THERE is a place called the Zone, which looks more or less like the world we know, but the colours are fuller and brighter, and the natural laws are not quite so constant. Within the landscape of the Zone, there is a Room, where a person’s deepest desires are supposedly fulfilled. This is the premise of Stalker, a monumentally slow and meditative film made in 1979 by Andrei Tarkovsky. Relatively few people have seen it. “Not as many as have seen Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels,” admits Geoff Dyer. “But among those who have, you often hear that this film has been a big thing in their lives.”
Big enough in his own for Dyer to write a new book about it, titled Zona: A Book About A Film About A Journey To A Room. “If I hadn’t seen Stalker in my early 20s,” he writes, “my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.”Now in his early 50s, Dyer has made a viable career of pursuing his interests into print, developing his own form of conversational non-fiction through essays and books on subjects ranging freely from the first world war (The Missing Of The Somme), to photography (The Ongoing Moment), to DH Lawrence (Out Of Sheer Rage). He once wrote a book on jazz called But Beautiful, in which he improvised half-imaginary interludes from the known biographies of legendary players – Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Art Pepper.
On first publication, none of these books sold particularly well.To hear Dyer tell it, they stood apart from each other on the shelves, and went largely unrecognised as a single body of work. “For an awfully long time,” he says today, “there was no connection made between the war book and the jazz book, for example. If you liked jazz, you might pick up But Beautiful, because of what it was about, as opposed to who wrote it. Only recently, this century, did anyone seem to notice that these are all books by a particular person, and not just separate books on isolated subjects.” We are sitting at the dining table of Dyer’s flat in Kensington.
It’s the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, and his wife is at work (she’s a director at the Saatchi Gallery). Dyer mostly works from home, though he has never called writing “a job”. Having seen his parents slog their lives away in Cheltenham – a sheet-metal worker and a school dinner lady – he never really wanted one. He got a scholarship to Oxford and then spent much of the 1980s on the dole in Brixton, reading, listening to music, ingesting recreational drugs, and going to the cinema. Cash poor, time rich, he later wrote that he had ascended to a kind of “leisure class”. His first novel, The Colour Of Memory, was so close to a memoir of the period that even Dyer is no longer entirely sure which parts he made up.
“The real events are buried beneath the book,” he says, light years away on the other side of London. “That novel is now the only evidence for what happened to me in that time.” Memory is subject to selective editing, of course, and he recently revised it for a reprint, cutting “some of the shit stuff, and loads of the swearing”. His current publishers at Canongate will soon be reissuing Dyer’s back catalogue, collecting 25 years of diverse work inside a fresh set of matching jackets. In the abstract, Zona sounds like the toughest sell yet, but at this point there may be more Geoff Dyer readers than Andrei Tarkovsky viewers, who would now buy this book on the strength of his name, and the mere fact of his interest. Dyer says he will get Canongate to research that, and show the overlap on a Venn diagram. “I joke that they exist to make me happy, but they’re not an infinite source of indulgence. I don’t think anyone said ‘wow, blockbuster’, when I first suggested the idea.” As far as he can recall, nobody in their office had even seen Stalker at the time. “It’s not a precondition. I don’t believe there should only be academic books for a few experts, or simplified and condescending books for dummies. I know I’m pushing that to some extreme if I say you don’t need to have seen the film that this book goes into great detail about.”
In describing the action of Stalker (though “action” is not the right word, as the title character, a writer, and a professor make ponderous progress through the Zone, toward the Room) Dyer writes that he is trying to articulate both “the film’s persistent mystery, and my abiding gratitude to it”. Zona draws on a certain erudition – Dyer knows his stuff about this production, and Andrei Tarkovsky in general, the late Russian master of subtle, philosophical, quasi-allegorical science-fiction movies. It also relies on the author’s own tastes and opinions, and Dyer’s are always worth reading, his particular distinctions between good and bad art, as opposed to high and low.
One passage mentions his distaste for Jeremy Clarkson, another for Joseph Conrad, and this afternoon Dyer says he was glad to “diss” Julian Barnes for his “averageness” in a recent column in the New York Times. He also says he’s no great fan of Ingmar Bergman. “I watched Persona with my wife the other night, and we thought it was almost a joke, except for the promise of girl-on-girl action, which never quite happens. Some classics seem like turkeys to me.”
Dyer considers Stalker both “objectively great” and subjectively resounding. He wonders why this film should have moved him above all others, and reflects on his changing response to it – youthful boredom and impatience at a first screening in 1981, then a growing, nagging awe. “It changed my perception of time,” he says. This perhaps accounts for some of Dyer’s recurring themes and preoccupations, his ability to read photographs as if they were stories, and write stories as if flipping through polaroids. Paris Trance, his 1998 novel about a young man who blows a lifetime of happiness on one year in that city, is arranged not in chapters, but in “moments”, as Dyer puts it. “I’m a big believer in moments,” he says.
“Which compensates for the fact that I can’t plot.” In one way or another, he has been writing about the Zone since he started writing, or at least since that early book on the Somme – “a place where time has stood its ground”, or “not a place at all but a dream space of the past”. In his book of travel essays, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, he described feeling much the same way at the Lepsis ruins in Libya, and at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. “I always know when I’m in the Zone,” he wrote. “When I’m in the Zone I don’t want to be anywhere else. When I’m not in the Zone I’m wishing I was somewhere else, wishing I was in the Zone.”
Tarkovsky gave a name to whatever Dyer was looking for, and his readers can sometimes find it in his books: a glimpse or intimation of another world, outside the normal flow of time. He’d rather not call it transcendence. “Even in those big moments, I’m pretty much a materialist. I don’t think I’ve written anything that’s not consistent with a Richard Dawkins view of the universe.” Those who know his work may feel they know Dyer himself. It’s all in there, even in a book like Zona – his childhood, his sexual history, his most mind-bending and life-changing experiences. “It’s partly laziness. I resort to myself because I’m always around, ready to testify. But I also think the more you reveal of yourself, however specific to your own circumstances and judgement, the more you’re showing what you have in common.” In other words, you don’t have to see Stalker to ask yourself what you would want, if you ever made it into the Room.
In Zona, Dyer suggests that the Room is the one he’s writing in, and the book itself is the fulfilment of his deepest desire. “That’s the joke,” he says. “When I wrote that I was almost finished. I was happy. I wanted nothing else. But then it’s over, and you have to start a new book, and that room is the last place you want to be.”
Zona is published by Canongate on February 2 (£16.99). Out Of Sheer Rage will be reissued later in February. New editions of But Beautiful, Paris Trance, and Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It will follow in June.