I used to watch to a lot of DVDs with the audio turned to the commentary track. And not just the monumental works of cinematic wonder the every frame of which is worth analyzing and puzzling over. I worked at a video store — Sneak Reviews in Charlottesville, Va., one of those great labyrinthine stores stocked like an archive — and, bringing home DVDs indiscriminately, I found that even a terrible movie could be saved by simply flipping over and listening to the director, writer, or cast, chat away. Though some have taken great pains to push the commentary track to new heights of performance (see the one for the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, in which the possibly fictional artistic director “Kenneth Loring” claims scenes were shot upside-down and in reverse), I was more struck by the commentary tracks that are compelling accidentally: people going on tangents, revealing things obliquely they might later regret. Stallone may be dull as a dial-tone for most of his commentary on Cliffhanger, but the end, when he sounds apologetic and genuinely depressed about his life and career, turns out to be the only engaging and human moment on that disk.
A friend once even showed me a porno with a commentary track. While the director offers her insights into the filming process, along with increasingly belligerent rants about her colleagues, she gets completely shit-faced. After about 30 minutes, she passes out, and for the rest of the movie, you can hear her snoring breezily in the background. It’s bizarrely compelling, and if I could remember the title, I’d recommend it heartily. It was around this time that I considered writing a short story in the form of a commentary track for an imaginary movie. I never did write that story (it was probably a terrible idea), but it did get me thinking about all the ways that texts supplementary to larger stories — or “paratexts,” as they’re officially known — can themselves become stories.
Now, years later, I’m publishing my first novel, Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, which takes the form of one long cease-and-desist letter. Paul McWeeney’s sister is about to publish a nonfiction book in which she accuses their late father of being the Black Dahlia murderer, so in order to save their father’s name, Paul writes a letter to the publishers trying to refute his sister’s claims. As the novel started to take shape, and I realized that Paul’s story would become a discursive commentary on his sister’s story — which itself is a discursive commentary on their father’s story — I began revisiting other books with similar configurations. Pretty soon, I imagined these books forming a loose genre, the Paratext Novel, stories that take the form of — or at least have the pretense of being — explicit exegeses of other stories, real or imagined.
But perhaps “genre” is not the right word, since these books are not concerned with establishing and enforcing conventions. They are interested in exploring how commentary mediates our lives, how we are so steeped in supplementary material that we rarely directly experiencing whatever it is that material supplements: a phenomenon that these books respond to by making “commentary tracks” more human sites of engagement. Like a lot of people, I still haven’t gotten around to watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, but I found Geoff Dyer’s book Zona — in which he offers a commentary/summary (which he argues is an “expansion”) of the film — fascinating, in part for how Dyer’s parallel self-revelation reminds us how we understand our own stories by encountering others.
Now, when we pick up a novel, chances are we’ve already seen not just others’ commentary, but also the novelist’s self-commentary in the form of interviews and even articles like this. Whenever a writer comments on his or her own work, there’s inevitably an attempt — futile and foolish — to control how readers engage with that work. But, in these books, attempts at controlling the (ostensibly central) story spin wonderfully into their own stories, illustrating and celebrating the impossibility of narrative intervention and the chaos beneath the illusion of control.
Since listicles have become the new popular form of supplementary text, here are the top five paratext novels that have been buzzfeeding around my brain.
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: The paratext urtext, or at least the best known, Charles Kinbote’s deranged commentary on John Shade’s 999-line poem features, on its first page, this non-sequitur: “[John Shade] preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Kinbote’s first interjection here is absurd, hilarious, and even violent in how it forces himself into someone else’s story. As with Lolita, the narrative hinges on control. In that earlier novel, Humbert Humbert not only controls Dolores Haze physically but narratively as well, since he is the one allowed a voice. In Pale Fire, Nabokov more explicitly curates, but also balances, this dynamic, revealing John Shade’s story — the tragic loss of his daughter that is the impetus for the poem — before Kinbote tries to absorb it into, and suppresses it with, his own story. It wasn’t until I read Claire Messud’s reminiscent The Woman Upstairs — about a schoolteacher who becomes obsessed with her student’s family — that I realized Kinbote is not just infiltrating Shade’s art; he’s infiltrating Shade’s family.
2. U and I by Nicholson Baker: True, this is not technically a novel, but Nicholson Baker’s “closed book examination” of John Updike’s work reads like no other work of nonfiction I’ve read. Though I would never encourage anyone to not read Updike, ignorance of his oeuvre should not keep you from reading U and I. After all, occasional ignorance certainly doesn’t stop Baker himself, as he misremembers and misunderstands, corrects himself and confesses lapses. That is partly why this book is so strange and so funny, but also because it’s the most honest portrayal of a reader’s relationship with a writer I’ve ever come across: one-sided, heavily mediated, existing entirely in his imagination. In Baker’s literary hero-worship, we begin to realize what we probably knew all along, that it uncomfortably echoes a bastard kid striving for legitimacy, and for simple fatherly validation.
3. Edwin Mullhouse by Stephen Millhauser: The full title, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, hints at Millhauser’s interest in complicating the commentary track’s implicit attempt at narrative control and usurpation. This novel takes the form of a biography of Edwin Mullhouse, a supposed literary genius, who wrote a novel called Cartoons before dying mysteriously at age 11. His biographer and friend, Jeffery Cartwright, also a small child, is an insanely precocious Boswell whose relationship with his subject grows increasingly unsettling. Whereas in Pale Fire, John Shade has his brief moment at the microphone before Kinbote rushes the stage, in Mullhouse we have no unmediated access to Edwin — and no unmediated access to the ostensible cause for Edwin’s celebration, his novel Cartoons — which makes for a more disorienting reading experience. In the fictional introduction, the fictional Walter Logan White writes, “I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations that the real Jeffrey could.” In creating a commentary track that seems to have supplanted Edwin’s novel, Jeffery seems to have supplanted Edwin, a figurative death equally resonant to Edwin’s literal death that illuminates the entire friendship we see develop between the two.
4. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: If we close Edwin Mullhouse wondering how much of Edwin’s genius is imagined and manipulated by his biographer-cum-creator Jeffery, in The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips — both author and character — relocates this distrust to the familiar battle between Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians. In the 250-page introduction to a recently recovered Shakespeare play, which might actually be a forgery by his father, the character of Arthur Phillips lays out a childhood fraught with questions of trust and veracity. After the introduction, Phillips presents us with the play in question, and it’s a stunning act of impersonation. Seeing the son’s introduction followed by (what might be) the father’s work reminds us how familial this narrative hijacking really is, just as all of these works ultimately boil down to simple family arguments, an interruption around the dinner table: No, let me finish this story.
5. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes: Though published in 1985, this novel, featuring narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite’s discursive commentary on Flaubert’s life and work, is my most recent addition to this genre. I borrowed it from my dad after a recent trip to France, where my girlfriend and I visited the Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine. Flaubert’s childhood house in Rouen is now a museum dedicated to both his work as a writer and his father’s work as a surgeon. Although the museum’s marriage of literary and medical does at first feel incongruous, it does form a kind of commentary track, inviting us to see the work of father in son in concert. For example, a sly curator has throughout displayed passages from Gustave’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, and the son’s quote that “all men of letters are constipated” is displayed not far from the father’s very invasive-looking devices to unblock reticent colons — both of which, consolation and cure, would be resonant to anyone suffering the effects of a French diet. Mostly, though, it’s the areas of seeming discord that are most striking. The room featuring Gustave’s childhood scribbles is right next to the room featuring the embalmed cadavers that good ol’ Dad tinkered with two centuries ago. And it’s not just human bodies that are preserved there; you can also see Flaubert’s actual parrot, taxidermied and propped on a bench in a closet. In the lobby, adjacent to an uncomfortable exhibit on Napoleonic-era gyno exams, they sell copies of Flaubert’s novels alongside Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which is “possibly the wittiest anti-novel since Nabokov’s Pale Fire.” Or at least that is how The Boston Globe describes it in the blurb printed on the back. Which is to say: I haven’t read the actual book yet — it’s still sitting patiently on my coffee table — but according to the paratextual commentary on the novel, the blurbs and reviews that I have read, it seems entirely appropriate.
Because of an illegal u-turn en route to this year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I found myself enrolled in online traffic school this summer. The course required that I pass a series of quizzes, all of them simple, before proceeding to the final exam. The whole thing could have taken less than a half-hour, but because this wasn’t solely a rehabilitative affair, I had to watch a timer click down 40 minutes before I could move on to the next quiz, turning 30 minutes of work into seven hours of inconvenience. I had already read the beginning of Zona, Geoff Dyer’s meditation-cum-liveblog of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but I knew I’d have to see the film before proceeding further. So, pre-loaded with some idea of where Dyer was headed, I watched Stalker in 40-minute chunks on YouTube, while waiting for the next traffic school quiz to appear. Anyone who cares in the least about film, film history, Tarkovsky, artists and their intentions, or high culture in general, probably wants to poke me in both eyes with a sharp stick right now. I might as well have been reading Ulysses while directing traffic. And yet the film worked its magic on me, much as it had worked its magic on Dyer, when he first saw it in his youth (in more traditionally ideal conditions). I devoured Zona soon afterwards, and I can only describe the experience as getting to re-watch a brilliant film in my mind, this time seated next to a highly voluble and intelligent friend. A unique reading experience, and one I’m grateful for.
Other than my traffic school experience, I can divide my reading year into the periods before and after I read Sarah Manguso’s spare and penetrating The Guardians: An Elegy. It floored me. Bracingly smart, moving, and sometimes very funny, this slim volume charts Manguso’s relationship with her friend Harris, who two years earlier escaped from a psych ward and jumped to his death under a Metro-North train. In so doing, it exemplifies how writing can serve as both bulwark against and passage into life’s vicissitudes.
This year I also read The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, a book about which every writer known to man seems to have volumes to say. Not me. It left me inarticulate and emotional, as if I’d been zapped back in time to the broodiest moments of my childhood. I expect to spend the rest of my life staring across vast space at Wallace’s unfinished Death Star, wondering “What if?”
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1. Two Guys Walk Into a Bar
We agreed to meet in a dive called the Motor City Bar, a couple of Detroit guys drawn together by a rare chance to watch our hometown Tigers play in the World Series. The bar is located, oddly enough, on New York City’s Lower East Side, 650 miles from Detroit but just a few blocks from where we now live. Beer and baseball were merely an excuse for getting together. The real reason Mark Binelli and I met in the Motor City Bar was to talk about his terrific new book about our hometown, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.
The book is a long-overdue and hugely welcome corrective to the one-dimensional narrative of urban decay that has been spewing out of Detroit roughly since 1970, the year Binelli, the son of Italian immigrants, was born. My family had moved away from Detroit a year earlier, after I’d spent the first 17 years of my life there. In other words, Binelli and I are a generation apart and we experienced the two very different sides of the Detroit coin: I was lucky to surf the glory years of Mustangs and Motown and the MC5, while Binelli rode the relentless downward spiral of layoffs, factory shutdowns, declining population and rising crime, and the wholesale transfer of blue-collar jobs to non-union southern states and to worker-unfriendly countries like Mexico and China.
“For people of my generation and younger,” Binelli, 42, writes, “growing up in the Detroit area meant growing up with a constant reminder of the best having ended a long time ago. We held no other concept of Detroit but as a shell of its former self. Our parents could mourn what it used to be and tell us stories about the wonderful downtown department stores and the heyday of Motown and muscle cars. But for us, those stories existed as pure fable.”
Despite this divide, it turns out that Binelli and I have much in common. His book grew out of an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, which sent him home in early 2009 to cover the American International Auto Show and, more broadly, Detroit’s teetering auto industry. The omens at the time were dire: Binelli arrived the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, as the world was plunging into a vicious recession; Michigan’s unemployment was above 15 percent; the former mayor of Detroit was in jail after resigning over a sex and corruption scandal; and the leaders of Chrysler and General Motors, two of the domestic auto industry’s so-called Big Three, had just returned from Washington, where they’d gotten down on their knees and begged for a federal bailout.
After finishing the magazine assignment, Binelli decided to stay in town and keep digging. For the next two and half years he lived near the Eastern Market, where, as a teenager, he had made deliveries for his father’s knife-sharpening business. (Binelli’s only novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, stars a pair Italian slapstick comedians who specialize in throwing very sharp knives and very messy pies at one another.) Binelli talked to everyone he met – businessmen who had moved their operations from the suburbs into vacant downtown buildings; creative young people who had recently arrived, eager to take advantage of cheap rents and the city’s anything-goes atmosphere; natives who had fled, attended top colleges, then come home to try to make a difference; urban farmers and gardeners; the students and staff at a successful magnet school for pregnant teenagers and young mothers; plus a colorful gallery of firefighters, autoworkers, artists, metal scrappers, vigilantes, entrepreneurs, bloggers, and activists.
The deeper he went into the story, the more convinced he became that the negative old narrative had played itself out. In its place was emerging a new sense of purpose and possibility. “It didn’t make rational sense, I knew, but I found myself edging over to the side of the optimists,” Binelli writes. “I couldn’t say why; it happened gradually, on the level of anecdote: I caught myself noticing and relishing slight indicators that in aggregate (or perhaps viewed through lenses with the proper tinting) couldn’t help but make you feel Detroit’s luck, despite such unimaginable obstacles, might still turn.”
2. “The Messiah Is Us.”
As our first beers arrived and the World Series game began, I told Binelli that I’d had a weirdly parallel experience. In January of this year, just as Binelli was wrapping up the research for his book, I got an assignment to write a series of articles for Popular Mechanics magazine, positing that Detroit’s future is actually beginning to look intriguing and surprisingly bright.
