A Post about a Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room

[Download this review by Shawn Andrew Mitchell as an EPUB or MOBI file.]

The opportunity cost of reading a book is always too great. Some books, obviously, are a waste of one’s eyes. —Geoff Dyer, “Reader’s Block”

After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly. —Albert Camus, “Short Guide to Towns Without a Past” i

Break out your slide trombone and call your cousin Willis, here comes Geoff Dyer’s latest! Fast on the heels of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition comes Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room—the film being the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 Stalker; the journey being the film’s characters’ trip to the Zone (a possibly mystical region in the wilderness), and Dyer’s journey in his feelings and knowledge about the film, and also the reader’s journey of reading the book; and the room being, naturally, the Room deep within the Zone, which is said to grant visitors’ deepest desires, and also, perhaps, the room in which the writer is writing the book and the room in which the reader is reading the book and the room in which the editor edited the book and finally the rooms in a crêpe place and a library and a studio apartment where your faithful reviewer is reviewing the book, all things which probably wouldn’t have come to pass should the author have been someone besides Geoff Dyer, who commands attention for whatever project he undertakes, even if it happens to be a book about a film few people have seen.

Stop and catch your breath. If you’re not someone who becomes mildly aroused upon hearing the names David Shields or John D’Agata, you may be wondering why you would want to read such a book. I will now attempt to answer this not unreasonable question.

Reason #1: To Dither

Conveniently, Dyer has the same doubts as you and begins asking himself why he’s bothering to write this book-length summary early on. The first reason he gives is that he’s simply not “capable of writing anything else.” He was supposed to be writing a book about tennis, after all, when he began writing this one. In an alternate universe we’d be holding Geoff Dyer’s spin on a tennis essay, David Foster Wallace done UK-style. So Zona‘s a book-length exercise in Dyer’s chronic (but not terminal) procrastination. ii

But as the book, film, and journey progress, Dyer writes that his strongest want in life is simply to do very little, almost nothing:

If your deepest desire is the one manifested in your daily life and habits, then mine, apparently, is to potter about, to potter my life away, drifting from desk to kitchen (to make tea), from house to cafe (to have coffee). […] But that’s why this life of the writer, this life where you spend your time doing pretty much what you want, is quite different. So, given that I probably am going to be around for awhile, this is pretty much my deepest desire at the moment, to sit here scribbling, trying to fathom out what my deepest desire might be.

In signature Dyer fashion, a passage on humanity’s deepest desires circles back to the idea that one’s deepest desire might be to sit around considering what one’s deepest desire is. It’s a tasty little comic loop, and a good example of the leisurely decadence involved in reading Dyer.

In the feel-good reach-around atmosphere of much of the online writing community, where any psychological study demonstrating that reading literature expands our empathetic reach—makes us feel more, makes us better people—gets shared around like syphilis in an 18th century brothel, it’s nice to be reminded every now and then that while all that may be true, it’s also OK to read for the reason many people likely do in the first place: just for the sake of wasting time, doing nothing. Because you want to clock out for a little while. Because you like to read.Or, to put it in Tarkovsky’s words (via Dyer, naturally): “what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time, whether for time wasted, time lost, or time that is yet to be gained.” iii

Zona is a great waste of time.

Reason #2: To Know What to Like or Dislike

As big a reveal as any in Zona comes when Dyer confesses, assumedly tongue-in-cheek but deadpan enough to be taken seriously, that he’s often felt he would “like to be a dictator, the ruler of a regime that conforms in every detail to my ideas of how I think life should be lived and ordered.” In real life this might be impossible, but the page is a writer’s little fiefdom and Dyer approaches criticism in an off-with-his-head, eye-for-an-eye style. When he focuses on a subject, he explores it in a subtle and nuanced way, but when something offends his tastes, it’s to the gallows it goes. Think of him as the Simon Cowell of the literary world: authoritatively accented and automatically nasty.

Dyer’s oeuvre is a twenty-five-years-in-the-running Tumblr, impressive in its capacity for recall and free association, flooding your RSS feed with books to read, art to see, and aphorisms to live by. iv He moves through our world as an expert clicker, checking like and dislike as he goes. David Foster Wallace breaks him out in hives. v Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is “daft in the way all horror films are daft, especially when seen beside the routine horrors of modern life” and von Trier’s dedication of the film to Tarkovsky is a Satanic Verses-level offense. vi Dyer’s never seen the Wizard of Oz and you can be damn sure he’s not going to now. He’s also never read Henry James, and he doesn’t care if you don’t like it. Conrad’s got an “irresistible urge to overegg any and all puddings.” Dyer hates “all gestures associated with finding, lighting, and smoking a cigarette.” He feels it is below him to read Jeanette Winterson or Hanif Kureishi. The Coen Brothers are morons. In fact, most people are morons, and most movies and television are perfectly made for them and they aren’t welcome in Dyer’s home. Nor does cinema belong in his home, anyone’s home. It must be seen on the big screen, he instructs. It must be projected. vii

While he’s a bit trigger happy on the dislike button, he is known to occasionally push like. Dyer recommends the obscure Miles Davis, Dostoevsky, and Fitzgerald. viii Dyer finds wordless drone/ambient music to be an aid to writing, and recommends Stars of the Lid. Have you heard of Christian Marclay’s neglected masterpiece “The Clock?” Top of the pops. ix

Reason #3: To Chuckle Knowingly

Geoff Dyer’s a Mach 10 Wit. If you have any doubt, just take it from the man himself. In conversation with John Jeremiah Sullivan over at FSG’s Works in Progress, Dyer says the reason he doesn’t laugh at Coen Brothers films is that he has a sense of humor. You see, the Coen Brothers’ humor, such as the part in Fargo when someone declares they need “unguent,” is “humor for people with no sense of humor.” Dyer’s no philistine. He’s a wit, and wit occurs where funny and smart overlap. x

