ALONE IN THE ZONE
GEOFF DYER with Monica Westin
Geoff Dyer describes himself as a “gate crasher” writer: his choice of subjects—the Venice Biennale, jazz, Burning Man, D.H. Lawrence—varies as widely as his choice of prose styles—memoir, essay, travelogue. With his new book, Zona, Dyer puts all that discursive knowledge to use while at the same time keeping a precise focus on the subject at hand, Andrei Tarkovksky’s notably slow and enigmatic Russian science-fiction film, Stalker.
Dyer explicates Stalker shot-by-shot, describing how his experience of watching the film has changed over time as he aged from a working-class Oxford scholarship student to an occasionally sentimental middle-aged critic. Playful asides that deflate the solemnity of the project (in carefully paced, sometimes-sprawling footnotes, that original form of artful digression) eventually give way to a meditation on the art of paying attention and a series of incisive and original observations on Tarkovsky’s filmmaking, his temper, and the socio-historical climate around this work. In Dyer’s words, his attempt to “articulate both the film’s persistent mystery and my abiding gratitude to it” (as well as to purge himself of the desire to see it “again—and again and again”) results in a text that oscillates between an ode and a play-by-play sports commentary. As critics have quickly noted, Dyer’s more personal asides are sometimes indulgent, sometimes tiring, but they’re also often astonishingly tuned-in to the way memory, and especially memory about our relationship to art, operates.
Ultimately, Zona is essential both as a close study of one mind processing time-based art and a subtle exposition on the aesthetics of triviality in our attempts to write about art that moves us. As Dyer explains in a kind of apologia for the book:
If mankind was put on earth to create works of art, then other people were put on earth to comment on those works, to say what they think of them. Not to judge objectively or critically assess these works but to articulate their feelings about them with as much precision as possible, without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste, and the contingency of their own experiences, even if those feelings are of confusion, uncertainty, or—in this case—undiminished wonder.
Despite what J. Hoberman has suggested, the ultimate subject of Zona is not Dyer himself; rather, it’s the “mereness” of his writing project itself. It’s the complexity of the relationship between the commentary in Zona and Tarkovsky’s film, itself the strongest defense for the “minor” and admittedly parasitic writing of criticism, that is the great triumph of Zona.
Monica Westin (Rail): The broadest theme of this book seems to be the capacity for enlightenment that is inherent in the careful, slow, and sometimes boring, beholding of art. Early in Zona, you quote Tarkovsky: “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges a special intensity of attention”; and later you note, “If I had not seen Stalker in my early 20s, my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.” Are there other works of art, perhaps in other mediums, you’ve experienced that have taught you how to see differently and more carefully? Do you think we’re more in need now of such art, when, as you say, “perhaps one of the novelties of our era is the possibility of instant boredom—like instant coffee—as opposed to a feeling that has to unfold gradually, suffocatingly, over time”?
Geoff Dyer: Personally, I’m chronically impatient. I find it relaxing to hurry and I am hostile to all forms of tedium (How could one not be?!). Slowness? I don’t really have a view one way or the other. But I love to trance out to things—music, films, whatever. I have a particular love of Indian classical music which unfolds in such a way as to make any idea of time irrelevant: to lose oneself in the infinitude of the raga—that is bliss, not being conscious of time. Similarly, that Australian band that I’m so crazy about, the Necks: most of their CDs or performances consist of hour-long tracks that change so subtly you often can’t tell how they’re changing—as a result you hang on their every note. Or, to take a more extreme example, the ambient composer William Basinski in whose work nothing seems to be happening. I’m super-susceptible to boredom—as Roland Barthes said, it’s my hysteria—but there’s nothing boring about any of these things. Crap novels, crap films, crap music—they’re boring.
Rail: When reading Zona, I was most struck by the contrast between a kind of “high” and “low” appreciation of the film that you bring at different moments. On one page, you’re making playful jokes about the characters in the film or telling stories about your checkered youth; soon after, you might segue quickly into describing the transcendence that Tarkovsky ultimately creates for every viewer who has the patience and attention to really watch his films. Was it difficult or natural to write about the different layers of appreciation you have for the film?