I hadn’t been back to Detroit in more than a decade, so my editor laid out the encouraging signposts for me. There is strong support to build a second bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the busiest international trade crossing in North America, which is now serviced by an ancient bridge owned by a miserly billionaire who pockets all the toll money. There is a growing entrepreneurial class, high-tech businesses are flocking to downtown, and the city’s vast open spaces are already being turned into farms and gardens, wild forests and bike paths. My editor, who had visited Detroit numerous times in the past year, promised me that the city is well on its way to becoming an urban environment unlike anything anywhere else in the world.
I arrived in time for the 2012 Auto Show, sweating bullets of dread. What would I do if my reporting led me to the conclusion that the rosy story I’d been assigned to write was nothing but a pipe dream? Like Binelli, I knew that Detroit has stubborn, seemingly insurmountable, problems, including high rates of crime, unemployment, and illiteracy, a school system hobbled by years of corrupt and inept management, and a city government so financially strapped that basic services are spotty at best, and sometimes non-existent. For good measure, there are as many as 50,000 stray dogs roaming the streets and empty spaces.
To my enormous relief, there was more to see than the well documented blight. I ran into the same energy and determination Binelli had encountered, and before long I, too, found myself edging over to the side of the optimists. It certainly helped that the local auto industry, with a boost from a federal bailout, had not only survived but was suddenly, almost miraculously, turning record profits. But what truly amazed me was that Detroiters shrugged at the news of those profits, and the news that Chrysler was adding a shift and hiring more workers at its humming East Jefferson plant. This was my epiphany. This told me that Detroiters had stopped waiting for salvation from above – a new auto factory, a new government program, a new housing development – because they were too busy saving themselves down at street level.
This do-it-yourself ethos was beautifully expressed to me by Jack Kushigian, a native Detroiter who grew up working in his family’s machine shop, then went off to San Francisco after college to work as a computer software engineer. Like the members of the reverse diaspora Binelli had encountered, Kushigian came back home to try to make a difference. I met him in the woodworking shop he’d set up in a church basement on the city’s hard-hit East Side, where he was teaching neighborhood people how to make furniture out of wood harvested from abandoned buildings, a virtually limitless source of raw materials. “Detroit for years, during its decline, has been hoping for a Messiah,” Kushigian told me. “Detroit has finally given up on that. A lot of people in Detroit have a fire burning inside them that I don’t see anywhere else. My feeling is that the Messiah is us.”
3. America’s Mecca
After ordering a second round of beers and noting that the Tigers had fallen behind the San Francisco Giants by two runs, I said to Binelli, “I think the thing I hate most about the way people perceive Detroit is ruin porn – you know, all those books full pictures of gorgeous abandoned buildings and open prairie.”
“Yeah,” Binelli said, “people from Detroit get so inured to it. It’s like a New Yorker walking past the Empire State Building and not bothering to look up. I used to think ruin porn in Detroit was voyeuristic and creepy. But it’s not necessarily invalid because, let’s face it, that’s the way the city looks.”
The remark says a lot. While I reject ruin porn out of hand, Binelli has the subtlety to dislike it but admit it has its place in the narrative. “Why not embrace the mystique?” he went on. “Tourists come to see those ruins. They’re a legitimate part of the history of American industry. They’re like our Acropolis.”
When Binelli encountered a group of German college student poking through the gutted Packard plant, he asked what had inspired them to vacation in Detroit. One gleefully replied, “I came to see the end of the world!”
A more nuanced reading was offered by a Dutch photographer named Corine Vermeulen, who came to Detroit in 2001 to study at nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art, then stayed on to document the opposite of ruin porn: urban beekeepers and farmers, lowrider car nuts, storefront mosques, and the artwork of the late Detroiter Mike Kelley. “I feel like Detroit is the most important city in the U.S., maybe in the world,” Vermeulen told Binelli. “It’s the birthplace of modernity and the graveyard of modernity…. Detroit in the present moment is a very good vehicle for the imagination.”
Vermeulen’s favorite movie is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is set in a very Detroit-esque post-industrial netherworld called “the Zone,” a desolate, forbidding place where it’s possible for intrepid visitors to have their deepest desires fulfilled. Vermeulen offered to show Binelli one of Detroit’s “Zones,” and off they went to a 189-acre prairie on the East Side officially known as “the I-94 Industrial Project,” a federally designated tax-free “Renaissance zone,” where all the buildings got torn down and the only things that got reborn were grass, wildflowers and a single factory. Vermeulen and Binelli climbed a hill to survey this vast savannah. “From up here,” he writes, “it was difficult to believe we were minutes from the downtown of a major American city.”
In a footnote he adds:
Corine had never heard of Geoff Dyer, but in his collection Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, he makes the same connection, sprinkling his account of a trip to the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival with references to Stalker and the Zone.
(My footnote to Binelli’s footnote: Geoff Dyer has since published an entire book about Stalker called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, which we wrote about earlier this year.)
Binelli’s footnotes are among his book’s great pleasures. He knows Detroit’s history cold, but he also understands its lore, which may be even more vital to his project’s success. Here is his footnote on the source of an early Detroit nickname:
See, for example, Newsreel LIX, of John Dos Passos’s The Big Money: “the stranger first coming to Detroit if he is interested in the busy, economic side of modern life will find a marvelous industrial beehive…DETROIT THE CITY WHERE LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.”
To commemorate the roll-out of Ford’s Model A in 1927, the modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler was hired to photograph Ford’s mammoth River Rouge complex. After noting that Sheeler shot the plant the way an 18th-century painter might have depicted the interior of a cathedral, Binelli added this footnote:
The most famous shot in Sheeler’s series, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, invokes neither grit nor noise but instead an almost tabernacular grace. The smokestacks in the background look like the pipes of a massive church organ, the titular conveyor belts forming the shape of what is unmistakably a giant cross. The photograph was originally published in a 1928 issue of Vanity Fair, where the caption read: “In a landscape where size, quantity and speed are the cardinal virtues, it is natural that the largest factory, turning out the most cars in the least time, should come to have the quality of America’s Mecca.”
That word tabernacular is absolutely perfect.
After explaining that Edsel Ford paid Diego Rivera $20,000 to paint the famous Detroit Industry murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, Binelli notes that Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, managed to get in a dig on Edsel’s father, cranky old, anti-Semitic Henry. Here’s the footnote:
At a dinner party, Kahlo mischievously asked Ford if he was Jewish.
4. Eminem and Clint
The Tigers, meanwhile, were stringing together so many zeroes that the scoreboard was starting to look like a rosary. Naturally I started seeking a scapegoat and decided I wanted the head of the Tigers’ hitting coach on a platter. That’s another difference between Binelli and me. He doesn’t look for scapegoats.
Instead, he rejects the conventional reasons for Detroit’s decline: greedy labor unions, the 1967 riot (or “uprising,” as many black Detroiters still call it), the white flight it supposedly inspired, and the first black mayor it supposedly helped elect, fiery, divisive, foul-mouthed Coleman Young. As Young put it in his memoir, he was able to take over the city administration in 1974 because “the white people don’t want the damn thing anymore.” If Binelli sees a scapegoat, it’s the provincial Midwestern burghers who ran the American auto industry into the ground, cloistered in their enclaves in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills, oblivious to foreign competition, playing golf while Detroit burned – “the preposterously overpaid executives, with their maddening, sclerotic passivity in the face of their industry’s demise.”