At one point in Zona, Dyer describes Writer’s laugh as the kind “that contains the desire to explain why you’re laughing.” This is not Dyer’s laughter. He has no desire to explain his humor. You’re either with him or you’re not. At one point he describes the characters as looking straight out of a social realist drama. If you know some Russian art and literary history, you may find this riotous. If you don’t, then you should resume laughing at farts. If you don’t see the fine distinction between someone saying “unguent” and Dyer’s anecdote about Mick Jagger calling Godard a “fucking twat” or Dyer’s musings on threesomes, underwear, and beer, this book may not be for you. xi

Reason #4: To Get Through It

Partway through Zona Dyer admits that much of the appeal of such a deliberately slow-paced, three-hour Russian film is to be able to say you’ve gotten through it. You’ve endured.  Elsewhere, in his review of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (reprinted in Otherwise), Dyer writes that “whatever else might be said about my talents as a reader, my ability to quit is undisputed.” xii Fortunately for Dyer, we’re not all gifted at quitting books, and many people like to be able to say they’ve read difficult ones. They’ve endured.

It may be the case that you get through fifty to one hundred pages of Zona just chuckling and nodding your head before you get bored, but as you’re already ¼ – ½ of the way through, you’ll allow your momentum to carry you onward, so next week you’ll be able to say you’ve read the latest Dyer. Or it may be that once you’re that far into what’s only a 217-page book you’ll begin to find things meaningful, if for no other reason than that if they aren’t you’ll have to face the possibility that what you choose to spend your time on is in fact pointless, and thus you’ll be sucked into the void, a dark lapse of faith in reading and writing, as the meaninglessness of the last couple of hours seeps into your entire life. Because one generally likes to consider one’s life meaningful, you will begin to find Zona meaningful, and you will continue, until you are done and you can say you’ve read the latest Dyer and he’s done it again, the mensch. xiii

Reason #5: As a Guide to Cinema

It’s easy to make fun of something. It’s much harder to say why you like it. At this point I should stop being an asshole and just go ahead and admit there was a lot I enjoyed about Zona. As a guide to Stalker, I’m tempted to say it’s an unparalleled, massively well-rendered monument to a masterpiece. (I say tempted because I haven’t read any other books about Stalker so I’m hardly fit to make such a declaration.) It also, in the course of its stream-of-consciousness perambulations, serves as a tangential introduction to the world of foreign films.

Strength is a terrible thing, we hear, weakness is a great thing.

While Dyer deploys his procrastinating ne’er-do-nothing narrative persona for comic effect, he is, in fact, near-prolific. He’s written on World War I, photography, jazz, D.H. Lawrence, and more travel destinations than you care to shake a Frommers at. In pedagogical circles, we call this transferable knowledge. Having worked his way thoughtfully through the issues of history, still images, sound/music, words, and places, Dyer is, despite having little experience as a Film Critic proper, the ideal man for writing about film, especially a film like Stalker, which combines all these concerns into one aesthetic artifact around which Dyer can riff. While to some a state of ignorance regarding the subject might seem like a weakness, to Dyer it’s a strength. He brings to bear the gifts of a generalist: he sees what insiders can’t, and gathers knowledge from other disciplines to apply to this one. xiv

Žižek: “The Zone is not prohibited because it has certain properties which are ‘too strong’ for our everyday sense of reality, it displays these properties because it is posited as prohibited.”

Dyer’s a master of boundaries, a trickster figure standing at the crossroads of genres and ideas, spouting off anecdotes and quotes and bits of wisdom. Underneath the comedy he’s a spiritual seeker, a journeyer, someone who finds peace at Burning Man and Varanasi and horror in Venice and pop culture. He wants his mind blown and he wants to blow yours. The only good life, says Nadezhda Mandelstam in one of Dyer’s footnotes, “is one in which there is no need for miracles,” but in Dyer’s work, miracles are sought. He reads Tarkovsky as an “earthbound visionary,” and by focusing on Tarkovsky’s vision Dyer is able to channel his own inner guru, peppering Zona with truisms like those I’ve set off here.

That’s the Zone for you: completely weird and completely ordinary.

As we enter the Zone, we enter nonlinear time, a kind of aboriginal dream time anchored in the here and now, Dyer tells us. “In a moment all is immortal.” “All space and time is created by the camera.” There is no past, only “permadepths of the present.” “Everything passing through time returns to eternity.” xv

Sometimes a man doesn’t want to do what a man thinks he wants to do.

This intense focus on time and the handling thereof lead us into beautiful descriptions of the film, in which Dyer pauses to wax lyrical. “The fundamental function of writing for the writer,” according to Sven Birketts in The Art of Time in Memoir, is “to handle and mourn for time lost.” Dyer exhibits an almost lovelorn nostalgia for all the times he’s been moved to tears by Stalker, and this lyric impulse, this desire to elegize, comes through in his descriptions. We hear an “insistent, soporific clack.” A timetable is “rain buckled.” The wind sounds like the “breath of an animal wounded.” We hear the “woody sound of a cuckoo.” Throughout, we’re told, there’s a “disquieting sense of there being an extra pair of eyes,” eyes that might as well be The Ghost of Geoff Dyer’s Past. At one point in Stalker, Writer steps into the frame of an empty landscape shot, suggesting the Zone is always there even when others aren’t, as Stalker is always there, breathing like an animal wounded even when, especially when, Dyer isn’t watching. Embedded in all of Dyer’s joking about not reading or not caring is a desire for a time when he did read or did care, such as toward the end of “Reader’s Block” when he laments the loss of lamplit nights of solitude. In writing Zona, Dyer is writing about his life, from the time in his twenties when he first saw Stalker, back when his idea of cinema could still be blown apart by three hours in the dark of a theatre, up until now, when he finds himself obsessively going over the film again and again, like Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape. xvi

In any magical realm, there is always a deeper recess or chamber of more powerful magic.

