Cultural Criticism

Geoff Dyer: Zoning In


Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

by Geoff Dyer

Pantheon, 2012

240 pages


Last spring, an interviewer asked the British writer Geoff Dyer which movie he would choose to live inside. In retrospect that seems like a leading question; obviously Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was the only possible answer.

Stalker is a long, slow, metaphysical Russian film from 1979. (“Andrei Tarkovsky” in Russian means “long, slow, metaphysical, film.”) It involves three men on a trip to a forbidden place, each for private personal reasons. Stalker is the name of the character who leads expeditions to this place -- a Room, inside a Zone -- where the deepest of desires are said to get fulfilled.

Today, what’s so special about the film, aside from it being a great cine-poet’s mesmerizing road movie of the Soviet twilight, is the fact that Geoff Dyer has written a book about it. Dyer is one of those rare geniuses who writes well about everything because he always winds up writing about himself. The navel into which he gazes is the world’s as well as his own. Thus is he, somehow, very possibly the only English-speaking person alive who can hold forth at length on Tarkovsky without boring the hell out of you.

Zona, the newest of Dyer’s nimble nonfiction category-busters, describes itself as “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.” It is that, and also an essay on wish fulfillment, the management of time, and the variable likelihood of perception-expanding cinema, among other art forms, to exist in our distraction-addled lives.

“At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky time,” Dyer writes, “and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky time toward moron time in which nothing can last -- and no one can concentrate on anything -- longer than about two seconds. Soon people will not be able to watch films like Stalker or to read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to get from one interminable scene or sentence to the next. The time I might have been able to read late-period Henry James has passed, and because I have not read late-period Henry James I am in no position to say what harm has been done to my sensibility by not having done so. But I do know that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.”

In short, Zona is a characteristically digressive memoir of what this one movie has meant to this one man, which turns out to be a lot. (Meanwhile a whole alphabet of other art-house darlings -- Antonioni, Buñuel, the Coen brothers -- come in for parenthetical skewering.) Dyer’s carefully articulated stake in Stalker, one asymptotic quest to comprehend another, proves an invigorating counterforce, if not an antidote, to the very atrophy of attention he laments. The book is not long, but it is one in which several pages may pass with footnotes taking up more surface area than the body of the main text. Dyer sees it as “a catalogue or compendium of proposals for potentially interesting studies,” and he’s right about that, and nobody these days can get away with such a book in quite the way he can. Which is not to say it’s unprecedented. Writing in defense of writers, like himself, who offer commentary “without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences,” Dyer speaks to and for the spirit of the original essayist, Montaigne.

And of course Dyer is to Zona as Tarkovsky is to Stalker: the contriver of a work through which he explores himself. Contriver, that is, as gainfully apart from originator; true, only Dyer could write this book, but not without Tarkovsky’s film, just as only Tarkovsky could make something “synonymous both with cinema’s claims to high art and a test of the viewer’s ability to appreciate it as such,” but not without Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic to inspire him.

“Would we regard this landscape of fields, abandoned cars, tilted telegraph poles and trees as beautiful without Tarkovsky?” Dyer asks. “And could it have been brought into existence by any medium other than film?” There’s a beauty, too, in the asking, and a satisfaction from seeing that beauty brought into existence by this particular asker.

It helps that the intensity of his attention is not attenuating. Tarkovsky’s film is easy to recognize in Dyer’s prose, even for the reader who has never seen it. Here a character “has the knack of imbuing the simplest task with grudge,” there a color scheme exudes “a kind of submonochrome in which the spectrum has been so compressed that it might turn out to be a source of energy, like oil and almost as dark, but with a gold sheen too.” Everywhere, “the most distinctive feature of Tarkovsky’s art: the sense of beauty as force.” And the best way to grasp the movie’s essential slowness is simply to luxuriate in Dyer’s insanely companionable zeal.

In his nonfiction especially, Dyer’s education -- autodidact by way of Oxford -- seems useful; he seems to have seen and read everything, deeply. His habit is to refer unabashedly back to earlier gleanings. “John Updike reckoned that America was a vast conspiracy to make people happy,” Dyer writes, fortifying his own speculations about Soviet unhappiness. Or: “The light, which has been silvery and dank, glows gradually golden and warm, then fades, Turrell-ishly, to dank and silver again.” If you haven’t yet had a go at Stalker, you can look forward to recognizing that highly Tarkovsky-ish moment, here so Dyer-ishly described, the very instant you see it.

The Dyer Name Drop could be a cocktail. It is hard to get right. Even he occasionally flubs the proportions, making his own literacy seem merely like compulsive indexing. Mostly, though, it goes down very smoothly, giving pleasure and encouragement. Rather than torture his references into submission, he lives in them, inviting frequent reader visits. Writing on couture for Vogue, for example, Dyer has handy an observation John Cheever made about Persian carpets. That must be because he did that great piece on Cheever’s journals, the reader thinks, already feeling quite at home and a little tipsy.