To his credit, Binelli points out that Detroit’s decline was a long time in the making, and racial tension was not something that arrived in the 1960s. Since its founding in 1701, the city has always been a racial and ethnic stew, spicy and violent. There was a nasty race riot in 1863, another in 1943 that left 34 Detroiters dead. The city’s population peaked in 1952 at about 2 million and has been falling ever since, sometimes gradually, sometimes precipitously. Today it’s around 700,000, or about one-third of what it was at its peak, and it’s 85 percent black. So the 1967 riot didn’t scare off the white people, it merely accelerated an established trend. The auto industry and “urban planners” finished the job, with their ever-bigger cars, their ever-bigger highways, and their zoning laws and red-lining that encouraged suburban sprawl while keeping black people safely sequestered below 8 Mile Road. Oh, and let’s not forget the Big Three’s willingness to “outsource” jobs, final proof that corporations are not people, they’re machines driven by the profit motive and very little else. Certainly not by loyalty to local workers when it’s possible to pay somebody in Alabama or Mexico far less to do the same job.
The Motor City once had mass transit – until automotive interests realized that people who ride trolleys don’t drive cars or ride buses. While covering that Auto Show in 2009, Binelli took a ride on what passes for mass transit in Detroit today – “the People Mover, an elevated tram that runs through downtown Detroit in a three-mile, one-way loop. The city used to have an extensive trolley system, but it was purchased by National City Lines, a front company formed by GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and other automobile interests, after which the trolley tracks were ripped up and replaced with buses. The People Mover began running in 1987 and seems, in its utter uselessness, as if it might have been built by another secret auto industry cabal, as a way of mocking the very idea of public transportation.”
Such observations show that Binelli, like all accomplished journalists, is equally skeptical of breathless hype and received wisdom, and he can also be very funny. As the TV camera panned across the packed stands in Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, which opened in 2000, Binelli and I had to admit that though we miss long-gone Tiger Stadium we’ve both developed a grudging admiration for the new park. But his book makes clear that Binelli doesn’t buy into the facile media fantasy that sports are an accurate barometer and metaphor for a city’s fortunes, such as this serving of horseshit from a CNN columnist: “History has shown that when the city’s sports teams start doing well, it’s a sign of healing in Detroit.” When I mentioned that line from the book, Binelli laughed and said, “It’d be nice if it was true. But it’s not.” And he rightly lumps Comerica Park and neighboring Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Lions, with the dozens of shiny new stadiums littering the land, calling them “state-subsidized giveaways to corporations in exchange for their willingness to locate in the city.”
Yet there’s no denying that cars and sports are still central to the lives of most Detroiters. Nowhere was the convergence – and the narrative power – of these passions more revealing than in the recent Chrysler ads starring Eminem and Clint Eastwood.
“It’s funny how much people loved those Super Bowl ads,” Binelli said. “I think it’s because Americans want Detroit to succeed. It’s like we need the idea of our worst place coming back. If Detroit can turn it around, then Stockton can too, and Las Vegas, and all those cities in Florida that got hammered by the recession. Now outsiders want to cheer Detroit on.” What those Chrysler ads were pitching, he wrote, “had far less to do with cars than an elemental, nearly lost sense of American optimism.”
My elemental American optimism got snuffed for the night when I watched the final Tiger batter strike out swinging, a fitting exclamation point to a limp 2-0 loss. A loss the next night would complete a dispiriting four-game sweep by the Giants.
But as Mark Binelli and I finished one last round and said our goodnights, I wasn’t thinking about baseball. I was remembering his remark in the book that he’d been drawn back to Detroit by the chance to influence the story of the century. “It might very well turn out to be the story of the last century, the death rattle of the twentieth-century definition of the American Dream,” he wrote. “But there could also be another story emerging, the story of the first great post-industrial city of our new century. Who knows?”
Nobody knows – yet. But based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes and what Mark Binelli and other perceptive observers have written, my money’s on the second horse. The longshot. The spavined one that’s coming from the back of the pack, coming on strong, and showing signs that she just might emerge as the world’s first great post-industrial city.
Image credit: Daily Invention/Flickr
For decades, critics and enthusiasts have picked apart Andrei Tarkovsky and his 1979 film Stalker, ranking both in the highest echelon of cinematic storytelling. Three men – Stalker, Writer, Professor – set off on a quest through the Zone, an area cordoned off for reasons unclear – “A meteorite? A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss?” Within the Zone exists the Room, a space capable of fulfilling your innermost desire once you enter it. Yes, the goal of wish fulfillment is straightforward, but the journey is some radiation-deformed origami, its surface simplicity obscuring inherent and dizzying complexity navigable only with the aid of a Stalker. The Zone is active, intentionally teasing and taunting those with temerity enough to think they can compete in its game of self-discovery, a game the visitor can never win because the Zone knows exactly what it is, and it also knows exactly what its challengers are: humans.
Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room apotheosizes Stalker. Though he pays extraordinary detail to everything from cinematography to gossip about the making of the film and elements of culture and landscape, like Communism, mud, and humidity, Dyer makes no claim that his musings unpack some undiscovered interpretation of these grimy details. Rather, Zona evidences how films, books, music, any artistic creations of the highest order, make unshakeable impressions on viewers, readers, and listeners.
Dyer’s keen sense of humor propels the book, though Stalker is not a funny film. Mysterious, fantastical, depressing, revealing, allegorical – the list of adjectives could go on and on but funny would never make the cut. Yet right off the bat Dyer sets the tone by yukking it up about the dingy bar in which the film opens. Literally, starting from page one he takes pot shots at a flickering light and the barman’s dirty jacket, though nothing about the sepia-tone setting, obstructed by yellow “sci-fi Cyrillic,” conjures laughter, or even a giggle. In fact, Dyer didn’t laugh when first he saw the film on Sunday, February 8, 1981. That’s right, he remembers it to the day. He also remembers feeling “slightly bored and unmoved,” though the movie stuck with him, so much so that he attended a third screening almost exactly a year later, on February 4, 1982.
Before beginning anything, still on the book’s first page, Dyer proclaims that we are “already in the realm of universal truth” and what becomes clear very quickly is that Stalker is Dyer’s religion, as channeled through William James’ oft cited The Varieties of Religious Experience and spiritual wanderer Alan Watts, who wrote “Belief clings, but faith lets go.” Dyer has complete faith in Stalker as a vessel of self-discovery and proves it with the nakedness of his thoughts, which he parades around with the bashfulness of a stripper.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Stalker matters not; as Dyer describes it, Zona “is the opposite of a summary; it’s an amplification and expansion.” Rich with dramatic nuance but sparse on action, the film moves slowly, methodically, but Dyer breezily free associates and his diversions and frank admissions candied with self-deprecation tunnel into your own thoughts. In doing so, the book transcends being an examination of a film or an established author’s confessional, anecdotal indulgence.