At first Dyer is tempted to read symbolism into everything, such as when the wife steals Stalker’s watch in the first scene, making the stealing of time one of the film’s first actions. He wants to bring out the hidden meaning in Stalker, its hidden compartments. But as we continue, Dyer falls back on Tarkovsky’s belief that this shouldn’t be done, that we should let things be what they are. He begins to view everything as “sites of decayed meaning that may, as a result, have acquired a new and deeper meaning.” This newer and deeper meaning is the feeling that’s invoked by the object, not the meaning behind them. Eventually he’s willing to just let things make sense on their own terms. It’s Hemingway’s response to critics of The Old Man and the Sea: the sharks are just sharks, man. By the end of the book, Dyer’s willing to declare that “everything just is. Or isn’t. But may be. So we’ll just have to leave it at that.”

The Zone is not simply a source of solace… it is a source of torment, a system of traps… to give oneself entirely to the Zone, to trust in it as Stalker does, is not only to risk but to embrace betrayal by the principle from which he draws his life.

Stalker, as Dyer points out, could easily be summarized with one or two sentences. (Just see the first paragraph of this review: it’s long and sloppy but it’s pretty much all there.) Zona, however, is “the opposite of a summary; it’s an amplification and expansion.” Stalker, with all its archetypal characters and places and actions, is the perfect blank-but-full slate off of which to bounce one’s thoughts and biography, and with all its production problems it’s a bewitched little thing that’s perfect for a writer who doesn’t know why he’s writing about it. It has a blessing or a hex about it that draws Dyer in and draws the reader after him.

There’s a risk of diving this deep into a subject, though. In a discussion among Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley and several other intensely intelligent Brits, Critchley describes Blanchot’s two proposed slopes of literature. On one side language is murder: “the human subject comprehends everything by murdering it.” On the other is “a form of art which leaves things to themselves in some way. So I would write a poem about an orange which lets the orange be the orange and would put the reader in the position of letting the orange orange. Letting things thing.” xvii

On the one hand, Zona is murder: the film is so thoroughly dissected as to be dead. Dyer’s the kind of writer who becomes temporarily obsessed with something, writes the hell out of it, then moves on, tired of the previous subject and ready for something new. By writing so deeply about something he loves, he risks destroying his happy place, becoming tired of something that’s been important to him for decades. On the other, Dyer allows Stalker to just be what it is. He lets Stalker Stalker. He worried that writing this book and watching the film over and over would kill it for him, and while reading this book I was concerned about the same. But upon loading the film up online (don’t tell Dyer: he’d be disappointed), I see that what Dyer has done is deepen its mystery by expanding my understanding of it. In that interview with Sullivan, Dyer says the film still holds meaning for him. He’s not tired of watching it even while promoting the book. This is a great testament to Stalker and Zona alike.

Reason #6: As a Guide to Writing

One thing Writer does know is that men were put on earth to create works of art, images of the absolute truth—implicitly, works of art like Stalker.

I like Dyer’s writing. And as soon as I volunteered to review it I began to hate it. xviii

It’s not too hard to find something annoying. Trends in Zona eventually bloat into an obnoxious state of excess, such as when Dyer starts declaring things the best ever, joking that the Lumière Brothers may have invented cinema just so the world could one day produce Stalker. It’s like Dyer has fallen victim to the tendency I mentioned earlier: finding something meaningful just because you’ve spent so much time on it. Stalker has to be the best, otherwise why did he write about it? And there are moments when Dyer overreaches, forgetting to just let Stalker Stalker, such as when he describes a passage from William Langewiesche’s American Ground about “The Unbuilding of the World Trade Center” after 9/11 as also serving to describe a scene in Stalker, mistaking a random mental link for something meaningful enough to print. Meaning-seeking gone rampant. Associative leaps gone wrong. At another point, Dyer describes water as “a thousand small explosions of glitter,” which made me want to vomit a few explosions of my own. And when Dyer stops to say that in his middle age he no longer has the stamina to watch a three hour film willy-nilly like he did in his twenties, he doesn’t stop to ask himself if this is because he’s older or because he’s been affected by the short-attention span culture he claims to hate. Maybe the reason he writes so freely and associatively is not only that he’s deeply intelligent, but also deeply distractible. xix

So I set out on an early draft of a short review with the intent of mocking him just because no one else seems to do so. But that’s bad motivation, and the strange thing is that only a few of these moments actually bothered me while reading the text, and many of them I’m only articulating in retrospect as I write. Otherwise I was pretty much willing to follow Dyer wherever he went. Dyer writes in the manner he describes in his introduction to Baudrillard’s America:

There is a style of writing that so clearly flaunts and delights in its lack of moderation that readers, rather than objecting to or stalling over a particular excess or silliness, willingly go with the flow of slipstream exaggerations, heat-ripple visions and switchback revelations.

Sure Dyer’s an asshole sometimes, but most of us are, and you’ll follow this one wherever it goes. If you’re a little annoyed from time to time, so what? At least you’re engaged. xx

Dyer originally planned to separate the book into 142 sections, one for each of Stalker’s shots, but he kept losing track of where the shots changed. He writes that “this forgetting or not noticing is an authentic and integral part of watching any film—and this book is an account of watchings, remembering, misremembering, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissecting.” As such, the footnotes are easily navigable, almost always coming at the end of a paragraph, for instance, serving as continuations or asides, not interruptions. If a footnote goes over into the next page, the next page is a footnote only, so you can return to where you were in the main text when you’re through with it. And while asides and footnotes could risk seeming random and distracting, Dyer’s tend to come at natural points in the narration of the film. While Writer is musing on writing, for example, Dyer breaks off to talk about his own work. When Writer’s rant ends, so does Dyer’s. And when Stalker breaks to go over to the next shooting, Dyer breaks into part two of his book and riffs on the issue with breaks as a whole. As Stalker moves into a less linear and more “loose and associative” mode, as Dyer describes it, so does Zona, as more and more autobiography and asides step into the main text as well as the footnotes. As Dyer says to Sullivan, the footnotes spread like ivy, growing till they almost threaten the main text. There’s no absolute system to determine when something will be a footnote versus when it gets put into the main text, though, so none of this becomes so rote as to be predictable and therefore lame.

