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The Novel As Memoir and Film Criticism

British novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer writes books that are impossible to classify. Over the years, he's published an essay on jazz that doubles as a collection of short stories (But Beautiful), a literary monograph on D.H. Lawrence that turns into an extended riff on why he can't finish writing the book (Out of Sheer Rage), and a travel guide and literary exegesis of World War I memorials (The Mystery of the Somme). In his latest work, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room [Pantheon, $24], Dyer's finally writing within a recognizable genre: movie criticism.

In this case, he's writing about the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky's 1979 epic film, Stalker, a strikingly slow-moving, three-hour work about enigmatic travelers wandering through the "Zone," a labyrinth of abandoned and gloomy ruins where the normal laws of physics seem to have been suspended. (The novel upon which the film is based, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, is being re-published in a new translation this May.)

Dyer is not the first novelist to obsess over a particular movie at such length. The lamentably short-lived Deep Focus line from Soft Skull press launched with excellent book-length studies of John Carpenter's alien-invasion film They Live (starring former pro wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper) and of Michael Winner's revenge thriller Death Wish. Another example: The deservedly long-lived BFI Film Classics series of one-movie monographs has included such worthy entries as Salman Rushdie's take on The Wizard of Oz and Iain Sinclair's examination of David Cronenberg's Crash.

By revealing the cinematic memories and images that so deeply shaped the writers' psyches, all of these titles throw new light on the authors' fiction--in addition to insights on the films in question. Once you've let Rushdie take you to Oz, you'll never read Midnight's Children the same way again.

—Timothy Hodler




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