At 53, British author Geoff Dyer has reached a decidedly sweet spot in his career where it doesn’t matter all that much what he chooses to write about, so sufficiently large, appetitive, cultish even, is his fan base. He is, in short, a brand.
But this status has been achieved less from hewing to a particular genre, à la Stephen King, than by cultivating a sort of attitude or persona – that of the semi-louche intellectual gadfly too attached to his sensual pleasures (travel foremost) and the flit of his admittedly daunting intelligence to ever settle on any one thing.
The result over the past 25 years has been books of an almost perverse eclecticism – on photography, jazz, the First World War, travel (naturally), opinion and criticism as well as novels (four to date), each suffused with great gouts of autobiography, each, like Whitman’s poetry, songs from the multitudes that make up the Dyer self.
Now, there’s Zona, which, from any other writer except perhaps the equally catholic John Jeremiah Sullivan ( Pulphead), would be a surprise and one with limited commercial prospects. From Dyer, though, and for his acolytes, it is par for the charm of his wayward course. Part appreciation, part meditation, part memoir, part narrative and all riff, it’s Dyer’s homage to Stalker, a glacially paced three-hour film from the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky that has obsessed the author pretty much since his initial screenings in the early 1980s.
Very loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem novella, the movie follows three bickering white guys – Stalker, Professor, Writer – as they clandestinely wander the Zone, a mysterious, depopulated region that, having been cordoned off by state authorities, Chernobyl-like, 20 years before, remains off limits to any visitors.
At the heart of the Zone is the Room, a magical, mystical place where, lore has it, “what you most deeply wish for” – but, tellingly, not “what you think you wish for” – is granted. Shot in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1979, Stalker has been billed as science fiction by some, and while it certainly has SF elements, it’s more accurately seen as a Dostoyevsky-by-way-of-Beckett allegory on faith and consequences, hope and desire, spirit and matter.
Demanding? You bet. But ravishing to look at. And its relative opacity and porosity make it the perfect subject for the play of Dyer’s allusion-enriched, digression-loving mind. The book’s “structure” reminds one of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 collection Consider the Lobster, in that there appears to be a main narrative (ostensibly a scene-by-scene account of the film) but one festooned with lengthy footnotes and tangents. The quotation marks around structure are there because, in short order, Dyer pretty much ditches all formalistic conceits to turn his text into a mosh-pit of ideas and anecdotes, where background is foreground and vice versa.
Yet this journey to the Dyer zone is not a total free-for-all. He does a good job of evoking Stalker’s flow, feeling and imagistic power (although it would have been nice had he included a few stills from the film, as the Paris Review did in its excerpt last fall) so that those who haven’t seen the film aren’t at a complete loss, while those who have seen it would have their perceptions refreshed and deepened. It’s also frequently very funny; musing at one point on whether “one’s deepest desire is the same as one’s greatest regret,” he declares that should this equation hold, then his “greatest regret, without doubt,” would have to be “never having had sex with two women at once.”
Dyer buffs will concede there’s a certain inevitability to Zona. Not only has the author written of his affection for the film on several occasions, he’s also become, in his travels, a kind of seeker and connoisseur of Zones – places, sometimes grand, other times not, where “time has stood its ground.” “I always know when I’m in the Zone,” he wrote nine years ago in Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. “When I’m in the Zone I don’t wish I was anywhere else. Whereas when I’m not in the Zone I’m always wishing I was somewhere else, wishing I was in the Zone.”
Zona, in the end, is a testament to art’s power to impress itself on life, to shift and occasionally permanently shape one’s sensibility. The book loses some of its potency in its final 35 pages, as Dyer waxes more perfunctory than lyric, seemingly weary and wary of words. Until then, though, the reader is very much in the zone about the Zone.
James Adams is a senior writer with Globe Arts.