Geoff Dyer talks to Peter Lyle

Text by Peter Lyle

Photography by Marzena Pogorzaly

British writer Geoff Dyer's latest book Zona is a typically unclassifiable exploration of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker. Not quite a work of criticism, more a crib guide, synopsis, autobiography, love letter, rage against modern life, but with elements or echoes of all of those. It is a worthy tribute to the film - which is itself equally impossible to pin down. Incomparable epic about a sacred quest? Murky, pretentious sci-fi? Or a plain boring, long-form film about absolutely nothing? It has been described as all of the above. But Dyer is a true believer, and Stalker is unquestionably Out There. Since Dyer's methods and fascinations are all about getting out there or out of it too, Tank's intrepid associate editor trekked to his west London home to discuss trancing out, getting into The Zone, and post-industrial playgrounds.

Peter Lyle A nice way into both Zona or Stalker, for those who haven't seen it, is the way you oppose "Tarkovsky time" to "moron time" in the book. That Stalker is the opposite of the distractedness and constant entertainment and smart-arseness of the modern, media bollocks world. Life throws all this stuff at you now, but Tarkovsky moves at a different pace.
Geoff Dyer Yeah, you really need a good pair of blinkers on to get work done. There was a time when I'd go to my computer and the only thing I did was do my writing on it. Now, of course, I live my whole life on it, it's everything, and our capacity for distraction is so massively increased. So much of modern life. I just want to keep it at bay, really.

PL But I mean, you can't walk in off the street having been at your BB Messenger all day and watch Stalker - you have to adjust your tempo. You have to change your expectations and concentration.
GD No. I think that's what people are doing when they come to these screenings I've been introducing. When I gave this talk on Tuesday night, I told all these kids about the next screening they could see and they're all on their iPads actually booking tickets while they're listening to me. That's fine, that's multitasking. Now, what you can't do with Tarkovsky is watch it with 95 per cent of your concentration; you've got to give yourself entirely to it. The weird thing is, if you give yourself entirely to it, then it's not boring, whereas you've got any attention left over for your BlackBerry or whatever, then it becomes boring.

PL There's something you quote about Tarkovsky in Zona, that he lingers so long that things go beyond the point of "boring" and become fascinating…
GD Yeah, there's that great line of his where he says if you do long takes that would have been quite boring, but increase the length of the shot, it's still boring but it becomes intriguing. Increase it still further and then you get into this whole realm where it transcends the idea of boredom. John Cage said similar stuff. I think it's just a question of giving yourself to an experience and being able to trance out to it. And I've always liked all sorts of stuff like that. Like with music, what have I wanted? I've wanted to trance out. One's capacity to trance out to things, or my capacity to do it, is endangered by all sorts of stuff. A weird paradox is that my capacity to trance out to things, which is in some way synonymous with my capacity to concentrate on things, has actually diminished since the days when I stopped being a really keen pot smoker. Because smoking grass enables you to really lock into something, so the key thing is to maintain the quality control about what you lock into.

PL Is it the same thing? In [Dyer's 2009 novel] Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanesi, there's that little riff about smoking less pot, and [the hero] Jeff Altman talks about one of the problems being is that you get stoned, and then something comes up when you wish you had your wits about you. Sometimes I think pot's great for some things - my friend Tony Coles calls it "monosodium glutamate for the soul" - and an enhancer of things like sex. But that it's a different kind of trance from the Tarkovsky mode, where you have to keep a bit of your brain awake in a less sensuous way for him.
GD I think it's more like the sex thing. As you say, stoned sex is great, when, if, you're locked into it. But it can so easily work the other way - you just wander off on some different thing. I always found that smoking grass was great for watching films, particularly for boring films, because it got rid of that impatient urge. The downside is that, you know, that could also apply to just watching Cheech & Chong on telly late at night. But it's [about] that meditative quality. I was of an age when it was so instilled in us that, quite often, things of a high quality had some touch of maybe boredom or slowness about them. So I reckon now, young people, like the ones in the audience [at the Renoir cinema's Stalker screening] last night - to them either Stalker would seem unbelievably boring, cosmically boring, or it might actually seem even more wonder-inducing because that's changed.

PL The kind of place that The Zone is, remote and huge but with manmade elements, seems to echo a lot of your interests. You wrote about Walter de Maria's desert art for the New Yorker, you've famously written about ruins. Or even the Burning Man festival… Manmade but unearthly…
GD Yeah, yeah, that's where I'm talking about the film, and it relates to the last chapter of Yoga for People who Can't be Bothered, which is called "The Zone". One of the things about The Zone in the film is that you can't really tell how much time has passed there. You try to measure time in terms of space. I've always liked this thing, I've said it many times, where the temporal becomes geographical, where you experience time as space. Goodness, you get that in [Walter de Maria's desert artwork] "The Lightning Field". In other words, I like being in the zone, and that zone is available in all sorts of different ways. The classic Tarkovsky landscape is not this wild romantic nature but where human places, manufacturing or whatever, are being reclaimed by nature. It's a kind of Edgelands, isn't it? There was a time when the railways were seen by people as a horrible imposition on the landscape, and then we came to think of them as part of the landscape and liked to see a choo-choo train in a picture. And now, the next stage, we like to see abandoned railway tracks. We love that.

PL In the book you talk about playing on an abandoned railway track in your childhood and it made me think of growing up in London in the '70s, when there were just dumps, wasteland, everywhere. By the river, London just had all these overgrown non-spaces. I miss them. And this might be a real stretch… but The Great Gatsby's "valley of ashes", Philip K. Dick's grotty sacred places, Walter Benjamin's stuff about discarded stuff being the true place of truth of value in a media-bombarded late-capitalist society. There's something about it being these neglected, forgotten places that gives you these moments of insight…
GD The time I really liked in London was in the 1980s, you know, the ravages of deindustrialisation. Loads of abandoned places, warehouses or factories or whatever they were. There were plenty like that when I was growing up. When I was a kid you'd go and play in them and in the '80s they were places where parties took place. Now one of the things that's so noticeable about London compared to somewhere like Berlin, which reminds you of what London used to be like, is that everywhere's full now. All these places that would have been where illegal parties were held in the '80s, now they're startups. And yeah, now they're just full and leisure is fully branded - and it's a shame, something's been lost. Of course, now is a particularly depressing time because we see a lot of these places that were branded leisure outlets and they're empty again. But they're not being reclaimed again in that way that's so fantastic… Because of my age, there's always been an attraction in that post-industrial thing... Also, I guess, it's interesting that I saw Stalker in 1981, at a time when you could, if you were English and you were going to make a Tarkovsky-like film, it was easy to find a location like that.

Geoff Dyer's Zona is now out.

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  • Geoff Dyer Talks to Peter Lyle