific S/Z. If, in the wake of the death of the author, readers are left to interpret texts themselves, the examples of Barthes and of Dyer serve as instructive points of reference.
For those who haven’t seen Stalker, a short summary is in order. Two characters, Professor and Writer, are led by another called Stalker into the Zone, a miraculous, but potentially perilous area created by some unspecified meteorite and closed off by the powers-that-be by barbed wire and police cordon. Stalker, we learn, has spent time in jail for leading people to the Zone, but he continues to do it now that he’s free, for he is an evangelical believer in the miraculous properties of the Zone. Once inside, they travel toward the Room, a place that is said to cause one’s innermost wish to come true.
This mightn’t seem like enough material to fill 163 minutes of tape. But there is no going straight in the Zone, as Stalker explains to Writer after the latter complains about how long the journey is taking, given that they can actually see the Room two hundred meters ahead of them. Instead of walking straight to it, Stalker has to tie a rag around a bolt, launch it into the distance and let its point of landing dictate their course. As you can imagine, this necessary inefficiency serves to lengthen the film considerably.
By the same measure, it doesn’t seem possible that Dyer would be able to stretch a summary of this easily summarised film into a book of some 220 pages. In his attempt to do so, he was undoubtedly aided by the generous line-spacing and +12pt type chosen by his publishers. It is digression, however, that he uses as his main method of elongation, a method that seems to consciously mimic Stalker’s rag-and-bolt act. Just as there are no straight lines in the Zone, there are no straight lines in Zona. As Dyer progresses through Stalker‘s plot, he makes constant asides in plain-text, parentheses, and extended footnotes about all manner of things — the sleeping habits of the American male, beer, ice-cream, his wife’s resemblance to the actress Natascha McElhone, Top Gear, his trip to Big Sur, the wildlife of Chernobyl, his lost Freitag bag, London property prices, dogs. “The work of commentary, once it is separated from any ideology of totality, consists precisely in manhandling the text, interrupting it.” This quote comes from S/Z, but (as with the Gore Vidal line) it fits Zona just as well. Digression is this book’s very core.
It is not unusual that a secondary text — especially one that aspires to the condition of primacy — would seek to echo some formal aspect of its subject. Barthes’ stated aim for S/Z was “to reconstitute the literary work in such a way that the rules of the function of that work are manifest in the reconstruction.” In this way Dyer’s book about jazz, But Beautiful, took a well-known episode in the lives of several jazz musicians and treated them as standards upon which to improvise a fiction of his own imagining. In the preface to that book, Dyer writes that ‘from the start, the writing was animated by the defining characteristic of its subject’. He later implies a parallel between this method of ‘imaginative criticism’ to George Steiner’s concept of ‘enacted criticism’, of which jazz is the true practitioner in Dyer’s opinion. No better criticism of Duke Ellington, he argues, than Charles Mingus’s ‘Open Letter to Duke’; no better criticism of Charles Mingus, he continues, than Art Ensemble of Chicago’s ‘Charlie M.’.
And no better film critic, the argument must continue, than a film such as Stalker itself. Indeed, Stalker is found to be enacting criticism when a mysterious (and now quintessentially Tarkovskian) wind pulses through the Zone. While this wind, which brings Writer’s exit to a halt, seems to spring from nowhere, it has in fact blown in from the opening sequence of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1930’s Earth (Zemlya), a film Tarkovsky watched “over and over again but could not without ever being able to explain why it touched him so
Dyer’s book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, is another example of mimetic criticism. While the text makes no claim to be narrated by anyone other than “Geoff Dyer,” its “Geoff Dyer” exists at one remove from Geoff Dyer, Writer, and narrates with a heightened sense of irritability to match that of his notoriously cantankerous subject, D.H. Lawrence. “The overwhelming majority of books by academics are a crime against literature,” he storms at one point in that book. In so doing, he mimics Lawrence. But he doesn’t draw on formal or even narrative aspects of his novels; his book does not contain in its formal or narrative structure praise for aspects of Lawrence’s work; nor does it therein suggest changes Lawrence might have made to improve his work. It does not enact criticism, in other words. This is an important distinction to make: Mimetic criticism is criticism with aspects of the art; enacted criticism is art with aspects of criticism. They are each other’s mirror image — an ‘S’ to the other’s ‘Z’.
By flinging a rag-and-bolt into digressive corners of his own life, then, and making the reader follow, Geoff Dyer has actually cast himself into the position of Stalker. Whether or not this mimesis was done consciously is quite irrelevant — for if Dyer is Stalker, then the reader becomes Writer, who can do whatever he wants with the text. This signals a return to Barthes’ notion of the writerly text, as outlined in S/Z. Barthes’ step-by-step commentary moves through the sequences of Balzac’s Sarrasine in order ‘to demonstrate the plural meanings entangled in them’. So, on the appearance of the moon on page one, the reader-writer Barthes spins forth: “The moon is the nothingness of light, warmth reduced to its deficiency: It illuminates by mere reflection without itself being an origin; thus, it becomes the luminous emblem of the castrato, a deficiency manifested by the empty glitter he borrows from femininity while young (an Adonis) and of which nothing remains but a leprous gray when he is old (the old man, the garden).”
Given his influence, it is hardly surprising that Dyer’s discursive prose style owes a great deal to Barthes, whose method, witnessed above, was to circle a given subject, surrounding it with a language supreme in its elasticity in search of some previously untouched truth. In Zona, the results of Dyer doing likewise are mixed.