We first see Stalker as he wakes and sets to his morning ablutions. Dyer calls to our attention that Stalker has slept in his sweater, but is without pants. Within the context of the film there is no greater significance to this fact. According to Dyer, “in Stalker, there is nothing symbolic about what occurs,” yet this detail matters to him, linking to a childhood belief that American men always wore underwear to bed. All of the sudden, I’m thinking about the scene in Animal House where Donald Sutherland answers the door wearing nothing but a sweater and how we eventually see his ass. Even for such a slapstick movie, this scene has always stayed with me, in the same way Dyer is haunted by Stalker’s lack of trousers.
Again and again Dyer’s caroming thoughts trigger your own associative leaps that take you away from Dyer’s text. But it works. What is memorable about this particular reading experience is that even if you’ve never given a second thought to quicksand, tried LSD, or watched The Wizard of Oz (Dyer hasn’t), his read of Stalker permits you to square your life with a film that you may or may not know anything about. For him, the film is shamanistic in its ability to dip in and out of time; he is “struck by the film’s reach, its ability to bathe events – both actual and cultural – in its projected light.”
Such illumination, however, has its limits, the blind spots of fanatical personal taste. Sometimes too much information is distracting. Do we need to know that Dyer so adores Burning Man that when he arrives he is brought to tears? Or, for readers familiar with Stalker, what do we make of his omissions? In the film, the Zone is explained through a text credited to Nobel Prize winner Professor Wallace. Dyer mentions the caption without ever connecting it to Professor, or the fact that he, apparently, goes on to be famous. With so many japes and jabs about personal ambition, it is noticeable that Dyer elects to pass on an element of the film that relates to his overall response to it.
One line in Stalker that Dyer does not address directly cuts to the heart of the film’s role in his life. The camera looks down on black, oily liquid, primordial in its hypnotic beauty as a reflection of the moon welters. Stalker pleads with the Zone to let his companions believe in its power, “And let them have a laugh at their passions.”
Dyer realizes that his infatuation with Stalker borders on the absurd, as the consistently humorous tone indicates. He’s taking the piss out of himself and in doing so accessing the depths of self that the Room brings to the surface for those brave enough to dredge a wish that they might not want fulfilled. As has been noted by the likes of T.S Eliot and Robert Musil, humans have never been the biggest fans of reality. The Room’s power is ultimately its greatest pitfall, as Dyer notes: “Not to have to face up to the truth about oneself is probably high up on anyone’s actual – as opposed to imagined – wish list.”
Zona is not about a film or a writer’s personal life. It’s about the power of art. It is a case study in how something created by anyone but you can seem like your creation, so deeply does it resonate with the details of your life. This is what Stalker calls the “unselfishness of art” and it is Geoff Dyer’s gift to his readers.
For more than a century, filmmakers have been plundering world literature for source material. Countless works by ancient, medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, Elizabethan, Victorian, modern, post-modern, and futuristic writers, working in every imaginable form and genre, have been transported from page to screen. Every once in a long while an ingenious writer upends this time-tested formula and uses a movie as a springboard for a book. Recently I came upon instances of three very different writers drawing on three very different movies to produce three odd and wondrous little books. The writers are Geoff Dyer, Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Lethem, who, for all their differences, have one thing in common. Each became bewitched by a movie that spoke so forcefully to him that he watched it again and again until it revealed all of its secrets and meanings, until he grasped what might be called the movie’s deep tissues. Here are three case studies of the fruits of their obsessions:
Case Study #1: Geoff Dyer on Andrei Tarkovsky
Last summer I got to interview one of my favorite writers, the English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer. The occasion was the American publication of The Missing of the Somme, Dyer’s intricate meditation on the ways the dead of the First World War are memorialized and remembered. As our conversation was winding down, I asked Dyer the obligatory parting question: “Do you have a new book in the works?”
“I have a book coming out in January or February,” he replied. “It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film…(and) hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.”
Well, my ignorance of Russian cinema is so immaculate that I had not heard of Stalker and, yes, I’m one of those people who will read a book simply because it was written by Geoff Dyer. So I took Dyer at his word and read his new book before I watched the movie that inspired it. The book is called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, and from its very first line we’re inside Tarkovksy’s 1979 film, seeing what the camera sees and listening to what Dyer was thinking as he watched the movie, again and again, over the course of three decades. Dyer describes the book as “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”
Fair enough, and yet the book does take the movie apart, all 142 shots of it, with some sharp instruments. As always, Dyer brings ferocious curiosity and intelligence to the job, guiding us through Tarkovsky’s strange world by bouncing his own thoughts off writers of literature and criticism, cinema and psychology, including Flaubert, Wordsworth, Camus, Barthes, Bresson, DeLillo, Tony Judt, Stanislaw Lem, Rilke, Heidegger, Jung, Slavoj Zizek, and, of course, Tarkovsky himself.
If you like your movies with a plot synopsis, here goes: A guide (Stalker) takes two men (Writer and Professor) into a forbidden and mysterious area called the Zone, at the heart of which is the Room, where your deepest wish will come true. Period. How, you might ask, can anyone spin a 228-page book out of remembering and misremembering that? The simple answer is that Dyer, much like Tarkovsky, recalibrates our sense of time. He doesn’t merely slow things down, he sometimes freezes them, the better to examine them under his microscope. Instructively, Dyer quotes Tarkovsky here: “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.”
“This,” Dyer writes, “is Tarkovsky’s aesthetiic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no one can concentrate on anything – for more than about two seconds…. Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Forget about previous ideas of time. Stop looking at your watches.”
Dyer makes the case that every work of art – like life itself? – is best appreciated by those who have the patience to look, look again, and keep looking: “The Zone is a place – a state – of heightened alertness to everything.”
The film’s script was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, adapted from their short science-fiction novel, Roadside Picnic. (So, yet another movie that sprang from a work of literature.) It was shot in Estonia, in and around an abandoned hydroelectric power station that possesses an ethereal beauty similar to what you witness while passing through the petrochemical badlands on the New Jersey Turnpike, those same toxic fogs, sludgy waters, and dripping pipes, minus the methane spurts. An early caption informs us that the Zone might (or might not) be the result of some kind of meteorite or alien invasion, and Dyer duly notes that the setting foreshadows the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 (he calls Tarkovsky “a prophet”), and that the Zone also echoes Stalin’s gulags. Citing Wordsworth, he addresses the importance of such man-made landscapes: “It is when there is some kind of human interaction with landscape, when the landscape, having been manufactured or altered, is in the process of being reclaimed by nature – a source of abiding fascination for Tarkovsky – that its ‘inward meaning’ is most powerfully felt.”
By the end of their journey, Stalker, Writer, and Professor have learned that the Zone “is not a place of hope so much as a place where hope turns in on itself, resigns itself to the way things are.” Not exactly a heart-warming takeaway, but as soon as I finished Dyer’s book, I watched the movie for the first time. I suppose only two questions remain: 1.) Is Stalker, as Dyer contends, “the reason cinema was invented”? And, 2.) How did Dyer’s book affect my experience of watching Tarkovsky’s movie?