If you’re aiming to write about your own obsessions, you could do worse than to read Dyer for how to pull it off spiritually and structurally. Not to say that everyone should write like Dyer. If that were the case, we’d get bored and immediately want something else. I’m not even saying that we should all skip from subject to subject like Dyer. That we should all be foxes, not hedgehogs. That would only make us want writers who focused on only one obsession their whole lives again. (And then if everyone did that we’d want writers like Dyer again.) As Dyer writes while discussing Andre Zvyagintsev’s heavily Tarkovsky-influenced work: “[Tarkovsky] is a hard and grueling taskmaster. If you want to follow his example you have also to kill him off.” If you want to write as well as Dyer, you might also have to kill Dyer off, set his books aside and write your own way. xxi

Reason #7: As a Guide to the Writer’s Life

While describing a shot where Stalker and Writer stare straight at the camera sequentially, and thus straight at each other, Dyer says that “the effect is to implicate us in the reciprocity of their gaze.” This could ultimately be the appeal of Dyer’s work as well: it implicates us, draws us into the possibility of being like him. When Dyer talks about getting sacked and becoming a writer, we want to be sacked and become a writer. When Dyer talks of living on the dole in “On the Rooftop,” we want to live on the dole. xxii And when he praises the writer’s ability to dither, to sit around in his cardigan and do whatever he wants, we want to put on that cardigan and make ourselves some tea and have a good sit.

It’s all one big how-to on “the writer’s life.” Not in a how-to-pitch and how-to-get-the-scoop kind of way, but in a how-the-writer’s-brain-functions and what-the-writer’s-life-can-be-like kind of way. He shows us how good it could be. Yes, he theorizes that Writer’s deepest wish might be “more sales than Wilbur Smith, more critical acclaim than Sebald, more chicks than Bukowski,” and Dyer does confess to some of these fantasies as well, but at the core is the desire simply to write. To write until we know what the point of what we’re writing is, to find “Nabokov’s throb.” xxiii

Dyer quotes Updike as calling America a “conspiracy to make people happy.” Dyer’s career is a conspiracy to make us want to loaf & write, write & loaf. His oeuvre is a glossy Ralph Lauren ad, all cardigans and ink quills and rustically antiqued desks. We buy in. Dyer gets to publish another book. We buy in again. xxiv

i The Camus quote is also one of the epigraphs to Zona, the other being “I watched the film until the film itself became a kind of blindness,” from G.C. Waldrep’s “D.W. Griffith at Gettysburg.” No Dyer book is complete without a healthy helping of epigraphs that establish a base coat of serious meaningfulness under anything that follows. Out of Sheer Rage begins with “Endless explanations of irrelevancies, and none whatever of things indispensible to the subject,” a quote by Gustave Flaubert on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and “It must all be considered as though spoken by a character in a novel,” from Roland Barthes, two more quotes which illuminate Dyer’s approach as well as anything. The Dyer quote is my own selection. What I find curious is that, given the Camus epigraph, why don’t more people talk of Dyer’s own work lightly?

ii Dyer’s fictional and nonfictional personas are often supposed to be doing something they’re not: Out of Sheer Rage starts with a lengthy bit of indecisive waffling and the first half of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi features a protagonist who is supposed to be interviewing an artist at the Biennale but instead spends his time seeking out the best parties. They’re first or second cousins of the dandy-dabbler who just can’t be bothered to get off the couch, a comic tradition in French (see all Philippe-Touissant), Russian (Goncharov’s Oblomov), and other literatures, protagonists in fiction where, as Mark O’Connell put it in “On Not Going Out of the House“, “nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere.” Although much of Dyer’s work falls under the umbrella of travel writing, somehow O’Connell’s phrase still applies.

iii You have to wonder if this excitement for research showing fiction’s empathetic effects is related to creative writing programs’ need to justify their existence to administrators. My own first encounter with Dyer’s work came while I was on the lam from graduate school. My school had an exchange program set up with NUI Galway as part of its Irish Studies curriculum. The MFAs at the school have made an art out of carving out time to write and do work while appearing to do neither. Fortunately for us, MAs and PhDs are driven people with demanding course schedules and they just don’t usually have the time to get away for a semester. We did. I was in Galway with three other students, two poets and one actual Irish Studies PhD, the last group to get to go, as the program was cancelled the next year (they’re always trying to catch us in our wily MFA ways). I lived with two Irish third levels and spent my days reading and writing whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted, and most of my weeknights drunk. On weekends my flatmates returned to nearby Ennis to work or be with family and I sat around and moped, or went to use the wi-fi in the hostel and waited to befriend some backpackers in need of a guide to the bars. While there I read Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi as part of an independent study on the writers and poets coming to that year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Thus my first experience with Dyer was drenched in the luxury of free time, and carried about it a feeling that I was getting away with something. It helped that the degree I was pursuing was in fiction and thus the majority of my time back in Illinois was spent writing and critiquing short stories out of one part love for the form and one part obligation to our workshop format. If I were to turn in something like Dyer’s work to my workshop, they would spend two thirds of my workshop time discussing the question of fiction vs nonfiction, as anything not properly sectioned off by genre left us stranded in the abstract, far removed from what was on the page. Thus Dyer’s nonfictional style in Jeff felt taboo, forbidden.

