Zona, by Geoff Dyer

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My immediate thoughts upon finishing Geoff Dyer’s book Zona, which came out in 2012: 1) I’ve never read any book like it; 2) I intend to read more books like it; and 3) I hope these books eventually come into existence.

Zona is a book length review of the movie Stalker, which, just going by its title, sounds like it should be a thriller starring, say, Jennifer Lopez and Mark Wahlberg. But Stalker in fact a serious work of high cinematic art by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. The movie is ideally suited for Dyer’s premise because the plot is so minimal that, as Dyer says, it could be summarized in two sentences. The thinness of the narrative (there are only three main characters: the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor, and they travel through a barren Zone on the way to a mystical Room) allows Dyer to describe the movie shot by shot, and also spin off into length tangents without having to worry that Stalker-ignorant readers such as myself will lose track of its plot. Whereas if Dyer had tried a book like this with, say, The Godfather, he would have ended up rewriting the Mario Puzo novel before he even got to his commentary.

The best thing about Zona is how well it represents the full experience of watching a movie. At times it’s as if Virginia Woolf wrote her book about the time Mrs. Dalloway went to the movies (An afternoon screening of Stalker! What a lark!). Dyer’s retelling draws in references to dozens of other films, to romantic poetry, to film criticism, to his own childhood, to his desire to adopt a dog (there’s a dog in the movie too), even though Dyer has been looking at adoption websites for five years and has yet to follow through. Suffice to say the tangents are rich and diverse and nearly always welcome.

The great Roger Ebert used to run an annual movie screening where any of the attendees could call to stop the film, so people could discuss the image on the screen at that moment. I imagine those screenings would have been fascinating, or possibly deeply annoying, depending in who else was in the audience, and the quality of their insights. In Zona it’s just Dyer stopping the action, and his comments are certainly worth the while.

I was a huge fan of the Mystery Science 3000 television show and I also like the Flop House podcast. Dyer’s Zona is their solitary, highbrow literary counterpart, and a welcome one.

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