There are times when he gets it spot-on. At one point, he describes the action as Writer and Professor are driven by Stalker in a jeep. A car chase begins, about which Dyer writes: “I say a car chase but there’s only one car — a car that is actually a jeep — and it’s a bit confusing in terms of where exactly Stalker is going or trying to get. In other words, it’s a car chase in classic mode in that it exists not in order to achieve anything in particular but in order to bring into existence and be part of the vehicular ritual called a car chase.” Observations such as this are the reason people read Geoff Dyer. It shows his ability (and confidence) to double back on an idea, a technique he deploys frequently in his best work.
In other parts of Zona, however, Dyer circles a subject several times only to come out with a banal, hackneyed sort of truth — not just something we already knew, but something we knew we already knew. “The jeep is perfectly chosen,” he writes a bit later. “No other vehicle could serve as well at this juncture. […] The jeep, for all its discomfort, harks back to the Long Range Desert Group, to every movie ever made about the Second World War. It is the most swaggering of vehicles, designed for gung-ho generals and fearless war-reporters and, as such, is immune to traffic regulations. It is synonymous with pure, rugged, manly adventure.” It is at moments such as this that Dyer resembles nothing so much as an undergraduate who, realizing he is nowhere near the minimum word count of his essay, begins to stretch every detail out to the point of platitude.
Further missteps follow. There’s a moment in Zona, for instance, where he writes that “the similarities between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz have been widely remarked on.” He then goes on to supply a brief synopsis of The Wizard of Oz, about how Dorothy et. al. set off on a journey to find the wonderful wizard who will grant all their wishes, only to add: “Or so I’m told. I take other people’s word for it. I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid, and obviously have no intention of making good that lack now.” The reader is left to wonder in exactly what way it might be considered obvious that a man writing a book about a particular film would not sit through another film to which his chosen subject is very often compared (as, in fact, it is in this very book), if only just to be able to say he had seen it. The answer is that, in Dyer’s mind at least, it is cooler to be able to say he hasn’t seen it.
It’s not the first time Dyer has overstretched in what appears to be nothing more than an attempt to seem cool. There’s one particularly heinous episode in Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, that mid-life crisis of a book, where Dyer takes evident pleasure in recounting a moment at a rave on a beach in Thailand, coming up on ecstasy, fingering a girl named Kate he really fancied. “We kissed for ages and my fingers grew so wet it was like oil pouring through them.
‘I’m melting,’ said Kate.” Good for you, Geoff.
Zona never resembles Yoga so much as when, having asked himself what his greatest regret is, Dyer remarks that it is, “without doubt,” never having had a threesome, a regret he alleges to “share with the vast majority of middle-aged, heterosexual men.” He goes on to recount a couple of missed opportunities he has had throughout the course of his life. “I remember clearly when the first of these potential opportunities presented itself, in my squalid flat in Brixton in the mid-1980s: I wanted to get rid of Jane so that my girlfriend Cindy and I could have sex, even though I knew that Jane (with whom I had had sex on numerous occasions since we had officially broken up) and Cindy were not averse to this kind of thing. The sense of a wasted chance was further exacerbated by the fact that, years later, when I had broken up with Cindy, she did in fact have sex with Jane and an unidentified third party (male).” Oh, did she?
These episodes (and many more like them) seem to be included for no other reason than to brag that they happened – or nearly happened, as the case may be. The thing is, there can’t be anyone who, having been drawn to Geoff Dyer for his insightful, incisive style of writing, actually finds this sort of self-indulgent crap at all interesting. Or is there?
You don’t need to have read Geoff Dyer’s entire oeuvre to see him as a sort of cultural evangelist directing his considerable flock toward the very best of the secular scriptures, as Stalker ferries his would-be co-cultists. Yet, as he outlines in what is probably the finest passage in the book: “It is rare for anyone to see their — what they consider to be the — greatest film after the age of 30. After 40 it’s extremely unlikely. After fifty, impossible. [… ] I saw Stalker when I was at that point of maximum responsiveness or aliveness, when my ability to respond to the medium was still so vulnerable and susceptible to being changed and shaped by what I was seeing. At a certain point, even if you keep up to date with new releases, even if you keep broadening your horizons, even if you manage to keep up with the latest things, you realise that these latest things can never be more than that, that they stand almost no chance of being the last word, because you actually heard your personal last word years earlier.”
It is of little interest, then, to Dyer-as-Stalker to guide those past their maximum point of responsiveness to films such as Stalker, music such as jazz, writers such as Lawrence, or art-forms such as photography. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the rather embarrassing pose Dyer often assumes to seem down-with-the-kids. But Tarkovksy’s Stalker is a figure characterised by unflinching seriousness and purpose. There are times, in Zona and elsewhere, when Dyer would perhaps do well to apply his mimetic technique to this aspect of the film.
There is some degree of tension between Dyer’s compulsion to ferry the young to films such as Stalker, his evangelical indifference and his intention of making “for his own delectation a writerly text of his own.” Of course, it is tempting to write it off as simply mimicking the one that exists within the varyingly holy trinity of Stalker, Writer, and Professor. But it doesn’t quite fit and, in any case, it misses the point. Instead, we make a final return to S/Z, which argues that to interpret a text is not to give it a meaning. “On the contrary,” Barthes writes, “[it is] to appreciate what plural constitutes it. […] It is not a question of conceding some meanings, of magnanimously acknowledging that each one has its share of truth; it is question, against all in-difference, of asserting the very existence of plurality.” Zona is nothing if not plural; Geoff Dyer, so too.