What if you knew of a place where all of your wishes could come true, a secret zone created by an alien visitation or a meteorite where "pretty much anything can happen, even if that anything is nothing"? Such is the premise of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, "Stalker," and the inspiration for Geoff Dyer's remarkable book-length meditation on this film.
Dyer admits that he was "bored and unmoved" by "Stalker" when he saw it 30 years ago. Yet the film's cryptic plot, its false leads and mind-numbing shots of bogs, puddles and swaying trees stayed with Dyer and he watched it again -- and again and again. In the film, Stalker (the protagonist's only name) and his two companions, Writer and Professor, journey through industrial wasteland and muddy tunnels to reach the Room, a mysterious place in the Zone that you can never return from, where your innermost wish will be granted. What is this -- a post-Armageddon shelter from the storm? An inverse Gulag?
Tarkovsky denied any symbolic meanings: "The zone is the zone, it's life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through." So, for Dyer, "even if you want to give up, you have to keep going; the Zone is nothing if not lifelike."
As "an amplification and expansion" of "Stalker," "Zona," then, offers the reader a shot-by-shot reading, with a sometimes erudite, sometimes zany commentary track. Think Mystery Science Theater 3000 if Crow and Tom Servo had Ph.D.s in film studies and comparative literature. While Dyer marvels at Tarkovsky's camera work, he also enjoys standing back to take frequent potshots at the wet and miserable travelers: a frustrated "tour operator" and his two whiny clients.
But wait, there's more. "Zona" is liberally dotted with explanatory footnotes (some running four pages) that offer personal asides, film anecdotes, snippets from Camus and British TV. Something from "Stalker" jogs Dyer's memory and we're off on a riff about his childhood love of filmed quicksand scenes or his mother's "deepest wish": an expensive cut of steak from the supermarket. Dyer has a lot to say about wishes, and, yes, about the pleasure of foregoing them. He lays out his own "deepest wish" (not telling!) in a two-page aside -- a frank admission I found startling.
As I read this fascinating, digressive book, I found it hard to recall whether I was above or below the line -- but my sense of disorientation somehow felt right. Dyer's unpredictable and illuminating observations delighted and amused me all the way through.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.