The Puzzle Box

Even on the pages of his own memoir, David Lynch remains a mystery.

David Lynch.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

In the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) is a classic David Lynch character: a high school football player dating the homecoming queen, with a private life full of ugly secrets. He sells drugs, sleeps with his supplier’s wife, even kills a man (in self-defense, but still). Twenty-five years later, in Twin Peaks: The Return, Bobby still lives in Twin Peaks, but now he’s a graying cop, devoted to preserving the peace he was once so intent on disturbing. In the intervening years, he has married and divorced his onetime lover Shelley (Mädchen Amick), and the two of them have an adult daughter. We aren’t told how he got to this point, or if anyone knows about the man he killed, but you know there’s a story there. A person doesn’t change that much without a rich, conflicted inner life and the capacity for self-examination, regret, and the ability to imagine being another kind of man.

Those are qualities Bobby’s creator doesn’t share, at least to judge by the new book, Room to Dream, written by Lynch and Kristine McKenna. An unusual hybrid of biography and memoir, Room to Dream alternates chapters by each writer. First, co-author McKenna supplies a conventional biographical account of Lynch’s life, reported through conversations with his family members, his friends from childhood to the present day, and such collaborators and supporters as Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, and Naomi Watts; then Lynch responds to that material in chapters that read like transcribed and lightly edited interviews. (McKenna, a journalist and critic, has published two collections of interviews.) “What you’re reading here is basically a person having a conversation with his own biography,” the book’s introduction (presumably written together) explains. It also warns, “This book is a chronicle of things that happened, not an explanation of what those things mean.” A cryptic statement indeed. What do any of the events in a human life mean? What does it mean that Steve Jobs was adopted, or that Jane Austen never married? Nothing, perhaps, as bald facts, but by hammering them into a story, that most essential of human activities, we find meaning in them. It’s almost impossible to resist doing so.

Room to Dream does resist that impulse, and mightily. The Lynch it depicts is a man who struggled to make ends meet while working on his iconic first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, in Los Angeles, at one point supporting himself by delivering newspapers. By 1980, he had directed a hit movie, The Elephant Man, which received eight Academy Award nominations, followed by a colossal flop with the big-budget Dune in 1984. He created a television series that revolutionized the medium, and two of his films, 1986’s Blue Velvet and 2001’s Mulholland Dr., are incontestable masterpieces, while other works, from 1990’s Wild at Heart to 2006’s gnomic Inland Empire, have outraged or simply baffled critics and audiences. Yet unlike Bobby Briggs, the Lynch of Room to Dream remains relatively unchanged by all this tumult, unwaveringly committed to an entirely self-directed artistic vision and—apart from Dune, a project he laments as his sole foray into “selling out”—impervious to the demands of the entertainment industry. Pure is a word that McKenna’s sources often use to refer to him, but Lynch—with his manner of cheerful, eccentric naïveté—almost seems to lack the self-consciousness to apply it to himself.

Room to Dream book cover.

Lynch is famously reluctant to explain his films, and in the absence of any statements of authorial intent, a thousand interpretative flowers have bloomed. (One of the nuttiest theories, and therefore one of my favorites, proclaims that the subtext of both Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive is both Freemasonry and “sex magick,” with which, we’re assured, Lynch himself must be intimately acquainted.) He doesn’t mind all these attempts at code-breaking—in fact, in Catching the Big Fish , Lynch’s charming 2006 memoir-cum–self-help manual, he describes viewers reaching an understanding of a film by discussing it with their friends. He just doesn’t think that he should supply any of that stuff in advance, or really at all. And sometimes he just doesn’t have the answers his fans crave. Of Mulholland Drive’s pivotal blue key and blue box, he has written, “I don’t have a clue what those are.”

