I should preface everything by saying that Geoff Dyer is a writerly ego ideal of mine. I am a sucker for a polymath like Dyer, someone who can dig into any nook of our culture and find a seemingly endless store of intelligent things to say. Over the last 20 odd years he’s written books– good books– about TH Lawrence, Jazz, photography, and World War I. Indeed, his book about Jazz– But Beautiful— is a collection of short stories that doubles as the finest piece of Jazz criticism I’ve ever read. The guy can just pick a topic that interests him, intellectually assail it for a while, and then produce work that is as good if not better than work by professionals in the field– witty, serious, and illuminating. Hell, even his novels are pretty good, which is unfair. (If you are going to be a fantastic critic, at least have the human decency to write shitty novels, like Susan Sontag)
And it’s not just that; Dyer is also one of these freakish writers who seems to achieve this kind of thing without visible effort. As far as the practice of writing goes, I am a disciple of Haruki Murakami: I believe it is a kind of physical exertion which requires consciously cultivated reserves of discipline to succeed. Anyone who accomplishes anything in this field seems to do so by chaining themselves to a desk (or a tool shed) every morning for a pre-specified period and just writing until they understand what it is they have to say. You stop at the point where you figure out the next thing you’re going to write, so you can begin tomorrow. In my experience this is the only way good things ever get written.
Dyer is not like this. Apparently he just writes whenever he feels like it. Books seem to grow off him like pumpkins off a vine. While I have personally been struck by feverish inspiration at a time or two in my life, I cannot fathom what it would be like to feel inspired often enough to make a living. This ability to just write at will strikes me as godlike. Who can just write without forcing themselves to do it? Who are these psychopaths?
Dyer’s most recent book, Zona, is about Andrei Tartovsky’s Stalker. If you have not seen this film, you should. It is a very, very good film. Be advised that like all of Tartovsky’s films, I would call it (somewhat-euphemistically) a “slow burn.”
At least on paper, Dyer is the ideal guide though a film so deliberately serious in its tone: literate, chatty, unpretentious. He is a person with a very serious investment in European high culture (Merleau-Ponty in the footnotes, natch), but he is also a pretty irreverent bloke as these things go.
With this stated, I am sad to report that this is not a terribly great book. Structurally, it is a scene-by-scene commentary on the film, with liberal asides concerning art, Dyer’s biography, and details of the film’s production. This should be great, but I felt this book represented some of Dyer’s trademark gestures going to seed: it is a collection of observations in search of an idea. Some of them are great, some of them are only mildly interesting. Imagine you are on a bus tour of New York, and your guide spends five minutes rattling on about how he once lost this backpack at some notable landmark.
I’m not so depraved that I think every book should revolve around elaborating an argument or building a system, but the book has this odd feeling of desperation, as if the conceit of scene-by-scene analysis could forge order from a collage of miscellaneous insights.
This is all the more needful because Stalker itself is an elusive prey: a mystical travel movie about a journey to nowhere, punctuated with enigmatic philosophical dialogues and suggestive metaphysical gestures. It is surely barbaric to ask for an explanation for a film that is so beautiful, so occasionally wondrous. But still, to rove over each sequence, punctuating it with tales of one’s dissolute twenties and whimsical asides produces a result that is often tonally jarring. (As the travelers approach the Room, a place which is said to grant your deepest desire, Dyer pauses to elaborate the two occasions when he almost had a three-way.) One understands the difficulty of the task: you can’t be rapt and somber about a film that is already so obviously rapt and somber. But Dyer never quite achieves the exact balance of irreverence and reverence that would mark the ideal book on the subject. The personal asides about his history with the film bear much of the blame, because while Dyer can be a great autobiographer (his story about how he met his wife is one of my favourite of his essays), the details he feeds into this book feel distinctly unnecessary. The book is like a very clever friend has invited you over to his house in order to deliver a slide show about a trip he wasn’t on.
This is a shame because he really does have an eye for the film’s minor miracles. In a few flashes he works up a rhetorical head of steam trying to capture in words certain luminous sequences in the film, and when he’s in this mode he is capable of being just lovely: “[Stalker] sees the Zone from amid a patch of dense weeds and collapses, first in an attitude of prayer and then on his stomach, into sleep. An ant crawls on his finger. There is no difference between the external world and the world in his head. Everything in reciprocated.” In this description you have communicated both the immense metaphysical relief the Stalker feels as he rolls in the grass (for a moment his immense suffering melts away) — and also the ant across the finger. His description of the films second-to-last miracle, the sequence where the Stalker family plus dog troupes down an embankment on their way home, correctly points out that the dog is a genius, a fact that I had missed on first viewing. Stalker is full of these gorgeous epiphanies, and if the book served no other purpose it drew my eye and brain back to the details of specific moments.
For me the most powerful part of this uneven book is when he discusses the toll that mere experience exacts on our capacity to love works of art. Here is one of the few places where the personal asides he makes throughout connected with me. When discussing Stalker, Dyer is afflicted by a kind of nostalgia for his own ability to be captivated by movies and books and music and photos. It’s not that he doesn’t love these things anymore (although he admits he now finds it difficult to read– like him, I wonder if this is a universal symptom), it’s that he has reached a point in his life where nothing is ever going to matter as much to him as Stalker mattered to his younger self. The age of being transformed by human expression is over. He now comes back to warm his hands on the embers of Stalker, hoping that his memories of the film can still inspire a final, minor, miracle– making him care about anything intensely enough to write a new book.