He entitled that essay “The Zone,” referring to the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker, a film he then explored at length in his new Zona: A Book About a Film About a Room. But in many ways he had never stopped exploring it, whether he was writing about jazz, film, photography, war or his own imagined worlds. Indeed, one might describe Dyer’s entire life’s project—a word he prefers to the more prosaic “career”—as an ongoing quest for the Zone, with all its beauty and terror.
Sheerly Avni: What is it about your experiences at Burning Man that resonated so deeply with your experience of watching Stalker?
Geoff Dyer: In Stalker, The Zone is a place where your deepest wishes can come true. And even now that I don’t go to Burning Man anymore, I do look at it fondly as a place where my deepest wishes came true.
It was always one of my big quarrels with my good friend David Thomson. He always claimed he really liked
Nevada and the Black Rock Desert, but he was so insistent that the desert is infinitely better when all the crazy people aren’t messing it up.
Avni: Quarreling with David Thomson is one of your favorite pastimes. But, in fact, when asked to name your five favorite film books by Sight & Sound, you simply chose all five editions of Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Dyer: The great thing about the Biographical Dictionary of Film is that you read it, and the opinions and judgments expressed there so outrage one that one is in constant disagreement. I suppose we just continue that into the world of real life.
Avni: So what exactly is The Zone?
Dyer: The Zone is this place of complete absorption in something, and it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s an actual place in the world—it can be a lightning field or the cemeteries of the Somme—or it can be that complete absorption in a work of art.
One of the characteristics of that experience and, of course in the Tarkovsky film, is that there’s no sense of time, none of that irritable wondering, “How long is this gonna last?” or, “What’s going on elsewhere?” It is giving over of yourself to either the place, the experience or the artwork. And that’s what I’m after, in my life and in my writing. To use that slightly clichéd term, I’m after “peak experiences.”
Avni: How did this quest inform your film selections?
Dyer: (laughs) It doesn’t really, except insofar as these are all films in which I can completely lose myself and be transported to another place. Even Unrelated, which depicts a social milieu that I’m not unfamiliar with, still takes me to a different level and apprehension of the world.
Avni: You also chose films by Werner Herzog, an artist with whom you seem to have much in common, starting with the ability to shift easily from fiction to nonfiction.
Dyer: For him, all his films are just films, and he doesn’t make a distinction between the narrative features and documentaries. And in my own work, I’m absolutely at one with Herzog on that.
Avni: And also on a broad range of interests. You’ve written extensively on photography, film and jazz. You’ve also become fascinated with Indian classical music.
Dyer: This particular thing that I love so much about Indian classical music is that it’s got, on the one hand, such rigid structures. But at the same time, it’s not written down. It’s got this incredible scope for improvisation, which means being in the Zone, both for the players and for the people listening to it, and especially because of the incredible extended duration of that kind of music.
Avni: And the price a musician pays to enter that state must be years and years of practice.
Dyer: You are only allowed the freedom of improvising once you’ve completely learned the structures. The rhythm and the craft then become second nature. As a listener, the music rewards a particular kind of concentration. If you’re not absolutely locked into it, then it’s just a load of jangly stuff going on. But if you are completely locked in, then you really are in that perfect space. That’s the kind of music for me that most exemplifies that tranced-out state.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based writer.
(b. Cheltenham, England, 1958) Dyer is the author of nine books. His awards include:
Somerset Maugham Prize, for But Beautiful (2009)
National Book Critics Circle Award (finalist), for Out of Sheer Rage (2009)
W. H. Smith Best Travel Book Award, for Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2004)
ICP Infinity Award for Writing on Photography, for The Ongoing Moment (2007)
Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, for Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, (2009)
National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Criticism, for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011)
Lannan Literary Fellowship, 2003
Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, 2005
E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2006
GQ Writer of the Year Award, 2009
Other books include Ways of Telling (1998), Paris Trance (2010), Working the Room (2010) and The Missing of the Somme (2011).