Books

David Lynch and Kristine McKenna's 'Room to Dream' Never Awakens

The legendary director behind Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, and Mulholland Drive joins co-author Kristine McKenna for a unique blend of autobiography and biography that does little to solve the mysteries of his life and work.

Room to Dream
David Lynch & Kristine McKenna

Random House

Jun 2018

Other

I expect Room to Dream to be a divisive document for David Lynch diehards. Depending on one's level of interest in all things Lynch, the book might feel like a charming curiosity or a pointless diversion, making it something of a mirror held to the audience. Fans of the film director are by no means a homogenous group; consider the mixed audience reaction to last year's challenging and often abstract Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch's first major screen project since 2006. But Room to Dream, an endearing but featherweight curiosity disarmed of the surreal flourish of his work and the spiritual and philosophical perspective one might hope to find, doesn't offer answers to many long-held questions devotees have. Lynch is often characterized as someone with a near impenetrable mind, and a book like this could never hope to breach his psyche.

Billed as a one-of-a-kind combination of biography and personal memoir, it may be best to think of Room to Dream as an oral history of Lynch's career, and an incomplete one at that. As a biography, the book sorely lacks contextual background details and scrutiny of its subject, and as a memoir, it provides little in the way of real introspection and self-awareness. Lynch tells his story through moments, and his friends and family tell it through half-remembered impressions, resulting in a flawed and imbalanced record steeped in ambiguities.

Co-author Kristine McKenna's writing, true to the work of many of Lynch's collaborators, is always exclusively in service of his needs. The book is structured so that McKenna writes a chapter on a period of Lynch's life using exclusive interviews, then Lynch writes his own chapter more-or-less in response to it. Her passages are dominated by fawning quotes from those in Lynch's inner circle, and her individual voice is muted in favor of summary details about the director's movies or descriptive passages on his paintings. The result is a book that often treads with the distanced tone, one-size-fits-all style, and overly reverent feel of a press release. The case may be that the book sits too closely to Lynch himself to be as rich a biography as it needs to be.

Still, if Room to Dream nails one thing, it's likely the most substantial draw of McKenna's sections, and the book as a whole: the extensive interviews with nearly everyone involved in Lynch's life. Longtime collaborators like actors Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan and composer Angelo Badalamenti offer key insights into their working relationships with the director, while superstars who at one point found themselves within Lynch's orbit make surprise cameos. Room to Dream may be one of the few sources where a fan can hear Mel Brooks on his role as an uncredited producer for The Elephant Man, Sting on his bizarre and flamboyant turn in Dune, Sissy Spacek on her familial relationship with Lynch, Michael Cera on his wild (and brief) appearance in Twin Peaks: The Return, and even the late Dennis Hopper, whom the author spoke with on the set of Blue Velvet all the way back in 1985. McKenna even coaxes smaller players to open up about their experiences with Lynch, from singer Julee Cruise and actor Michael Ontkean (who declined to reprise his role as Sheriff Harry Truman in the third season of Twin Peaks) to Crispin Glover and Robert Forster—not to mention Lynch's children and ex-wives.

There are notable omissions that would have been crucial for contextualizing their respective chapters—John Hurt (who passed away early last year) and Anthony Hopkins ( The Elephant Man), Patricia Arquette (Lost Highway), and Nicolas Cage (Wild at Heart) don't make direct appearances, for example—but the breadth of family, friends, and colleagues offering commentary here is nothing short of remarkable, and that Lynch has a chance to respond to them makes it all the more precious.

Lynch's sections almost feel like a separate exercise altogether. Anyone who's ever seen an interview with Lynch will be familiar with his stark and evocative style of speech and his love of goofy, '50s-era slang, and these qualities are recreated in his writing with incredible fidelity. His speech, like his films, is deeply intuitive, and one feels that in his idiosyncratic cadence. True to those sensibilities, Lynch chooses not to contemplate or dwell on his emotions in Room to Dream. His passages are largely reactionary responses to McKenna's chapters, but his commentary on her interviews is unfortunately brief. Instead, he uses that foundation to recall semi-related anecdotes: road trips, chance encounters, unexpected mishaps. These moments are quaint and endearing, of course, but they reveal next to nothing about the man himself. Unfortunately, that's just who Lynch is. He's an artist who revels in the unexplained. In a rare moment of critique in McKenna's final chapter, Lynch's wife Emily Stofle fittingly comments, "I don't know how self-reflective David is." It's a comfort that, after 500 pages, someone finally acknowledges it.

If one goes in without expectation, Room to Dream will be kind, because the substance isn't where most readers would expect. Both McKenna and Lynch quickly gloss over key experiences, like the deteriorating of the second season Twin Peaks, and Lynch offers less than ten pages on what is widely considered one of his most ambitious masterpieces, Mulholland Drive. Less prominent episodes fare even worse. The Straight Story, for instance, a G-rated Disney co-production that Lynch directed and his ex-wife Mary Sweeney wrote, edited, and produced, is surely one of the most unique anomalies of Lynch's career, and yet the book treats it coldly, with around ten pages between the two authors on the subject. For a book as long as Room to Dream, it's unbelievably skimpy with the details.

Thematically, it's not much more meaningful. McKenna consistently frames Lynch as an auteur of vision set in opposition against the fickle and greedy machine of corporate Hollywood, which indeed has been a prevailing theme in his life, but it's the kind of reductive trope Lynch himself would enthusiastically dismantle in one of his films, the same way he burrowed into the darkness of Los Angeles moviemaking in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. It's best to treat those motifs skeptically and focus instead on the intriguing detours through Lynch's life, whether it's his early successes at the American Film Institute, his experiments with web content in the 2000s, the ups-and-downs in his career as a painter, or, of course, his advocacy work for the practice of transcendental meditation. There are a lot of compelling experiences hiding in Room to Dream outside the boxes of convention and superficiality.

Even with all it's fascinating moments, though, it's hard not to regard Room to Dream as a tremendous missed opportunity. The central problem is that the whole concept of an autobiography goes against all of Lynch's defining sensibilities. Lynch has been a vocal and aggressive advocate against explanation or analysis of his work from the start. His interest as an artist resides in feeling and the subliminal, and he believes the process of decoding that many of his fans eagerly engage in robs his films of their essential mystery. He and his art revel in the unexplained, which puts this biography in a perplexing space. Its role is ostensibly not to give order to the puzzles of Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, or Twin Peaks, nor to delve into the director's unusual private philosophies, nor even to probe the life behind his art.

Room to Dream is ultimately no portrait of the artist; Lynch, it seems, is far too secretive for a memoir to hold any major, sustained value. Of course, there's no doubt that anyone with even a passing curiosity of the man's movies will find many things of interest here, but the enormous depth, intensity, and eccentricity of his work is let down by an unexpectedly cursory account of his life. In the end, the great frustration of Room to Dream is that David Lynch emerges from it every bit the enigma he was going in.

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