Complicated System of Traps

Michael Wood

  • Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer
    Canongate, 228 pp, £16.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 85786 166 5

If we leave aside some notes and references at the back, Zona seems to close, appropriately, with a description of the end of a film: ‘her eyes, her watching eyes, and her face and head, resting on the table, watching us watching her, fading to black’. The film we have been seeing through these two hundred pages of Dyer’s memory and prose is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a science fiction movie that doesn’t so much transcend the genre as pervert it, turn it over to the history of religion – or perhaps the history of doubt. The eyes belong to a girl described in the film as ‘a victim of the Zone’. Dyer has used the Russian word for his title, I take it, both to keep a touch of strangeness in the air and to avoid the echoes the English term might haphazardly call up: the name of a sci-fi magazine, various shopping centres up and down the country, a game show, and an early Britney Spears album. Tarkovsky’s Zone is another place.

But the words I have quoted are not the end of the book. We turn the page and read a quotation from the American novelist David Markson: ‘Or was it possibly nothing more than a fundamentally recognisable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred? Nothing more or less than a read?’ We can take the question as referring both to the described movie and to the describing book. When the writer in the film is asked what he writes about he says ‘the readers’. But the question does more work in relation to Dyer’s essay/memoir. Is this ‘a read’, and is a read a genre? How recognisable is the genre supposed to be, and how disappointed would Dyer be if it turned out to be downright familiar? And what’s the difference between a read and a reading?

Dyer occasionally says his book offers a summary of the movie: ‘Do you think I would be spending my time summarising the action of a film almost devoid of action . . . if I was capable of writing anything else?’ ‘So what kind of writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film?’ But then he decides that what he is after is ‘the opposite of a summary; it’s an amplification and expansion.’ In the next sentence he calls the work a summary again, so it’s clear he’s not going to give us any more help with the name of the genre. In fact, the book isn’t a summary or its opposite, and it isn’t a commentary either, although that term gets us closer to what’s going on. Dyer doesn’t say this, but he has understood – in the way good readers and viewers always do – that description is interpretation, which is why, if you’re inclined to show films during lectures and classes, it’s helpful if the technology lets you down now and again: then you have to say what you have seen, instead of assuming everyone sees what you do just because they’re looking at the same screen. Zona is an intimate, engaging, often brilliant, sometimes slightly windy description of Stalker, with digressions that are only rarely real digressions, and are mainly casual but integral parts of the description itself. The book is a read in a double sense: a form of words that allows us to experience a version of Dyer’s experience but also to glimpse or remember the film that provokes and exceeds that experience.

Take Dyer’s personal analogy for the world of the Zone, for example, his case of what a ‘site of decayed meaning’ looks like:

The windows of the disused station building had been smashed and the rain had seeped in … Faded, rain-buckled, the timetable was still displayed – a memorial to its own passing. An empty packet of Player’s cigarettes, the ones my mother smoked, with the face of the bearded sailor on the front, gone to a watery grave at the bottom of a puddle: frog-spawny, rust-coloured, pond-size, cloudy with gnats. The tracks had rusted, were overgrown with weeds, grass, stinging nettles, dandelions.

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