iv It would be interesting to count the number of quotes and references in Zonaand consider the number in comparison to Dyer’s other books. While this review was blooming outward and out of my control, I began to do just that, creating a comprehensive series of links, clips, and photos to serve as an online complement. I would provide the links that the text seemed to demand, so the reader could better follow along. This was tedious work, however, and probably unnecessary and possibly even hurtful to the text, as part of its power lies in its liquidity. Still, it seems Dyer has taken his referencing and quoting to a whole other level in Zona. My list had reached forty six references to other films, books, and photographs in maybe fifty to seventy five pages before I quit. The maze of references and quotes is so thick it makes it hard to do anything but declare Dyer brilliant.

v What would DFW have had to say in response, had he been alive to read this smack-down? (Provided Dyer would have been uncouth enough to say it if Wallace was still alive, which seems unlikely.) Would Wallace have acknowledged that his own style had become shtick and he doubted himself too? Or would he have called Dyer an asshole but read him anyway, like he did in his review of Updike’s Toward the End of Time?

vi Sort of a cheap shot against modern life and an entire genre of movies. Oh-boo-hoo-hoo, life is so very hard with the instant messages I get via the magical machine in my pocket and oh boo-hoo-hoo, oh why do they make so very many romantic comedies. Unless we’re talking about Cambodia, the worst thing in life I have to deal with is deciding which sandwich to eat next.

vii If I heard someone say “great cinema must be projected” at a pub I’d be overcome with the urge to smack him silly like I would a scotch connoisseur ruminating over hints of cedar and gunsmoke. On the page it doesn’t seem as obnoxious. This might be some bias inherent in books: it’s ok to sound hyper-intelligent in print, but it’s punchable in person. Or maybe that bias is only my own. As for me, I watched Stalker on my television, probably right after The Daily Show and just before some Pornhub, though I can’t remember. My TV turns itself on every night at midnight. I know this must be the result of some alarm setting that I can’t correct without the long-lost remote, but it feels malignant at times. Come to me, Shawn, come back to the Zone. If my life were a Japanese horror flick, Dyer’s face would come on screen and pass judgment on me: Really, Shawn, those sandals again? You’re reading Sade? And now Vonnegut? What are you, a naughty preteen? You find Wes Anderson movies enjoyable? You must also like marshmallow fluff. You know, if you ate less Dairy Queen you could rid yourself of that semi-truck tire around your midriff.

viii Not for Dyer those erudite studies of pop culture. It’s cultural touchstones only. “Places of uncompromised and unblemished value,” as he describes the Zone. For someone regarded as being on the cutting edge of nonfiction prose possibilities, he plays it surprisingly safe with his choice of subjects.

ix I catalog Dyer’s dismissals and praises a bit mockingly, obviously, but I’m a little envious of his chutzpah. “Man was put on this earth to judge,” Stalker says. I’d like to judge. There just doesn’t seem to be a forum or a manner in which I can do so without feeling like an asshole. What’s the point of posting something to Twitter or Facebook and saying you hate it? So you look like someone with taste? So someone who also hates it will like your post or retweet your tweet? To get embroiled in a flame war in the comments section? To discourage people from liking something? People aren’t going to stop liking it just because you said it sucked. All you’re doing is giving it more attention and reaffirming their liking of it. The last time I posted about really hating something, it was to complain about Gotye being on SNL to play the internet-hit and baa-baa-black-sheep-remake “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Noone really commented except to say they also hated it, but then one night my girlfriend brought it up while we were having dinner. She liked the Gotye song. She was annoyed that I’d put it down online. I wouldn’t have been so quick to apologize had I felt I could trust my judgment, but I didn’t. It was more likely that I disliked the song just because it was popular. Dyer doesn’t seem like he would have any problem with this. He seems pretty gleeful in his put-downs and confident of his praises. Though even Dyer’s praise sounds a bit condescending at times, as if he’s stooping to lift up something far below him, such as when he claimed (in the interview I did with him and Elif Batuman at Cúirt) that all the most interesting things in contemporary fiction are coming from America, and how it’s all so tripping mad. It makes sense, then, that he would like and write an introduction to Baudrillard’s America, which is itself chock-full of that French tradition of condescending praise about the idiotic mass culture of America being the world’s sublime future.

x At our interview, Dyer was much more of a dick. This isn’t to say I didn’t like him, and it’s dangerous to allow your sense of a person to begin drifting into their work anyway. I’d set the interview up with Batuman via a friend, and she managed to get Dyer to agree to sit in. We went back to the hotel where all the festival guests were staying and sat down at the back of the bar. Dyer said we had fifteen minutes and I got twenty onto my voice recorder before he realized how long we’d gone and asked for one more question. He either limited this because he knew anything more than that wasn’t going to be interesting, or because he didn’t like me, or because he wanted a nap, or because he has, as he describes in Zona, an aversion to personal reverence. He writes that “One of the things I thought I would love as a writer, one of the perks of the job, would be having people come up to me to say how much they loved my books. And I do like it. For about ten seconds. After that I am desperate for the conversation to move on to any other topic.” I understand that he’s writing of a general conglomerate person/idea here, but I still felt slightly implicated. He just wanted to get rid of me. Any time I’d ask a question, he’d manage to turn it into a general point. When I asked about his two part structure for Jeff and its possible relation to Augustine’s Confessions, he commented that he liked “the point, but it seems to me there’s almost an invariable rule at work here. Whenever somebody says to you ‘A-ha! Behind your book was this book,’ it’s always the case that you’ve not read it, even though that seems a peculiarly close fit.” When I asked him if he’d written any short stories, he said “I have written stories, it’s just that people haven’t tended to realize they were stories.” When I asked him if he’d taken any creative courses, he said “Oh, no, I studied literature. That’s the, you know, ‘How did you become a writer?’ question. The answer is by being a reader.” I hadn’t asked how he became a writer, just if he took any courses in creative writing, but inherent in most of his answers to my questions was a fuck you, you dimwit. At the same time, I had trouble making time for Batuman to talk as Dyer went on and on, and at several points Batuman had to step in and ask a follow-up to try to get Dyer to be less flippant. When they walked away from the table, he put his arm on her upper back in a brotherly way, as if to lead her away from the barbaric young American.