My answers are, 1.) No, I would go with the much more conventional view that the reason cinema was invented is Citizen Kane. Beyond that, I’ll man up and admit that Tarkovsky-time got a little boring in spots. Even Dyer confesses that “it was not a case of love at first sight: the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved.” Which might just mean that I need to see the movie a few dozen more times. And, 2.) Dyer’s book enriched the experience of watching the movie in ways I can’t count, but most basically because it reminded me that we will always be repaid for a heightened alertness to everything – the sounds of birdsong, the changing of light, the smoky nature of our hopes, the riches that are spread out before our eyes if only we have the patience to see.
Cormac McCarthy once said, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books.” Well, no and yes, you’ll conclude after reading this astonishing book about a film about a book about a journey to a room.
Case Study #2: Don DeLillo on Douglas Gordon on Alfred Hitchcock
In 2010 Don DeLillo published Point Omega, a novel that begins with a short overture and ends with a short coda, titled, respectively, “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.” Both tell the story of an unnamed man who has come to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 2006 to watch a video by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. It’s called 24 Hour Psycho and that’s precisely what it is – Alfred Hitchcock’s classic slowed down from its original 109 minutes and turned into a crawling, day-long taffy pull.
Like many people who visited MoMA to see Gordon’s movie, I came away thinking that a little bit of this sort of thing goes a long way. (Ditto Andy Warhol’s 1964 movie, Empire, which consists of a fixed camera gazing out a window at the Empire State Building for eight unblinking hours.) Indeed, most of the museum-goers in Point Omega watch Gordon’s slowed-down movie for a few minutes and then flee, looking at the museum guard on their way out the door hoping for eye contact that will validate their “bafflement.”
DeLillo’s nameless moviegoer is no such impatient dilettante. He spends countless hours on six successive days absorbed by the movie, going deeper and deeper in search of its meanings. What he discovers would resonate with Dyer and Tarkovsky:
The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion… It takes close attention to see what’s happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at.
This, it seems to me, is the mission of all true art – to enrich our lives by making us alive to what is happening as it is happening to us. We’re back to Tarkovsky’s “special intensity of attention” and Dyer’s “heightened alertness to everything.”
Between DeLillo’s cinematic overture and coda lies a thin novel about an encounter between two men at a remote house “somewhere south of nowhere” in the Sonoran desert. These two men, we’ll learn, were among the people who came to see 24 Hour Psycho in New York but fled after a few minutes. One is Richard Elster, an academic, a “defense intellectual” (perfect DeLillo job title!), who was involved in the preparations for the invasion of Iraq. He has come to the desert to detox from the experience. With him is the novel’s narrator, Jim Finley, a filmmaker who is trying to persuade Elster to be the subject of a documentary. (So, a novel that springs from a movie about a movie and wants to produce yet another movie.) Finley’s documentary will consist of one unblinking shot (think of Empire, or the single-take Russian Ark): Elster standing in front of a blank wall talking about what he did inside the Pentagon. Finley wants Elster to reveal “what you know that no one knows.” Elster has already confided, vaguely, that his job was “to conceptualize…to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as deployment and counter-insurgency.” This, he admits without shame, involved a certain amount of lying. “Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability…I wanted a haiku war. I wanted a war in three lines.”
Presumably he came up with this lethal lie:
We are deep in DeLillo country here, the land of smoky operators who work the barely visible levers that control the two great engines driving contemporary American life: anxiety and dread. Geoff Dyer summed up DeLillo’s achievement in his superb collection of essays and reviews from 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition. DeLillo, Dyer wrote, “has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves… Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality…”
True, but the thing that stuck with me about this slight novel – slight, at least, compared to such meatier DeLillo masterworks as White Noise, Libra, and Underworld – was not Richard Elster’s contribution to the lies that brought on our nation’s longest war. What stuck with me was that nameless man in the museum watching the slowed-down movie and reminding me of the pious effort that’s required to see, to truly see, what’s happening in front of us every minute of our lives.
Case Study #3: Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter
In 2010 Jonathan Lethem published a monograph, They Live, about a most unlikely subject. Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the yin-yang mashup of Lethem’s influences, high and low, including DeLillo and Philip K. Dick, Mailer and J.G. Ballard, comics, the movies of John Cassavetes. So in a way it makes perfect sense that Lethem devoted a whole book to a close analysis of John Carpenter’s They Live, a low-budget genre movie by a director the Hollywood establishment barely gives a B rating.
Like Dyer and DeLillo, Lethem brings a sharp intellect and vast tool kit to his chosen movie. And, like them, he argues persuasively that what we see is far less important than how we see it. Taking this a step further, everything can be interesting, including the marginal, especially the marginal, if we’re willing to make a pious effort and bring to bear a frame of reference, informed tastes, education (preferably self-education, in the view of this autodidact), and imagination. And so, like Dyer, Lethem calls on an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the works of diverse thinkers, including the artists Jenny Holzer and Robert Smithson, the writers and philosophers H.F. Saint, David Thomson, G.K. Chesterton, Poe, Lovecraft, Bret Easton Ellis, George W.S. Trow, Greil Marcus, Darko Suvin, Barthes, Slavoj Zizek, and Stanislaw Lem. Note the overlaps with Dyer’s reading list.
Might as well get the plot summary out of the way: A down-on-his-luck construction worker named Nada (the pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) wanders into a Los Angeles homeless encampment called Justiceville. After the cops raze the camp, Nada discovers a cache of magic sunglasses that enable him to see that many “normal” people are actually hideous alien ghouls who have mounted a sophisticated mind-control campaign to keep humans complicit and subdued. This includes subliminal billboards and televised commands to OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, WATCH TV, BUY, STAY ASLEEP. Nada realizes he needs to set this shit straight. And so, strolling into a bank wearing shades and armed with an automatic rifle, he states his mission: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Lethem leads us on a delirious tour of this “self-conscious B movie,” with time codes serving as mile markers. It’s a close, highly informed reading that never feels precious or claustrophobic because Lethem admits that the movie is “howlingly blatant on many levels,” and yet “it grows marvelously slippery and paradoxical at its depths. Watch something enough times and all you see are the holes, much like a word whose meaning dissolves because you’ve said it aloud too many times in a row… Out of holes, a whole.”
Carpenter comes in for high praise from Lethem for shunning Hollywood’s compromising cash and going the noble low-budget route. “They Live,” Lethem writes approvingly, “ignores the presence of the film industry” and instead mounts a critique of television and consumerism as brain-killing propaganda tools. Carpenter has even less use for the local dream factory than it has for him. He’s proud of the fact that his budget requires him to cut every corner he comes to. This ranges from the movie’s blue-collar leading man, with his acne scars, mullet hairdo, and oak-tree neck, to the cheapo props, droning musical score, and skeezy (Lethem’s word) ghoul make-up and wigs. A friend watching the movie with Lethem was delighted to see that a garbage truck was filled with confetti: “They couldn’t afford real garbage!” Even the magic sunglasses, Lethem notes with approval, look like $2 Ray Ban knockoffs. When the movie flirts with porn scenarios (something Carpenter did more than flirt with earlier in his screenwriting career), there are no winks and nods. Carpenter has moved way beyond post-modern irony, all the way to unapologetic self-awareness. He knows that his film is, on one level, a protracted joke, but he doesn’t bother to acknowledge that he’s in on it. “Carpenter really doesn’t care whether or not you get that he gets it,” Lethem writes. “He’d far sooner be mistaken for an audience-laughing-at-you-not-with-you artist than slow the pace of his film, or wreck its tone, by underlining the jokes.”
