Stalker – a 1979 film by the Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky – is now the subject of a book by the novelist and essay-writer Geoff Dyer. He's long been absorbed by it, and understandably so: this lengthy, eerie, philosophical science fiction (which resists most sci-fi conventions) can take a strange hold. It's about three men on a journey. Stalker guides Professor and Writer into the mysterious, restricted area of the Zone. Inside, there's a Room, which grants your innermost desire.
Dyer insists that Zona is not a summary but an "amplification and expansion".The book meanders, but its backbone is scene-by-scene analysis; do brush up on the movie first. And although Dyer recognises the grating self-reverence of Tarkovsky, Zona is possibly only for those who already think he's a bit of a genius.
In typical Dyer fashion, Zona is penned with great linguistic flair, in a non-academic, conversational tone. He's not overly respectful, or even that thorough. Slightly oddly, he writes about the characters as if they were real – Stalker does this, Professor feels that. Maybe a third of the book is footnotes, but these are given equal weighting and spacing. Their content is on equal footing too, containing some of the juiciest details of the film's fraught creation, and making wild digressions into all sorts of other texts (a single footnote comfortably loops from The Wrestler to Einstein). They also contain Dyer's most personal reflections – although, as the work progresses, these become as much its thrust as the analysis.
In a book about a room that makes your deepest wish come true, that Dyer's "expansion" should reveal his inner self seems natural. It turns Zona from film criticism into a stranger, more amusing study. He veers into territory that seems over-exposing – his greatest regret is never having a threesome? – but even this personal revelation is light-heartedly, then more theoretically, prodded. And the section on why their journey is like the journey of writing a book is both intellectually neat and rather touching.
And why shouldn't it become personal? We all apply questions raised in art to ourselves – in this desire, Dyer sanctions the reader's urge to delve into their own Room. It takes you deeper into the questions and doubts raised in the film, and the book, enriching both. He's a bit of a Stalker himself, when it comes to it – and a more entertaining, exuberant guide to tricky Russian cinema I can't imagine.
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