Writing on Tarkovsky for the hell of it means bringing on a serious buzz: “Stalker is framed against a green so dark it is almost black -- what Conrad, with his irresistible urge to over-egg any and all puddings, would have called an impenetrable darkness. This darkness makes Stalker’s face and blue eyes burn more brightly as he speaks. With what? With the intensity of his belief, but also -- and it is this which distinguishes him from jihadists and born-again Christians  -- with the intensity of his despair. The Zone is not simply a source of solace, the heart of Marx’s heartless world, it is a source of torment, a system of traps that constantly tests, teases and threatens not just his clients but Stalker himself.”

It’s tempting to keep quoting because here Dyer is only a few sentences away from bringing Werner Herzog into the huddle, but one must learn to pace oneself.

Historically, Stalker was a beleaguered beast, heavily rewritten, reshot, and at one point relocated to just downriver of a chemical plant whose toxicity may later have caused the filmmaker’s fatal cancer. Tarkovsky also had a heart attack during postproduction, and was prone, as Dyer gently puts it, to “megalomaniacal uncertainties.”

Aren’t we all? One of the real joys of reading Zona, thanks to its peculiar candor, is the privilege of picking up on how even Dyer’s most enthused engagement still can feel like fidgety misgiving. Another member of Tarkovsky’s trio is a washed-up writer seeking inspiration. “Maybe by going to the Zone he’ll be rejuvenated,” Dyer writes. “Man, I know how he feels. I could do with a piece of that action myself. I mean, do you think I would be spending 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.”

Dyer’s own stalkers surely will have noticed Stalker references piling up in his previous writings, and maybe they felt a whole book coming on. But then, who ever knows? He’s flighty. One of Dyer’s earlier books is called Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. Another, Out of Sheer Rage, is a biography of D.H. Lawrence by an author who couldn’t be bothered to do it. (Of course, in the end, he did. Sort of.) One essay in Dyer’s recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, extemporized a proto-proposal for yet another book, Great Pastries of the World: A Personal View. Was that just a quip, or a promise?

Reviews, Reviews, Reviews

So much to talk about today, it's almost impossible to know where to start, so let's work backwards from what I last read… For years I've known of the achievements of , who carries the distinction of being one of the few, if not only, African-American, female writers in the otherwise all-too-white and once upon a time all-too-male genre of science fiction. Butler's reputation, moreover, is stellar. She cleaned up in science fiction awards for her novella , landed a Nebula for , and even had the rare distinction for a science fiction writer of receiving a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. She from a stroke at the relatively young age of 58 after authoring some thirteen books in a writing career that spanned nearly 30 years.

Her last work before she died was a science fiction vampire novel, , described by her as a "lark." At a minimum, let us say that it is any number of cuts above such fare as Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series, which I only know from DVD since I refuse to plow through the many thousands of pages of teen vampire angst run amok in the halls of our nation's high schools. Indeed, one wonders if Butler was not responding in part to this that I have lovingly dubbed for my teenage daughter as the "hickeys with holes" brand of fiction.

Fledgling is compelling. A child awakens in a cave, badly injured, in terrible pain, with no memory of her past and struggling to survive. Ravenously hungry, operating only on instinct, Shori discovers that she is a 53-year-old vampire in the body of an 11-year-old child, a member of an ancient, anthropogenetic race known as the "Ina," who live alongside human beings. Shori's amnesia is a literary device that just borders on the trite for pumping up readers' feelings of suspense. But it's also an opportunity, in Butler's deft hands, to reimagine the human-vampire relationship as one of instead of formal parasitism. What we get is Butler's latent utopianism in which the idea of the family is reconfigured into a mixture of physical addiction and mutual dependence, open sexual relations and Western ideations of the village family unit.

But there's an added wrinkle: Shori, unlike all of her vampire relations, is black, purposely so, the result of experiments in skin pigmentation and Ina-human gene mixing. Presumably this should raise Fledgling to the level of , a genre I generally favor when done right. But the material seems to get away from Butler, and what appeared so promising at its opening simply doesn't deliver on the possibilities suggested, an unfortunate result for a work that—as vampire novels today go—still surpasses its peers in depth and invention.


If no one objects to my jumping around a bit for today's post, then let me pick up where my colleague left off by discussing a wonderful book by one of our own that has come into New Haven Review's hands.

When George Scialabba's arrived at the doorstep, I was hooked. Right away I knew Scialabba would be my kind of intellectual, regardless of what intellectuals may or may not be good for. Gathered from the last two decades or so, this collection of essays and reviews raises the question in more ways than one. First and foremost is through the persona of the author himself, who is a public intellectual in perhaps the truest sense of the term. You see, Scialabba is not a professor at a major research university or a policy wonk at a think tank or a Gore Vidal-esque aesthete pontificating from an Italian villa or one of the liquid lunch crowd flowing in and out the Condé Nast building. No, Mr. Scialabba appears to be one of those rarities: a working stiff whose vocation appears to have little to do with his avocation. When he's not busting Christopher Hitchens' chops or assessing Richard Rorty's contributions to American culture, he is presumably working budgets or dressing down contractors in his daylight existence as an assistant building superintendent. OK, I'll grant that even a plant manager at Harvard may have the advantage of proximity to some of the best minds in the country. But Harvard is hardly distinguished for its HVAC systems.