They Live was based on a short story called “Eight o’clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, a minor science fiction writer who had the distinction of being one of just two authors ever to collaborate with Lethem’s hero, Philip K. Dick. (So, this time we have a book about a movie about a short story.) The movie was released in November 1988, just as Ronald Reagan was passing the decade’s greed-is-good baton to George H.W. Bush. The previous summer, Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village had erupted in riots when police forcibly removed homeless squatters, a la Justiceville, a dustup that gave birth to the invective Die, Yuppie Scum! It’s not hard to see the link between “Yuppie Scum” and the wealthiest “1 percent” reviled by Occupy Wall Street protesters who were recently cleared from their campsite in lower Manhattan, a la Tompkins Square Park. But Lethem, to his credit, points out a crucial difference between Tompkins Square (and, by extension, Zuccotti Park) on the one hand, and Justiceville on the other: the squatters in Tompkins Square included defiant drug users, anti-gentrification protesters, and “interested witnesses from the ranks of the middle-bohemian class” (including Allen Ginsberg), while the homeless in Justiceville are for the most part “sheepish, demoralized, obedient” losers content to “zone out and ponder television.” In other words, feel free to read They Live as an indictment of Reaganomics, as many have done, but be careful about turning it into an endorsement of Tompkins Square or a prophecy of Occupy Wall Street.
I had seen They Live years ago, and I watched it a second time after finishing Lethem’s book. The second viewing was definitely better, richer, thanks to the way Lethem opened my eyes to the liberation that comes with doing things on the cheap – and not apologizing for it. They Live, both the movie and the book, are examples of what Manny Farber called “termite” art, as opposed to overblown, ostentatious “white elephant” art. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” Farber wrote, “is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
And that kind of activity, as Carpenter and his great advocate Lethem have proven, is everything a tuned-in moviegoer or book lover can ask for.
It wasn’t until I’d finished digesting these three books that I was able to see what ties them together. It is, for lack of a better word, their anti-Kaelishness. In his new biography of the celebrated New Yorker movie critic, Brian Kellow notes that Pauline Kael watched a movie just once before reviewing it because “she felt the need to write in the flush of her initial, immediate response…. If she waited too long, and pondered the film over repeated viewings, she felt she might be in danger of coming up with something that wouldn’t be her truest response.”
Lethem, who seems to be aware of everything, is aware of his own anti-Kaelishness: “I’m Pauline Kael’s ultimate opposite here: I’ve watched the entirety of my subject film a dozen times at least, and many individual scenes countless times more (Kael used to brag of seeing each film only once).” It could be argued that a weekly magazine deadline robbed Kael of the luxury of watching a movie a dozen times before writing about it, but she made a conscious choice to see each movie just once. She trusted her instincts over her intellect. Her gut over her brain. And she bragged about it.
Kael, to borrow a Malcolm Gladwell-ism, went with blink. Dyer, DeLillo, and Lethem, to their credit and their readers’ unending benefit, go the opposite route: they look closely, they keep looking, and then they think, think, think.
Geoff Dyer is known as a writer who likes to wander all over the map. He has traveled from his native England to Italy, Algeria, Libya, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Nevada desert. Along the way he has written novels, reviews, criticism, essays, and reportage about whatever happened to interest him, which is to say just about everything. His subjects have included photography, jazz, writers and their writings, comics, haute couture, donuts, movies, and flying a MiG-29, getting fired, being an only child, living on the dole, and having sex in expensive hotels.
In the United States, Vintage has just brought out The Missing of the Somme, which was originally published in England back in 1994. On the surface the book is an examination of monuments to the millions who died in the First World War, but in essence it’s a meditation on the mechanisms and functions of memory. It has all the virtues Dyer’s fans have come to expect: it’s wildly original, richly researched, eccentric and funny and sad and brainy from beginning to end. Dyer spoke with The Millions recently by telephone from his home in London.
The Millions: Before we talk about your Somme book, let me ask you about the recent riots in London. Was your neighborhood affected?
Geoff Dyer: We were on vacation in Ibiza when it happened… We live in Notting Hill. It’s a very, very mixed neighborhood. There’s a combination of fantastically wealthy houses and all sorts of projects. A number of shop windows got smashed, a gang of forty hoodies stormed a fancy restaurant near here and were robbing everybody in the restaurant until they were fought off by the kitchen staff. So it was really nearby, and it’s possible it seemed even scarier at a distance than it might have done if we were here.
TM: I was a teenager in Detroit in 1967, when that city exploded and 43 people got killed. It was the worst riot in American history and its cause is pretty clear, at least to me: Black people were tired of being ignored by politicians and mistreated by the cops. Do you think that was the case in London too – or was it more complicated than that, more difficult to understand?
GD: There are signs of a degree of racial integration here, actually. Apart from that incident in Birmingham, where the three Asian guys were run over by a car driven by black guys, it’s been a long while since we’ve had anything in Britain that resembles a race riot. You could say this was a riot of the disenfranchised or the underclass, but certainly not a race riot. I think race here is nothing like the problem it is in the States.
TM: Let’s talk about your book. I’m curious what drove you to write a book that, on the surface at least, is about monuments to people who died in First World War. It doesn’t seem like your kind of subject. What led you to write this book?
GD: First of all, I would say I’ll give you ten dollars if you can tell me what a Geoff Dyer subject is [laughs].
TM: You got me there. That’s fair enough.
GD: I’ve written about so many different things, and there’s no telling what I’m going to write about next. In a way, this was one of the least surprising things for me to turn to, if only because the First World War occupies such a central position in the collective memory of all British people. And although it’s very much about my particular experience of the memory of it – which overlaps not only with people my age, but people of all ages – the shadow cast by the First World War is really huge. For many people in Britain, their first introduction to poetry is the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen.
TM: You write in the book, “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory, but the way memory has determined – and continues to determine – the meaning of the war.” Can you describe the meaning of the war?
GD: Always in the book I’m just trying to articulate impressions of it. It’s certainly not a history book. I always have faith in this idea that if I remain honest and open about my own confusion, the blurriness of my impressions – it’s not because I’m short-witted or stupid – the chances are those feelings will be shared by other people. And I just had this very distinct sense of the First World War as being something rather buried in its own memory. There’s so much discussion, as the war is going on, about how it will be remembered, or if it will be forgotten. So right from the start it just seems preoccupied with how it will be remembered. The other crucial thing is that distinction I make with the Robert Capa pictures of D-Day, where it all seems to hang in the balance and there’s a great sense of immediacy. With the First World War there’s no immediacy to it. It comes buried in so many layers of myth and memory.
