Geoff Dyer says began his latest work in a state of despair. He was supposed to be working on a book about tennis, but it was going nowhere. “I was grinding myself down trying to write it, and failing,” he says. “As a way of bunking off,” he started writing a short newspaper piece about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, and almost immediately he got a tone going he liked. The article turned into a book, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. “Despair,” says Dyer, “is a surprisingly underrated bit of creative leverage.”
It’s leverage Dyer uses often. Out of Sheer Rage is largely about Dyer’s inability to write an academic study of D.H. Lawrence. His novel Paris Trance is about a young man who would rather dally around Paris than write his novel, and the first half of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, follows an art critic ashamed of his failure to write a book. There’s a long tradition of writers writing proud essays about why they write, and then there’s Dyer, who says he became a writer “as a way of not having a career” and excels at depicting the less triumphant parts of the writing process: frustrated writers stuck in ruts, mired in doubt, spinning their wheels. “I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action—not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take—if I was capable of writing about anything else?” he asks in Zona.
Dyer’s slacker persona is belied by his loving summary of the film. He says he wrote the first draft entirely from memory, which was fairly reliable after 30 years of repeated viewings, and whenever a scene sends him ruminating on literature, film, or his personal life—usually, being Dyer, all at once and very funnily—you get a sense of just how important the film has been to him. From his essays on Burning Man to his piece on The Lightning Field, much of Dyer’s work can be seen as variations on the premise of Stalker: a pilgrimage to a place where the rules of the everyday world break down, allowing you to reflect on your life from a slightly skewed perspective.
“I like these special places that have a kind of force field,” says Dyer. “I reckon the film and my receptivity to Zone-like places feed into each other. It was remarkable when I was writing about Burning Man and I discovered the very first trip to the desert was advertised as a Zone trip.” Even when, as for the writer character in Stalker, Dyer finds the places themselves to be not as obviously special as he’d hoped, he finds inspiration in the disappointment, making the pilgrimage self-fulfilling. Dyer takes a similar view of his decision to summarize Stalker: “The exercise is, of course, its own purpose, an end in itself,” he writes in Zona.
Dyer’s work is unified by theme and style, but certainly not by subject. He’s written about jazz, photography, and memorials to World War I. His last book, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, is a collection of essays on subjects as diverse as the search for the perfect doughnut, the work of Ryszard Kapuściński, and sex in fancy hotels.
Pantheon, then, probably wasn’t terribly surprised when Dyer turned in a summary of a Soviet art film instead of a book about tennis. “They knew they weren’t getting a normal kind of writer who follows up a thriller with another thriller,” says Dyer. “I feel almost some sort of moral compulsion to follow up something that has some commercial appeal with something that has next to none,” adding, “I say moral but that may just a way of trying to dignify my instinct for perversity.” Still, he says “it’s hard to underestimate how incredibly generous and bighearted they were about it.”
Dyer says he flits around just to keep himself interested. “I always have been easily bored, even though I feel it’s indefensible to be bored.” Boredom is both a motivation for Dyer and a frequent subject. The protagonist in Paris Trance talks about creating a museum to all the different varieties of boredom. In The Missing of the Somme, Dyer seems to have found just that at the Imperial War Museum, with its archive of war footage depicting battles that all look the same. Jeff in the first half of Jeff in Venice is frantically bored, hopping parties at the Venice Biennale, while the nameless protagonist of the second half experiences a sort of salvation through boredom, a liberation from the cycle of desire and disappointment.
Boredom comes up in Zona, too, both the good and the bad aspects of it. Dyer calls the hyperkinetic pace of the Bourne movies “moron time,” even more boring than the flatly plotted and slowly paced art films. “Those blockbusters are a case where the more things speed up the more boring they become,” he says. Stalker’s long shots, however, pass through boredom to create what Tarkovsky called “a special intensity of attention.”
Dyer says his sensitivity to boredom makes his writing more interesting. “It’s my inability to spend time dealing with the boring stuff that’s freed me to deal with other more unusual things,” he says. “For example with World War I, there was so much stuff that you could get from any number of other books that I just couldn’t be bothered to do, it was so boring for me as a writer. Hopefully that means the reader can go to the Somme book and get all the slightly unusual, rather original ideas.”
Dyer isn’t getting any more patient as he grows older. He says it might be because of the acceleration of the culture, but it’s also because he’s more confident in his own judgment. “I waded through every page of Nostromo when I was 18 and it really bored the pants off me, but I did it because I believed it would improve me,” he says. “I tried to reread it the other day and just gave up. I decided, you know, it’s actually not a great book.”
As for what he’ll do next, Dyer says he’d like to write something about the American military. He says he’s always been fascinated by the U.S. Marine Corps, especially by “the intolerable nature of what they have to do, and the way the intolerableness only enhances people’s desire to do it.” He’s been reading the books coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan—The Looming Tower, The Forever War, Ghost Wars—and he’s just finished a writer in residency program aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, sponsored by Alain de Botton.
‘I waded through every page of “Nostromo” when I was 18 and it really bored the pants off me, but I did it because I believed it would improve me. I tried to reread it the other day and just gave up.’
One thing he won’t be doing is writing more fiction. “I haven’t got much more fiction in me,” he says. “At heart I lack so many of the things that are essential for a sustained career in fiction—like the story thing.” Not that he makes much of a distinction between his fiction and his nonfiction. “Even if I were writing fiction it wouldn’t be a straight down the line Franzenesque novel, which I’m utterly incapable of writing, though I’m perfectly capable of admiring,” he says. “I’m not like Picasso, who can draw like Michelangelo and decided not to. I couldn’t draw like Michelangelo in the first place.”
Nor will he be watching Stalker again anytime soon. He’s set to introduce and discuss the film at screenings around London, but he says he’ll probably duck out for dinner during the film.