Mystery is important to David Lynch, explanation anathema. His films defy straightforward interpretation; he’s never offered any. About his own biography, he’s long been coy. His press kits used to read simply, “Born Missoula, Montana. Eagle Scout.” So “Room to Dream,” a memoir pushing 600 pages, may come as a surprise. Is the game up?
Fans who share Lynch’s pleasure in mystery will approach this book anxiously, hoping that his secrets may somehow be both revealed and sustained. Luckily for them, he seems constitutionally incapable of self-revelation. In telling his life story, Lynch demonstrates the same disregard for causality and tonal consistency that marks his films. “Room to Dream” is very much the Gospel According to David.
Lynch’s position in Hollywood is itself mysterious. How has such an idiosyncratic, uncommercial director achieved such success? “Room to Dream” provides only partial answers. Luck certainly played a part. A chance meeting with Mel Brooks led to “The Elephant Man” (1980), Lynch’s first mainstream success. A contractual provision allowed “Blue Velvet” to proceed despite the failure of sci-fi epic “Dune” (1984). “Twin Peaks” arrived in 1990, just when TV audiences were ready for something wild.
But all these works required specific conditions to produce them, too, and Lynch and co-author Kristine McKenna use their book to make a case for artists being given the freedom — imaginative and economic — to do that dream-work unrestricted.
Money was always an insoluble factor. Lynch’s first film, “Eraserhead” (1977), took five years to make, during which he supported family and movie alike in part by delivering newspapers. But, ironically, the $40 million or so granted to him later to make “Dune” felt like a prison. A big budget mandated an audience-friendly script and a running time suited to theatrical schedules. “I started selling out before we even started shooting,” he writes. “It was the only way I could survive.” The film flopped, and Lynch would never again relinquish control of the final cut. Instead, he found happiness and acclaim working with small budgets, doing things his way.
Security in this niche has given Lynch the freedom necessary to etch his violent, romantic, surreal vision of America into popular consciousness. The resulting body of work — transcendent, mesmeric — vindicates the old dream that uncompromised personal vision might equal artistic success.
Lynch’s vision appears to reflect his real-life worldview and experience. Indeed, “Room to Dream” sometimes feels like a tour of primal scenes, with several iconic theatrical episodes transplanted directly from Lynch’s life. For instance, as a child, biking around picket-fenced neighborhoods, he was fascinated by homes where “the lights were dim. . . . I’d get a feeling from these houses of stuff going on that wasn’t happy.” Once, a bloodied, naked woman staggered “out of the darkness” toward him. “She was scared and beat up,” he says, “but even though she was traumatized, she was beautiful.” We’re not told what happened to her — Lynch probably doesn’t know and doesn’t seem interested. Things go unexplained in life; why not in the movies? The woman reappears, of course, in the guise of Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet.”
Memory behaves similarly in Lynch’s art and life. Consider this line from “Lost Highway”: “I like to remember things my own way . . . not necessarily the way they happened.” That would be the perfect epigraph for this book. In its alternating chapters, McKenna presents the way things happened (the historical record), and then Lynch provides his own version, typically through tangential but vivid anecdotes. When he doesn’t remember something, he digresses on subjects that matter to him: trees, L.A. light, transcendental meditation. The result is a sort of cubist portrait of the artist, body and mind on separate tracks.
This technique ensures that “Room to Dream” offers countless new stories, even for Lynch fanatics. We see him meditating with Roy Orbison, taking a print of “Eraserhead” cross-country in a shopping cart for a screening in New York, attending Fellini’s deathbed, meeting the Dalai Lama. All is told with Lynch’s considerable charm, characterized by boyish enthusiasm and the gnomic statements that have made him so Internet-friendly (“Keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole”).
“I love the Red Room,” Lynch remarks of one of his most famous creations in “Twin Peaks.” “First of all, it has curtains, and I love curtains. Are you kidding me? I love them because they’re beautiful in and of themselves, but also because they hide something.” This is the standard of his self-analysis.
“Room to Dream” pulls off a neat trick in drawing back a curtain and revealing relatively little. Despite the book’s heft, there’s not much to explicate the mysteries of Lynch’s work. But then, for him, the mystery’s the thing. To explain would be to destroy. What we get instead is insight into his creative process. Lynch shows us to a room that provides refuge from the angry world outside, where he finds the safety that’s necessary to create. To borrow language from his beloved transcendental meditation, it’s where he goes to dive within, where his experience is reborn as art. With the right attitude and approach, he suggests, other artists may also find a room to dream.
Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York City and writes about books, films and music.
By David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
Random House. 592 pp. $32