Scialabba, as a public intellectual, is part of a cultural tradition of thinkers who opt to keep their day jobs when none from MFA programs or think tanks are forthcoming. And, to be honest, that's something of a relief to me. It's probably no surprise then that Scialabba most admires those intellectuals whose qualities are defined less by their professional status than the clarity and cogency of their writing, even when on the wrong side of an issue. As a result, What Are Intellectuals Good For? is a veritable who's who of publicly accessible intellectual discourse. Dwight McDonald, Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, Christopher Lasch, Alisdair MacIntyre, Irving Howe, and assorted others are the subjects of essays and reviews that are notable for their force of argument and precision of thought. There is nary a Continental thinker nor an American imitator to be found here.

There is a special fondness for the —Howe, Trilling, the rest of the Partisan Review crowd—in part for their achievements, in part for their apparent disdain of specialization and academicization. As a consequence, Scialabba's more recent heroes tend towards the plain-spoken and generally incisive Russell Jacoby, Christopher Lasch, and Richard Rorty. Less admirable are the likes of Martha Nussbaum (too generic), Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer (too conservative), and Christopher Hitchens (too crazy).

And yet whatever Scialabba's verdict, we'd do well to listen. He's often on point, even if you disagree, and quicker than most to get to the root issues in any writer's corpus of thought. But what really distinguishes this collection, especially the reviews, is how Scialabba lets the books and their authors take center stage. Too often in venues such as the and, albeit less frequently, the , one gets the funny feeling that the reviews are more about the reviewer than the reviewed. Now, it would be mean-spirited to begrudge a reviewer his or her authorial voice: I can assure you Scialabba doesn't conceal his. But 4,000 word essays in which the title under review makes its grand entrance in the last two paragraphs do not always seems worth the price of admission. Reviewers with grand ideas and theories of their own are sometimes better off just writing their own books. Fortunately, Scialabba avoids this species of reviewing hubris.

But already I commit the very sin I deplore, too wrapped up in sound of my own voice and not letting Scialabba's book take over from hereon. But let me shamelessly plead the constraints of space and conclude on this note: What Are Intellectual Good For? is, in a sense, the meditation of one deep-thinking critic on the work of other deep-thinking critics and their views of politics, social justice, and morality. In another sense, it is a reader's roadmap to some of the best cultural criticism written in the last half century. And in both senses taken together, it is a highly recommended starting point for anyone who cares deeply about this much-endangered species of criticism.


So who the hell is Robert Levin? Well, there's always the , where you can learn that he's a jazz critic, a short story writer, and a writer of music liner notes. He seems to have had his heyday here and there—a critical letter to the Village Voice about the that drew a year's worth of responses; a 2004 recipient of "storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story."

That story is the title of a collection of Levin's writings, . Dare I confess that I read this slim 90-page volume over the course of seven dog walks? (Yes, I can walk and read at the same time; I can also chew gum and type.) Let me add that it was one of my more pleasurable dogwalking experiences, which is otherwise a dreadful bore. The reason is simple: Levin is funny. Leaving aside the eponymous lead short story, itself a ribald tale of mistaken identity and the sexual pleasures that can derive therefrom, the miscellany and commentary are laugh-out-loud grotesques, some weirdly Dickensian in their exaggeration of the mundane, others Jamesian in their syntactically elaborate transformations of the bizarre into the clinical or poetic. Only examples will do. In his screed "Recycle This!" on a recycling notice asking residents "to sort and…rinse [their] garbage before leaving it out," he writes: "So while I'll allow that self-immolation would constitute a disproportionate form of protest, I have to say that reacting with less than indignation to so gratuitous an imposition would also be inappropriate." That's a fairly ornate response to a recycling notice. Like I said, pure Dickens.

Or consider "Peggie (or Sex with a Very Large Woman)," a story so wonderfully offensive that it would be impossible not to relish the absurd attempt to poeticize the physical challenges set before Levin's narrator: "…Peggie's particular body could have served as a Special Forces training ground for the field of hazards and challenges its presented. I'm speaking of the twisting climbs and sudden valleys, the crags, the craters and the amazing plenitude of gullies, ravines and bogs that I was, and on my hands and knees, obliged to negotiate and traverse in my search." And don't even ask what he was searching for. You can probably guess.

In some ways, Levin is at his best wringing every drop of qualification from a feeling or thought, an instance of rage or fear, often in one long but densely packed sentence. The bathos of the stories and of some of the miscellany—there are cantankerous whines about cashiers and their stupidity, smoking bans, HMOs, aging, the aforementioned recycling notices—is actually what makes it all worth the reading. Levin, in essence, gets more out of the mundane through an overwrought prose style that is utterly apropos to the sensibility behind it.

But there's no substitute for the man himself, so let's conclude with his thoughts on when one of God's "natural wonders"—in this case a solar eclipse—fails to deliver the goods: "I'll allow that, however disappointing it may be, it's ultimately of small consequence when He mounts a shoddy eclipse. But it's something else again when, for one especially egregious example, He leave you to blow out all your circuits trying to figure just where a mindless inferno of neuroticism like Mia Farrow fits into the notion that everyone's here for a reason." Consider my own circuits blown.