xi Another example of his insider humor comes when he discusses “T.S. Eliot’s overquoted lines about the end of all exploring, how we end where we begin but know the place for the first time.” If you’re familiar with these lines from “Little Gidding” (“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”) then you’ll get it. If not, you won’t. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s ambiguously composed “The Road Not Taken” that is often quoted as inspiration, when in fact it’s more of a commentary on people’s retrospectively-rationalizing and self-mythologizing memory. For instance, I could say that by choosing to leave New York and pursue an MFA, and then deciding not to pursue teaching composition and instead moving abroad to teach TESOL and travel, I am “taking the road less traveled,” but in fact I would only be saying it’s that way to make myself feel like an adventurer. In fact, nothing I’ve done so far hasn’t been done before. My life is a compilation of stereotypes: English major goes to New York to work in publishing; twenty-something leaves his work to do a grad degree; American teaches English in Korea. All these scenarios have been run before.

xii Dyer likes this “I don’t read” or “I don’t finish things that I read if I don’t feel like it” joke quite a bit, having deployed it in at least seven different contexts. He’s also redefined “reading” to apply to anything, so even when he’s not holding a book he’s still enriching himself culturally. You can analyze or “close read” a picture, movie, or song. Or, as the postgraph to Zona from David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel goes: “Or was it possibly nothing more than a fundamentally recognizable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred? Nothing more than a read?” (This is just getting greedy: not enough to have two epigraphs; now we get one after the text too.) I can understand the desire to redefine reading. I usually feel like I should be reading but also that my friends’ and my motivations for doing so seem questionable. I can’t tell if we’re picking something up because it’s good and we want to, or because it’s gotten a lot of hype and we’ve defined ourselves publicly as writers and readers and so we must read the latest and most endorsed.

xiii My own experience of reading Zona was much more convoluted and Dyer-ish. He mentioned it during our interview, but once it ran and I was finished feeling special for having gotten to sit down with the two of them, I forgot about it. I didn’t think about it again until I picked up an issue of The Paris Review featuring an interview with Nicholson Baker, an essay by Lydia Davis, and an excerpt from Zona, a trifecta that put into effect the three strikes rule and made me buy the issue. I read that excerpt religiously while making notes for techniques to steal borrow make use of in my own essay about the spoken word album Listening to Richard Brautigan. Later when Brian Hurley here at Fiction Advocate wrote asking if there were any books I wanted to review, I asked for an advanced copy of Zona, eager to read more. Hurley requested a galley on January 10th and the book was in my hands by January 13th with all the due promptness of a book in mid publicity-push. Pantheon’s galley, consisting of a plastic sheet covering a still from the movie of Stalker’s daughter reading a book, held together by black plastic binding and lacking any external publication info or blurbs, struck me as looking like someone’s fifth grade science report. This did not help my sense that I’d just signed up for work. Nonetheless, I sat down to read.

The first bit was the portion I’d read in the Paris Review excerpt, a description of Stalker’s opening shot: “An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against—there are no stools—while you stand and drink.” At the words “bar” and “single” and “drink” I found myself parched. This was before I met the aforementioned girlfriend. I wanted a beer so I got a beer. I returned that night to make a drunken attempt at reading more only to promptly fall asleep somewhere around the third sentence: “We are, in other words, already in a realm of universal truth.” (Another good reason to read Dyer: to fall asleep. Who doesn’t love falling asleep with a book on your chest with the light and your glasses still on? I’ve been doing it since I was little.) The book then entered a pattern of rotation between falling off the edge of the bed at night and getting kicked under it in the morning until I moved it to a stack of other books I was supposed to review, where it occasionally surfaced on top of the stack to be browsed through before being put back on the bottom.

With no particular deadline and no financial reward forthcoming, I returned to work on my thesis, teaching, and various other projects, such as drinking, cavorting merrily, and wooing a new girlfriend. From time to time I attempted to read another Dyer book in preparation for when I would read Zona and write my review, feeling that I needed to read more of him before weighing in. I put Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage in my water closet with the best of intentions of reading it while raging on the toilet, but instead repeatedly opted for something faster like W.W. Norton’s Sudden Latino Fiction or lighter like McSweeney’s Mammoth Book of Lists.

Eventually I took Zona with me to Chicago for AWP 2012 only to instead opt for reading portions of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition on my Kindle while skipping panels to read and nap in my hotel room, savoring with particular irony the act of lying down to read Dyer’s essay on staying in hotels, “Sex and Hotels”, while my roommates for the weekend were all out responsibly schmoozing. “Hotels are synonymous with sex,” I read, and chuckled, because instead of going out for drinks and attempting to find some hot young literata   to bed, I was napping and going to bed by eleven. I left AWP dedicated to finishing a draft of the review and reread the first half of Zona on the train ride back, feeling that I had to start at the beginning to get it cued up in my mind. I fell asleep almost exactly at the point where I’d previously left off.

Upon return to Carbondale I had a thesis to edit, grades to turn in, graduation to experience, and friends to say goodbye to. There were a lot of other things to do. Now it’s summer and no one is in town and I broke up with my girlfriend for no particular reason except I’m leaving the country soon and my best friend has moved away and so there is nothing better to do but read the second half of this book, a book which Dyer says he wrote because he had nothing better to do.