TM: Speaking of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Capa, I think of the First World War as a very literary war, much like the American Civil War. Whereas the Second World War was much more photographic.
GD: Yes, I agree.
TM: You end your book with a visit to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, designed by Edwin Lutyens. You call it a memorial to “the superfluousness of God” and you add that it’s “not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future.” This seems to touch the heart of this book. Tell me about this link between memory and prophecy, past and future, people remembering something even before it has happened.
GD: I guess in many ways you could see the First World War as the beginning of the twentieth century proper. That’s the war that breaks the continuum. It’s when the old imperial orders start to break up. It’s a convenient cut-off point for the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Also this thing of commemoration and the memorials, in some ways there is a prophetic quality to it. Again, as I mentioned, the twentieth century was the century of disappearances on a huge scale, whether people disappear in the Holocaust, the famine in the Ukraine –
TM: The gulags.
GD: Exactly, the gulags, all of this kind of stuff. In that respect, and in its peculiarly atheistic style – which was the product of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the predisposition of Lutyens himself – the monument at Thiepval seems prophetic.
TM: Lutyens made the monument to the Missing of the Somme very religion-free, didn’t he?
GD: Yes. There were people who wanted a bit more religion in it, but I think it works very effectively. I make this contrast between the aspiring nature of, say, a cathedral and its endlessly upward-reaching quality, and the stubborn, land-locked, defiant, earth-bound kind of construction that Lutyens came up with.
TM: It’s immobile, and certainly the opposite of ethereal.
GD: Indeed, yes.
TM: To go back to the idea of memory and prophecy. In your recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there’s an essay about Oradour-sur-Glane, the French town where the Germans massacred the citizens during the Second World War. You write about the untouched ruins of the town: “Like all monuments, the ruins at Oradour were intended not simply to preserve the past but to address the future. To that extent they are like a bid at prophecy, an attempt to call into being. And what is called into being by these ruins is – in a final paradoxical resolution – the moment when this process of restoration is complete. Only then can they be forgotten.” Do you think, then, that forgetting the ultimate goal of remembering?
GD: Well, I can’t remember where it is, but there’s a Holocaust memorial which is designed in such a way that it’s going subside into the ground an inch or two every year. The idea being that by the time it physically disappears there will be no need for it because it will be permanently installed in everybody’s memory. The tricky thing with Oradour is that they had this nice idea of leaving everything as it was – and it’s a very intense and moving place – but time and nature have worked on it so it’s in danger of becoming too ruined. So now they’re faced with the question of should they take steps to artificially preserve it or just let it rot away?
TM: So they’re talking about sending a ruins-maintenance crew out there?
GD: Yes, exactly, there’ve been all sorts of discussions about it. This is something I’m consistently interested in – places where time has stood its ground. I like the particular charge of that. It’s something I address in my Yoga book (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It), where I talk both about the ruins in Rome and, of course, the much more recent ruins in Detroit.
TM: And certainly the monument to the Missing of the Somme is part of that thing, of time standing its ground.
GD: Yes. When you’re there you’re so conscious that you’re coming into a place where history is manifest as geography. The temporal manifests itself in terms of the spatial. I’m always drawn to places like that, whether they’re old places that have fallen into ruins or modern places like the ones I wrote about in the New Yorker recently, the Lightning Field and the Spiral Jetty.
TM: Elsewhere in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, you were reminiscing about your heady days of living on the dole in London back in the 1980s. You wrote, “I liked the idea of writing because that was a way of not having a career.” Now here we are, a quarter of a century has rolled by. Do you still feel that way, that writing is a way of not having a career?
GD: I suppose by now I am somewhat more conscious of it as a career. In some ways, I think I was quite lucky, looking back, that my early books had such a distinct lack of success. So I was able to write things without any sense of whether they had any commercial potential. The books were all sooooo unsuccessful, nobody had any expectations, and I was certainly under no pressure from publishers. Although that was a source of grievance to me and somewhat of a mystery – I was constantly amazed that the books were doing so badly [laughs] – I can see that was a liberation as well.
TM: The Missing of the Somme originally appeared in England in, what, 1994?
TM: Why the 17-year lag? Are American publishers just stupid? Why does it take so long for foreign books to make their way to America?
GD: In the case of this particular book, I hadn’t published anything in America at that point. I was still pretty well seething with indignation that But Beautiful, my jazz book, had not been published in America. That seemed so weird to me. And that was the fault of the British publisher, by the way. So anyway, this funny little essay on the missing of the Somme would have been a weird one to start with. Partly because, at that point, nobody knew who I was in America, and partly because the First World War was missing altogether from the bookshelves of American stores. It went straight from the American Civil War to the Spanish Civil War. Back in 2001, Vintage U.S. wanted to publish The Missing of the Somme, but I’d given away the American rights to the British publisher to distribute it in the U.S. So Vintage wanted something I no longer had. That was just awful, really. So Vintage acquired the rights, not from me, but from the British publisher, who were being such complete shits all the time, just hanging onto something that they didn’t even want. The bottom line is that it is out in America now, and I’m really glad it is even though it’s fifteen, sixteen years late. But I’m still around to enjoy it.
TM: That brings us, finally, to your new gig, writing for The New York Times Book Review. We started off talking about the fact that there’s no such thing as a typical Geoff Dyer subject. But I must tell you, it seems to me like a strange marriage – that guy with the bong on the roof, living on the dole in London, now he’s writing for the Gray Lady. What happened, did they make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?
GD: To jump from the bong on the roof to now, that’s quite a fast-forward! The bong on the roof was me in my late twenties – and when you talk about the Gray Lady, well, I’m this gray-haired, middle-aged guy now. It would be awful if I was still under the delusion that I was in my late twenties. This seems quite an appropriate gig.
TM: How often will your column appear in the Times?
GD: For a while I did a weekly column for The Guardian, and the awful thing about a weekly column is that it seems to come around daily. This will be a monthly column, which for me is already starting to feel like it’s coming around weekly.
TM: What are you working on now? Do you have a new book in the works?
GD: I have a book coming out in January or February. It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film.
TM: Will it be coming out in the States too?
GD: Yes. I think at this point the subject of the books is less important in determining their fate than the fact that they’re by me. Let’s say early on, a publisher sees me as an unknown guy writing about the First World War, sort of an unattractive subject. But now we’ve got this guy who’s a bit better known in the States, who’s writing about a subject that’s not as appealing as, I don’t know, the rise of the Tea Party – but hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.
TM: Are you going to go back to writing fiction anytime soon?
GD: I wouldn’t rule it out, but I certainly feel that ultimately I’ll have a longer life as an essayist than I would as a fiction writer, even though the distinction means nothing to me. But I’m a rather limited kind of fiction writer, whereas there will be plenty of things I’ll want to continue to write about in the realm of the essay, or as a critic, or whatever.
TM: Best of luck with The Missing of the Somme in the States.
GD: Well, thank you. Been nice talking to you.
Image credit: Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme via WW1 Battlefields