I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists—the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam—named beloved, important books and authors. My answer—which I think came as a surprise to most—was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants—English is not their first language—and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over—something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college—relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience—I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe—and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment—because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago—the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill—in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain”—when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time—”catchup” reading I’ll call it still—captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there…He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo—if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo!— but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female—a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here—four score and a decade later—still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes—social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness—have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays—Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion—for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world—” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment—Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness—inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture—cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility—is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience—those moments when the inward life questions—that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration—collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read—whole-soul read—being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
Image credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz.
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.