Dyer: This is very natural. It’s always been the way I’ve tended to talk with friends. But, at the same time, I’m a total elitist and snob: reality TV, almost all contemporary pop music, soap operas (or whatever’s now replaced them)—I try to avoid getting even a sniff of that stuff.
Rail: I also want to ask about the footnotes, a form I haven’t seen you use extensively in previous writing. These footnotes, along with your changing “high/low” tone throughout the book, comprise a particular and unique art of digression you use here. Does using footnotes so extensively open up your writing? I ask because I’m interested in the sort of default “parasitic” relationship that the commentary sometimes takes—but almost always resists—to the object. It’s this complex relationship that your commentary has to the objects it describes that I love the most about your writing, and this is also the great triumph of Zona. I wonder if the form of the footnote allows you to go even deeper into the relationship between object and, well, ode that you’ve achieved here.
Dyer: The footnotes were a technical expedient—a way of including stuff that I needed to talk about while letting the “summary” of the film flow on relatively unimpeded. But yes, thank you, the general point about the intimacy between the work being written about and the commentary it engenders is very important to me, both as writer and reader.
Rail: A bit more about your particular self-described “gate-crasher” style of research and writing: In that essay in the collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, you articulate it this way: “Increasingly at ease with the vagaries of my nature, I came to relish the way that getting interested in one thing led to my becoming interested in something else—so interested, in fact, that I often lost interest in whatever it was that, a little while previously, had transfixed me utterly. Out of this relay of awakened and abandoned interests a haphazard kind of narrative hopefully emerges.” How did you know that Stalker would become its own book and not “just” another essay? Have other films, or perhaps photographs, other works of art, changed your way of seeing so definitively? And is it really true that, as you say, you’ve somehow purged yourself of wanting to see Stalker constantly by writing Zona?
Dyer: Zona became a book by accident. I just kept on writing and gradually realized that it was long enough—and had the formal potential—to become a book. It’s not so much that I’ve been changed by seeing an individual thing; more that I’ve been formed by combinations of lots of things that I’ve heard, looked at, or watched. Photographs? Yes, hugely. Jazz? You bet! They all feed in to each other. The thing about writing a book is that you really learn a lot about whatever the subject is in the process of writing that book. You satisfy your own curiosity and perhaps understand some of the mystery and fascination—of jazz, Stalker, or whatever. As for Stalker, I introduced a screening last night in Scotland and, if I’d not had to go to the airport and fly back to London, I’d have been very tempted to see it again. Also, although I might lose interest in something after finishing a book about it this does not mean I’m banished forever, on pain of death!
Rail: I read this provocative John McPhee quote in a New Yorker essay this fall: “A general question about any choice of subject is, why choose that one over all other concurrent possibilities? Why does someone whose interest is to write about real people and real places choose certain people, certain places? For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream. Since you may take a month, or 10 months, or several years to turn one idea into a piece of writing, what governs the choice? I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe 20 or 30 years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than 90 percent.” Is this true for you?
Dyer: Not sure, except to say that they’re things that touch me deeply and mysteriously. I had relatively few cultural interests—except for prog rock, beer, and reading novels—before I went to college, so I’m not sure the McPhee line applies to me. But I am increasingly aware, especially now that my parents are both dead, of how thoroughly I’ve been shaped by my background. To repeat something I’ve said before, it was an enormous privilege to grow up in a house without books, art, or music (in the high cultural sense) because that gave my subsequent discovery of these things the quality of a revelation.
Rail: Finally, I frankly don’t believe you when you say that, like Writer in the film, you were “washed up” when you started writing Zona.
I know how he feels ... do you think I would spend my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action—not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take—if I was capable of writing anything else? In my way I am going to the Room—following these three to the Room—to save myself.
Were you really going through a dry period when you wrote this?
Dyer: I’ve spent most of my writing life believing I’m washed up—it’s just about the only thing that’s enabled me to keep going.