“How can it possibly work – a book describing a film, more or less shot by shot?” asks Tess Hadley, author of The London Train (2011), in response to Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. And indeed it shouldn’t. A thorough account of Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, one might expect Zona to read like an annotated screenplay or a highly academic essay, a dry or dense text of interest only to specialist study, not the leisurely meander through the history of Dyer’s relationship with the film which it actually is.
A notoriously oblique film about hope and faith, Stalker is characterised by its slow and meditative atmosphere rather than its entertainment value, and so Zona’s engaging and anecdotal tone is a refreshing surprise. With four novels, two collections of essays, five genre-defying titles and a host of literary awards under his belt, Dyer has proven himself to be an accomplished and engaging writer. Tarkovsky’s film is evidently a subject close to his heart. Interspersing shot by shot descriptions of Stalker with events from his own life, Dyer evolves a curious blend of autobiography and conjectural analysis, his various viewings of the film acting as milestones for both his personal life and his book.
Where others may be tempted to lose themselves in deconstructing Stalker, retro-fitting the film with the meaning which Tarkovsky insisted it does not contain, Dyer writes in a light and conversational manner leavened with humour. Rather than endeavour to decipher the director’s thoughts as they are presented in the film, Dyer’s response is much more individual, the associations he draws between his nostalgic recollections and his viewing experiences chiming in with Tarkovsky’s desire to create a “visual poetry”, an art “which has nothing to do with propaganda, journalism, philosophy or any other branch of knowledge or social organization.”
This intimate style of writing creates a dialogue between reader and writer, a comfortable familiarity generated by Dyer’s conversational tone and tangential footnotes. Whilst reading Zona is a task much less difficult than watching Stalker in a single sitting, it shares the ruminative pacing of its subject matter; Dyer is in no hurry to infer certainties from Tarkovsky’s work, and the text reads like a diary, as though the author sought only to put his thoughts to paper and produced a book only as a by-product. As a result, it is not only infinitely more accessible than the film, but is an arguably more enjoyable experience. As Dyer himself admits, “the first few times [he] saw Stalker were during a phase of [his] life when [he] took LSD and magic mushrooms quite regularly”, and “the prominent place occupied in [his] consciousness by Stalker is almost certainly bound up with the fact that [he] saw it at [this] particular time in [his] life.”
Despite the reputation of Tarkovsky’s film as difficult, deep and oblique, Dyer’s book is an engaging read which serves not only to show his love of Stalker, but also to impart some of his enthusiasm to his readers. “If I had I not seen Stalker in my early twenties”, writes Dyer, “my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished”, and fittingly, it can easily be said that reading Zona will increase a viewer’s responsiveness to Stalker on the merit of Dyer’s words alone.