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David Lynch's memoir-slash-biography is, yes, strange — and deeply American

David Lynch's memoir-slash-biography is, yes, strange — and deeply American
Filmmaker David Lynch's new book, written with Kristine McKenna, is "Room to Dream." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When I conjure up the most iconic images of America, I see Washington crossing the Delaware and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a podium fighting to make his dream a reality. I see a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post as well as John Wayne riding through Monument Valley in a John Ford picture. But I also see something different, something darker: a severed ear, covered with ants, half-hidden in the tall grass of a field — an image from the movie “Blue Velvet.”

In discussing the impetus for the film, director David Lynch explained that the severed ear was the first image to come to him after the title “Blue Velvet” had given him a certain feeling. “I don’t know why it had to be an ear,” he said, “except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else.”

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That severed ear in the grass embodies Lynch’s vision of America, where manicured lawns teem with insects and small towns carry big secrets. Film critic Pauline Kael could tell early on that Lynch was interested in “the mystery and madness hidden in the ‘normal.’”

“Lynch is first and foremost an American artist, and while the themes in his work are universal, the location of his stories is America,” writes Kristine McKenna in “Room to Dream,” a new book cowritten with Lynch, that details the director’s experiences, offering an unprecedented peek behind the curtain of his personal life and creative endeavors.

Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini in "Blue Velvet"
Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini in "Blue Velvet" (Dino De Laurentiis Communication)

The book gives us a glimpse not only into Lynch, the man and the artist, but also into Lynch’s America — the place the man came from, the space the artist depicts. “In Lynch’s realm,” McKenna writes, “America is like a river that flows ever forward, carrying odds and ends from one decade into the next, where they intermingle and blur dividing lines we’ve invented to mark time.” Lynch’s America is dream-like, uncanny, full of mystery, full of madness, ever-askew.

Lynch was born Jan. 20, 1946, in Missoula, Mont., but he’s lived all over the country, getting a taste for its small towns, its cookie-cutter suburbs, its bustling metropolises. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and graduated from Los Angeles’ American Film Institute in its storied early years.

His first feature film, “Eraserhead” (1977), quickly became an underground art-house classic and a midnight movie standard. He was touted by Stanley Kubrick and John Waters as an important new voice and courted by George Lucas to direct a “Star Wars” sequel.

In the early ’90s, with the TV show “Twin Peaks,” which he cocreated with Mark Frost, Lynch officially entered the mainstream — and he did so without trading in any of his indie cred or toning down any of his trademark quirky aesthetic. This convinced Kael to call him “the first popular surrealist.” Though mostly known as a filmmaker, Lynch is also an accomplished painter, photographer, writer and musician.

What makes “Room to Dream” different from your average celebrity tell-all — aside from the idiosyncratic figure at its center — is the book’s form. It is composed as a diptych: one half biography, one half memoir. How that works is McKenna writes a chapter on a period in the director’s life, meticulously researched, weaving together interviews with countless Lynch collaborators, lovers, friends and family members; then Lynch writes a response to McKenna’s chapter, adding to her reportage, clarifying various details, disputing certain claims and going off on wild tangents.

As they explain in the introduction, “What you’re reading here is basically a person having a conversation with his own biography.”

David Lynch with his painting "Oh . . . I Have a New Shirt" at the Griffin Gallery in 2009.
David Lynch with his painting "Oh . . . I Have a New Shirt" at the Griffin Gallery in 2009. (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

In the first chapter, McKenna calls “Room to Dream” a “story of dualities.” She argues that “the overarching theme in everything he’s done is the issue of the dualities we live with and our efforts to reconcile them.” The form of the book is this theory in praxis. It contains these two voices that, by design, refuse to fully reconcile. The book doesn’t give us one focused view of Lynch, but a double vision, as though two similar but not quite exact portraits of the man have been projected onto one another.

The juxtaposition between McKenna’s chapters and Lynch’s responses may seem like a minor tweak to a standard formula, but the blending of biography and memoir into a kind of biographical duet turns the whole project on its head, makes it different, stranger, more alive.

And that’s exactly what Lynch always does in his art: He takes things we know and re-imbues them with their preternatural strangeness — finding the mystery and madness hidden in the normal. Picket fences, hissing sprinklers, cherry pies, even schmaltzy songs like “Blue Velvet” become, in Lynch’s hands, disrobed of their seeming innocence, simplicity, cliche. So too, now, does the celebrity tell-all become disrobed.

Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern and David Lynch in "Twin Peaks" (2016)
Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern and David Lynch in "Twin Peaks" (2016) (Suzanne Tenner / SHOWTIME)

Of course, as in any such Hollywood book, there are still plenty of surprising facts and juicy tidbits here — and, unsurprisingly, many include surreal imagery and contain classically Lynchian twists. We find out, for instance, that the director told Isabella Rossellini, “You could be Ingrid Bergman’s daughter,” when he first met her, not realizing that, indeed, she was.

We witness Lynch and his childhood friends trying to pop a dead cow with a pickax, and he and his brother meeting a naked woman with a bloody mouth whose skin was the color of milk. We hear a tale about a pig’s uterus Lynch may or may not have kept in his refrigerator for years, and another detailing the “smiling bags of death” he glimpsed when passing a morgue. We discover that he tried to convince Louis C.K. to hire Martin Scorsese for the role Lynch eventually played in “Louie,” and learn of other A-list interactions with the likes of Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando, Billy Wilder and Naomi Watts, Steve Martin and Ringo Starr, Danger Mouse and Elizabeth Taylor.

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Naomi Watts, David Lynch and Laura Elena Harring on the set of "Mulholland Drive"
Naomi Watts, David Lynch and Laura Elena Harring on the set of "Mulholland Drive" (From "Room to Dream" by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna / © Scott Ressler)

Sometimes these tales move the plot of his life forward, and sometimes they feel random, tangential, maybe even unnecessary. In the book, actress Laura Dern claims, “David doesn’t abandon his characters when they’re not doing something big that moves the plot forward. He’ll stay with them while they stare into space making a decision.” McKenna and Lynch don’t abandon their characters here either, and there is value, joy, and beauty in staying with Lynch and his cohorts for these 500-plus pages, no matter where they take you or how long they seem to stare into space making a decision.

But, in these many pages, it must be said that McKenna and Lynch offer few explanations, and even less film analysis, so if you come here looking for the keys to help you make sense of his perplexing art, you will likely be disappointed. Unlike most other biographies and memoirs, this book isn’t trying to explain away the mysteries of the subject’s life and work, but rather to deepen them.

“This book is a chronicle of things that happened,” the authors admit, “not an explanation of what those things mean.” Just as Lynch’s movies don’t offer up their own meaning for easy consumption, “Room to Dream” avoids facile messages (aside from Lynch’s oft-repeated praise of the magic of transcendental meditation) and shies away from obvious interpretations. Instead, it simply paints a portrait of a mysterious and sometimes mad American auteur.

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“We aimed to be definitive,” they write, “but it’s still merely a glimpse.” The book may offer little more than a glimpse, but it’s transporting. Like the ant-covered ear in “Blue Velvet,” the book is a portal, a hole into something else — into David Lynch’s America.

Malone is a writer based in Southern California. His work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Lit Hub and the L.A. Review of Books.

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“Room to Dream”

David Lynch and Kristine McKenna

Random House: 592 pp., $32

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