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A scene from Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 sci-fi film based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. (The Kobal Collection)

'Zona': Geoff Dyer's Beautiful, Obsessive Mind

by Lawrence Frascella
Feb 29, 2012

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Geoff Dyer is the author of four novels and six other nonfiction books, including But Beautiful and Out of Sheer Rage.

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In Zona, Geoff Dyer confronts a giant: Russian visionary filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. During his peripatetic career, Dyer has tackled literature, photography, jazz, fiction, painting, food, memoir and travel essays. He is a relentlessly restless writer — utterly contemporary and light on his feet. It's fascinating to see him take on this master of stillness, timelessness and heavy self-regard.

Consciousnesses collide, overlap, meld — and if nothing else, the book is a mesmerizing mashup of sensibilities.

For decades, Dyer has been obsessed with Tarkovsky's richly suggestive 1979 masterwork, Stalker. Perhaps in an effort to exorcise its hold on him, Dyer takes us step by step through the film, detailing what scans as a rather uneventful plot.

Stalker tells the story of three men — known as the Writer, the Professor and the Stalker — who make their way through the mysterious Zone, a sealed-off area possibly created by a meteor.

Within the Zone lies the even more mysterious "Room," where, it's said, your deepest desires might be fulfilled. But first, you must survive the dangerous journey there — a glacially paced sojourn replete with frights that are almost completely in the characters' heads. (Watching the film before you read the book is highly recommended. Think of them as an aesthetic two-pack of sorts.)

Stalker has been said to prophesize the events at Chernobyl or reflect the Soviet gulags. It has been called a twist on The Wizard of Oz.

But Tarkovsky's methods are so obscure yet so evocative, the film turns into a litmus test of one's attitude toward the bigger, broader themes. Hope. Faith. Love. Death. You name it. This is perfect material for Dyer. Whether he's writing about the world's best doughnuts or D.H. Lawrence, he is ultimately concerned with the nature of life itself — and how best to live it.

As a result, Zona is not your typical exegesis of a film. The meaning of the movie — and the making of it — are probed with seriousness. But this is not a book of cinema scholarship per se. Dyer uses the movie as a stimulant and stepping-off point for a wide range of memories (his parents appear often), musings and concerns. Basically, he throws Stalker into his Dyer-rama and hits "spin."

Dyer's associative leaps can be very funny. He's not timid about vaulting from a deep discussion of one of the film's most cryptic images — that of an inky substance filling the frame — to Bo Derek in the comedy 10. (The link: Bolero on the soundtrack.)

And for even more discursive, far-reaching effect, he adds voluminous footnotes — which sometimes overwhelm the text proper on the page, almost as if two voices are moving through the book simultaneously, often turning the book into a series of modular thought bubbles. In this, Dyer has found a fresh way of mirroring his — and our — fractured consciousness and concentration.

Throughout Zona, you get the sense that the author is not quite the same as he once was. His boyish, Peter Pan-ish tone is becoming darker (one might say, more dire). As he reaches into his 50s, the issues with which he concerns himself have taken on a graveness. (You began to feel this change with his last novel, the two-part Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.) On the downside, there's a hint of the formulaic — the timeworn — to some of his methods.

But Dyer remains a uniquely relevant voice. In his genre-jumping refusal to be pinned down, he's an exemplar of our era. And invariably, he leaves you both satiated and hungry to know where he's going next.

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