Book Review: Zona

By John Gardner

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Zona by Geoff Dyer
Text Publishing $30

Book cover of Zona. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Zona. Photo / Supplied

The sales pitch to the literary agent or publisher for this book must have been entertaining. "I want to write a book that is a sort of summary of a wilfully ambiguous science fiction movie made by a Russian director more than 30 years ago."

"Oh, right."

Had it been by anyone other than Geoff Dyer, whose novels and writing on the visual arts have made him something of a cult figure, one can't imagine this work, which springs from his obsession with Andrei Tarkovsky's The Stalker, would have left the starting blocks.

Curiously, it doesn't matter at all if you haven't seen the film, as I haven't, and, to be honest, Dyer's description of it hasn't made me rush out to find the DVD. He concedes the verdict as to its genius is not universal. And yet I enjoyed the book enormously.

Dyer uses the film as a jumping off point for a series of digressions, focused on the impact of art on our lives but straying all over the place from the nature of ageing to the emotional bond you have with a favourite bag.

The footnotes are as long as the main text and, if anything, more engrossing. I found myself making more and more scribbles of agreement or dissent and Dyer is never less than thought-provoking.

His style is of that peculiarly English mixture of high culture, as in trotting out quotes from Barthes, Kundera, Wordsworth and many more, and low blokeyness, in describing his fantasies of a threesome with girlfriends Cindy and Jane.

It can be a little dispiriting - reminiscent of reading Clive James - to realise just how much Dyer has read and see that you haven't but feel you should. But then another piece of shared experience comes along and you feel better. The jokes, and there are plenty, are to be relished and his excursions into the personal are always engaging. His anecdotes about his parents, with his father's fear of the over-priced choc ice and his mother's reluctance to buy steak, which she could actually afford, capture in a few words the attitude of a whole generation.

Dyer is robust in his opinions, as usual welcome when you agree but still amusing when you don't.

A lover of the cinema, Dyer is distressed by the debasement of the screen. "There are more and more things ... from which one has to avert one's ears and eyes. With television I have my strict rule, a rule applying to Jeremy Clarkson, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand, Graham Norton and a whole bunch of others whose names I don't even know; I won't have these people in the house ... A lot of what's being shown on the world's screens - televisions, cinemas, computers - is fit only for morons."

This should not be taken to indicate Dyer is a cultural snob. Observing that the films seen in your teens have a hold on your imagination that later movies can never recapture, he refers fondly to Where Eagles Dare and The Italian Job and, on buying a DVD projector, he notes "so many of the classic films of the past actually turned out to be pretty terrible".

There is a penetratingly accurate description of how time can expand almost infinitely when watching a truly boring art film but with this book I was left wanting more.

And now, maybe, off I go to locate a print of The Stalker.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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