I would read Geoff Dyer on any subject—partly because his writing is always unfailingly beautiful, and partly because to read him on any subject is to read him on pretty much every subject. He’s not inclined to take the shortest, most direct route to his ostensible destination; he likes tangents. He’s often grumpy or depressive, but simultaneously brilliant and hilarious. His book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, should be required reading for anyone who’s ever thought writing a book sounded like a good idea. Whatever he’s writing about, at least in his nonfiction, Geoff Dyer is always also writing about Geoff Dyer, and about art, and about the fragile intersection of neurosis and inspiration. Among other things.
In his latest, Zona—a meditation on the 1979 film Stalker by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky—Dyer veers off onto such topics as his wife’s eerie resemblance to Natascha McElhone in the Steven Soderbergh remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris; drinking beer in pubs; The Wizard of Oz; three-ways; a Bjork song; the dog he’ll probably never have and lots more.
Which isn’t to imply that the book is scattered. Dyer’s narrative follows the film from beginning to end, shot-by-shot. (He writes in a footnote that he had intended to divide the book into 142 sections, to correspond with the 142 shots in the film, “but then, as I became engrossed and re-engrossed in the film, I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began.”) The effect is similar to that of a really top-notch commentary track, or of watching a familiar movie with someone much more observant and insightful than yourself. Someone who’s also maybe slightly off-kilter and very good at brutally honest self-analysis.
Dyer’s visual descriptions are so meticulous and detailed that you could easily enjoy the book even without having seen Stalker—although that would sort of be missing the point. I think the best approach is to watch the film once, then read the book, then re-watch the film with Dyer’s voice in your head. The very dedicated might also note and seek out the several other titles mentioned in the text and the copious footnotes (the footnotes are substantial, often covering multiple pages, and are not to be missed). It’ll be the most fun you can possibly have watching a long, gray, beautiful, poetic, slow-moving Russian film about the search for hope and self-discovery.
Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.