Instead, the Lynch of Room to Dream lives a bit like a medieval peasant, in a realm of signs and portents, a cosmos whose ultimate design he cannot grasp but devoutly trusts. A good portion of the latter half of the book makes clear that this inexplicable universe includes the business of Hollywood, as he relates the often tricky deals required to get his films made. Mulholland Drive began as a TV series, but ABC hated the pilot; a year later, a friend and devotee of Lynch’s engineered an arrangement to release it as a feature film. Lynch balked at first, protesting that the necessary reshoots would be impossible without the original sets and props, which had not been preserved. This led to a falling-out between Lynch and his longtime agent Tony Krantz, who went so far as to threaten to sue Lynch because “I thought David was being a baby.” Lynch, feeling deeply betrayed, stopped speaking to Krantz for several years, yet he also writes that his vision for how to turn the pilot into a theatrical feature came to him the same night as their confrontation—although he draws no causal connection between the two. (Instead, he attributes the insight to Transcendental Meditation, of which Lynch is a great enthusiast.) The changes turned Mulholland Drive from a dramedy about a pair of amateur female detectives into an eerie tragedy of sexual jealousy, loss, violence, and self-destruction. Lynch views all of this as predestined, the work of forces beyond anyone’s ken. “When I look back on it now,” he writes, “I can see that it was fate, and what happened with Mulholland Drive was the most beautiful thing.”

Beautiful is a word Lynch uses constantly, and the co-authored nature of Room to Dream often feels like a workaround for his inability to articulate many things, from the enigmatic and often terrifying imagery in his work to the reasons why he’s attracted to such spectacles as rotting animal carcasses. It’s not that language always fails Lynch; despite a tendency to offer up banal observations (“a certain type of bad person can come out of any good person”), he can also produce simple yet vivid conceits with words. A day of directing, he writes, transpires as if “there’s this ravine and you’ve got to build a bridge to the other side, and the bridge is the scene you’re going to shoot.” At first, the uncertainties of filmmaking cause the bridge to be made of glass, “because it could all go funny. So you keep adding pieces and it’s still glass, but then finally you add the last piece and the glass turns to steel and it’s there.” But Lynch more typically shies away from too much language, as if the wrong words, words that try too hard to nail down an experience or idea or image, have the potential to kill the mystery.

Kristine McKenna, David Lynch.
Kristine McKenna, David Lynch. Ann Summa/Dean Hurley

Perhaps that’s because he began as—and remains—a painter; Room to Dream devotes almost as much of its page count to his visual-arts career as to his films. He loves to make things with his hands, from the shed he built for his landlord out of scrap wood when he was living in a Hollywood bungalow during the 1970s to the furniture he has designed more recently. “David could spend hours putting dots on a wall,” Raffaella De Laurentiis, the producer of Dune, told McKenna. Over the past two decades, Lynch has constructed a monkish life in which he can devote nearly every waking hour to such projects as well as to recording music, drawing, and painting. He calls this “the art life,” which is also the title of a 2017 documentary about Lynch.

For Lynch, the dream of the art life began when he was a teenager in Virginia and learned that a friend’s father was a professional artist with his own studio. He is oddly more forthcoming about the difficulty of his adolescence in The Art Life than he is in his own book, telling the filmmakers that he fell in with a bad crowd, hated school, and that his beloved mother told him that she was disappointed in him. After an idyllic 1950s Middle American childhood—a period whose motifs and anxieties appear everywhere in his work—his teenage years were aimless and angry, and painting became all that he cared about. He hated school, and even years later often seems untethered by much understanding of history, politics, and other practicalities. (He has voiced admiration for Ronald Reagan—for his aura of “old Hollywood”— and in the last election supported first Bernie Sanders, then, incoherently, the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. In a recent interview with the Guardian, he said that Donald Trump, despite doing a poor job in office, “could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.”) Once he settled on a career in art, his parents were remarkably supportive of his schemes, however peculiar. He was, as McKenna puts it, “catnip to women” and rarely without a girlfriend. He went to art school in the semiderelict, postindustrial cityscape of 1970s Philadelphia, a landscape that would haunt Eraserhead. He began making short art films after feeling the desire to add movement to his paintings. When he received a grant from the American Film Institute, he left with his first wife for Los Angeles to attend the AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies.