In short, what happened was I received the galley on January 13th, 2012 but never got around to exerting the willpower necessary to finish the book until just last night, May 26th. I am now drafting up my review on May 27th, and assume I won’t finish it and it won’t go up until June, making this review five months in the coming, and maybe four months after the pub date. (Update: it’s now the beginning of September and I’m only just now putting the last editorial touches on this beast, making me more like nine months late.) In the meantime, it has been reviewed positively nearly everywhere (see the listing on the Amazon page, including James Wood’s rhapsodic passage on the unique nature of each Dyer book) and has exited the publicity mill on the other end, waiting for a paperback reprint which, according to this other Amazon page, is forthcoming from Vintage in 2035. I am therefore unfashionably late for the release party and unfashionably early for the paperback. I comfort myself with the smug knowledge that any prompt review of a Dyer book is not in the proper spirit of Dyer.

xiv I’m fairly certain—let’s say 80%, for giggles—that all these thoughts are ones I had while reading and thinking about Zonaon my own. But I’m disturbed by how close they are to thoughts expressed by Dyer. For instance, in “My Life as a Gate Crasher,” he discusses his career as a generalist and expresses many of these same sentiments. In his intro to Otherwise he discusses his desire to showcase his variability in one volume. You could crack your knuckles and splay your fingers all day while trying to think of a way to describe Dyer’s writing better than he already has. It might be that the best one can do is rephrase things Dyer has already said and try to convince yourself they’re your own thoughts. Although, even then, it’s not like those thoughts haven’t been had before. In the introduction to his anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate lines out recurrent elements he’s noticed in the form, including the conversational element, honesty and confession versus privacy, contrariety, egotism, cheek, and the idler figure. Most of the things I’ve pointed out about Dyer aren’t exclusive to him. They’re inherent in the genre. Essentially Zona is a personal essay masquerading as film summary and analysis.

xv “I confess I do not believe in time”, Nabokov wrote in Speak, Memory, a quote which I confess I found while Googling “Nabokov on Procrastination” because I’d read that Nabokov was a great procrastinator. It is a quote which in fact has nothing to do with procrastination and is instead about the handling of time in writing. “I like to fold my magic carpet,” Nabokov continues, “after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” I started this endnote with the hope of defending my procrastination and instead found myself with a way of describing the means by which Dyer handles time: pausing the movie—sorry, film—when he wants to quote other writers or espouse ideas of his own or go on an autobiographical aside. He has time under control. He folds it and kneads it as necessary. I don’t like time as it’s forced on us: clocking in at work, making appointments, looking at your phone, having to find and start a new job now that I’m done with my MFA, having to exit the life of the writer and reenter the life of the worker. I read Dyer’s accounts with a longing for his freedom. I wish I had time under my control, but I think it’s got me.

xvi Advice is autobiographical. Criticism is autobiographical. When you start down this lane, it’s hard to imagine what isn’t autobiographical, how hard it must be to get outside your head. Maybe this is OK. Maybe it’s beautiful that we’re all stuck in our own heads and can only share with each other our subjective impressions. After all, the only reason this review is getting so insanely long is because I’ve just finished my MFA and am wondering why I decided to do it and why I’ve decided to go teach abroad next.  These sorts of transition times always make me ask myself again why I want to write. So many MFA graduates stop doing so soon after graduating. What’s going to keep me going? Have I killed my love of writing by earning an MFA? It doesn’t seem like I have, thankfully, but still I find myself in a lyric mood, feeling a bit lost, losing hours on Google Street view looking at old addresses and on Facebook perusing ex’s profiles. Soundtrack courtesy Explosions in the Sky.

xvii You could extrapolate some good life advice from this. I haven’t. When I returned to Carbondale, Illinois, from Galway, I was even more unhappy than when I moved there from New York originally. I had been on a responsibility-free cloud, able to read and write as I wanted, living in an absolutely gorgeous city on the west coast of Europe. I was a fifteen-minute walk from a stroll on the beach and a quick bus ride from the Cliffs of Moher. Now I was back in Carbondale. There’s beauty here, but you have to know where to find it, and you have to be very open-minded. I took my letdown out on my classmates, dismissing stories and comments offhand in workshop. It was immature to do, but I was pissed to be back at the very program that was nice enough to send me there,  back in a setting which I now thought was barely related to the actual work of writing. We spent our time teaching, grading essays, critiquing stories in an unnatural fashion, and talking about our rejections, and none of it really mattered. What mattered was reading and writing (and living, in a distant third). Of course, there were times when I was miserable in Ireland, like when I first got there and the sun was only up for seven hours a day and I slept through five of them and I missed my friends. And there were times when I hated New York for the opposite reason that I had so many friends I didn’t have time to slow down and be with myself. I too often hate wherever I am and love wherever I’m not. Rather than just letting the setting set, “being in the moment,” I hate it. And here I am, picking apart the act of writing a simple review and a decision to move to Korea I’ve already made and the “life of the writer,” which I have no right to do, considering I’ve only published a handful of stories and articles. I’m overthinking the thing before I’ve done the thing. If there are three sides to a subject: the subject itself, the analysis of the subject after the fact, and thinking about the subject before experiencing the subject, I am stuck squarely in the last.