Reflecting the joy Lynch takes in the hands-on details of creation, the best chapters of Room to Dream describe the practical experience of making his films. The creation story of Eraserhead is the most winning of all these yarns, full of the “Let’s put on a show!” brio of scrappy, artistic youth. Lynch was allowed to work unimpeded in the rambling mansion occupied by AFI. With a group of resourceful friends, many of whom would go on to work with Lynch for the rest of their lives (including Jack Nance, who played Henry, the lead in the film, and his wife, Catherine Coulson, who would play the Log Lady in Twin Peaks), he scavenged the materials to build Henry’s strange, murky world. His production manager talked a hospital into loaning them umbilical cords. Lynch himself cooked the alarmingly animated Cornish game hens served to Henry by his girlfriend’s parents. He kept running out of money. Crew members moved away, and sometimes moved into the set itself when between regular addresses. The movie took nearly five years to make, from the beginning of principal photography to its official release date. The early response to it was most often perplexity, but the film gradually built a cult following, largely thanks to a programming innovation catching on among art house and rep theaters: midnight movies.

Room to Dream runs on the ebullience of Lynch’s creative process: his gee-willikers enthusiasm, his quirks, his often cryptic yet effective direction of actors (“It needs a little more wind,” he once told MacLachlan, the star of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), his openness to improvisation and luck, his do-it-yourself spirit. By all accounts, actors adore him, and a few—Nance, Dern, Watts—have worked for him repeatedly, even when it meant having to do things like don suffocating rabbit costumes to make web videos that no one understands. Don Murray, whose Hollywood career stretches back to playing opposite Marilyn Monroe, describes the set of Twin Peaks: The Return as the happiest he had ever been to. The Lynch of Room to Dream is uniformly kind, considerate and cheerful, with an almost superhuman ability to remember everybody’s first name, even if it’s just the kid who brings him coffee.

Of course, the great puzzle of David Lynch is how this sunny personality can create such disturbing films. Or perhaps it’s no puzzle at all, and every shadow in his psyche gets so comprehensively siphoned off onto screen and canvas that there’s none left to trouble his actual life. Often what seems most cryptic or oracular in Lynch’s work is simply transferred wholesale from his life. That episode of Twin Peaks: The Return in which a man spends three full minutes wordlessly sweeping a barroom floor: Is it a commentary on contemporary cinema’s lack of stillness, a flagrant refusal to entertain, perhaps some unfathomably Lynchian symbol? Probably not. He just likes sweeping. “David’s a great sweeper,” his best friend Jack Fisk told McKenna. “He still likes to sweep, and takes great pride in it.” Lynch has often related a formative anecdote from his childhood: When out playing with his younger brother in Iowa City at dusk, the two little boys encountered a disoriented naked woman with a bloodied mouth. She was the first naked woman Lynch had ever seen, and he was overcome by both her beauty and his own impotent desire to help her. A virtually identical scene occurs in Blue Velvet, shocking its original audience. The image stuck with Lynch, obviously, but there’s a sense that it feels potent to viewers precisely because he has never consciously processed it to figure out what it means to him. It is still as raw as the day it happened.

In a story, characters come alive when they seem to be slowly unfolding their innermost conflicts to themselves and to the audience, when the experiences they go through cause unseen elements, like Bobby Briggs’ hidden conscientiousness, to rise to the surface and demand a reckoning. Room to Dream makes it clear that David Lynch himself cannot resolve into such a character. The book conveys Lynch’s charm and decency, which are certainly admirable qualities, and it allows him to relate dozens of amusing stories that will make the book indispensable to his devotees. But it lacks both the soul-searching of a great memoir and the interpretive perspective of a great biography, two pretty crucial elements for a 500-page memoir to lack. Lynch has not changed much over the decades since he made Eraserhead. He has no need or desire to. He has married four times and fathered four children, but these relationships feel repetitive and marginal in the book, just as they seem to be peripheral to the central, obsessively creative focus of his art life. What to make of a person whose darkest side is never hidden, but instead projected onto a movie screen for the world to see, whose capacity for self-reflection, according to his current wife, Emily Stofle, is undeveloped, and perhaps deliberately so? The eternally alluring depth and mystery of Lynch’s work is missing from this narrative of his life. His movies and paintings are art, and can rely on his audience to provide an interpretation. His biography is another matter. What we need from Room to Dream is precisely what we don’t need from his films: for someone to tell us what it all means.

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna. Random House.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.