xviii This often happens when I review something, so much so that I have to consciously fight against it. While discussing Deering’s Samuel Ferguson, Poet and Antiquarian in his lectures To Ireland, I, Paul Muldoon describes Deering as “the classic example of a thesis writer who tires of his subject almost as soon as he engages with it.” I’m that kind of guy. Anything I read for review immediately threatens to become stale, an enemy of that which I’d rather be spending time on. I find reams of things to hate in the margins, even though I’ve loved the author’s work in the past. The worst moment usually comes when I feel I’ve figured out the author’s style and every page after that begins to look like self-parody. Lately I’ve had to keep in mind Updike’s 6 rules for reviewing just to keep myself positive or at least analytical, and really try to stop faulting an author for exhibiting their style/voice. By the time I’ve written and published the review, it’s become positive or at least objective, partially by my own effort and partially by the external force of a word count that prevents me from giving time to faults. The easy answer would be to stop reviewing, but I like doing so, perversely, and it usually helps me work out an issue in my own writing. It also doesn’t require a degree in psychology to see that my annoyance with others comes in part from an annoyance with my own already noticeable tics, so finding something to praise in someone else’s work is in part finding something to praise in my own. I fear becoming like the main character in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”: completely dead to the world via nasty reviewing.

xix In most cases, though, Dyer preempts   your arguments. By already having the same doubts you do as a reader, he heads you off at the critical pass, so the book forms a closed system which can’t be critiqued. Instead everyone surrenders their praise. In “When Bad is Good,” Richard B. Woodward describes a certain kind of contemporary art as being “made in a riotous spirit of bad taste,” which “not only undermines academic notions of correctness and stability, but also renders itself virtually impervious to criticism, arming itself against attack from realists, modernists, Minimalists, and Post-Minimalists alike by gleefully confessing to its own intentionally questionable quality.” For instance, later in the book Dyer admits that he’s guilty of the very thing he’s accusing the director Andrei Zvyaginstev of in his films: “being so absorbed by Stalker that I can see nothing but Tarkovsky, so steeped in his view of the world that I mistake it for the world itself.” By doing this he makes anyone critiquing him run a high risk of sounding like a dullard. All Dyer is doing is analyzing a film and tracking his chaotic set of associations with it, and it’s difficult to fault a guy for the foibles of his mind. You could say that he’s guilty for exhibiting them to others, like you could say someone describing the dream they had last night to you is a dick, but then you’re just scolding them for doing what they set out to do.

xx Still a dangerous defense. Sure, this might be an admirable quality in a writer or a magician, but this sounds suspiciously like a politician throwing up a smoke screen of spurious facts and soundbites. You’re encouraging people to just sit back and take it.

xxi Or not. This could just be a bullshit idea and bullshit advice. Blake Butler makes a good case for all advice being bad advice anyway, over at his column for Vice. Still, I want it. I want guidance. It’s like asthma when you’re young: one hopes it goes away as one ages. It does seem to have gotten weaker lately. But maybe it sticks around. Who knows? I do know that what I’m attempting to do, to pass through Dyer’s style to arrive at my own, is beginning to seem like a bad idea. How can I push myself to something even more profound and blended? Dyer’s style simply is what it is. Maybe I should just strip myself of this attempt at hyper-active intelligence and go straight for the matter itself, cycle back to a plainer style. Or maybe, or most likely, I should just stop thinking about this and go to Korea and write because I like to do so and not worry about it. Actually, definitely that.

xxii I sincerely wish there was some way to do that here in the States. You could live on unemployment for awhile, I guess, but I have a bad tendency to quit jobs voluntarily rather than be fired. You could live on a trust fund, but I’m thankfully free of that. Apply for fellowships? Move in with my parents? The first is a long shot for a smutty and jokey writer like me, and the second would be too humiliating. Start an organic farm and live off the land? Write erotica and sell it as ebooks? Move to a cabin in the woods and learn to hunt and eat wild berries? But I have credit cards and student loans to pay off, accrued from a decade of living above my means. I could cash out my tiny IRA and hide my books, my only assets, and declare bankruptcy, but the loans would remain. The feds would find me wherever I went, whatever I did. I wouldn’t be able to hold them off for long.

xxiii Since Dyer has managed the unthinkable and got a book-length summary of a film published, he says he now holds new hopes: that it sells well and that he gets a reward. The latter is highly possible. The former is highly unlikely. But I know the feeling. There’s a wee troll in a dark narcissistic corner of my brain. He rambles about salaries and freelance checks and press and publications and awards and attention. He wants to gobble everything up. He’s yelling at me to keep working on this review, even though no one will likely read all of it. He wants to gobble you up. He delusionally believes someone will read this and it might lead to more paying work with New York publications, shorter and more ruly pieces, like my work for the Fiction Writers Review sometimes leads to paid articles, reviews, and interviews within the MFA world. That little troll helps keep me going. Otherwise all I would have is the monkish idea of a higher calling, which is hard to embrace unironically, or else I really am wasting my time, which seems too cynical a conclusion.

xxiv Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go post this to Facebook, Google +, and Twitter along with random excerpts and see if anyone likes, plus ones, or retweets it, and set up a Google alert to see if it gets linked to. I’m now in Korea and I’m too fat and hairy for the women here and my grandmother has passed away and I can’t make it home for the funeral. It seems as though I’ve chosen writing over life, or writing as life. The troll hungers.

Shawn Andrew Mitchell


  1. […] Fiction Advocate has just published my girthy review-essay of Geoff Dyer’s Zona. I set out to write a short review and something went horribly wrong (or right?), and after three or nine months the result is GIFs, memes, put-downs, praises, and loads of self-doubt. It’s available online or in EPUB or MOBI formats. Go here to read. […]

  2. […] decade. The Mötley Crüe of contributors includes Fiction Advocate favorites Lindsay Hunter and Shawn Andrew Mitchell, along with Roxane Gay, Chip Cheek, Steve Himmer, and a bunch of people who absolutely […]

  3. […] commissioned 106 very short stories from established writers (and Fiction Advocate favorites) like Geoff Dyer, Mohsin Hamid, Aleksandar Hemon, and Jess Walter. Their assignment? Write a story whose title is […]

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