Room to Dream
by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
Random House, 592 pp., $32.00
All that we see or seem Is but a dream within a dream. — Edgar Allan Poe
For the past forty somewhat years, David Lynch has dreamscaped a long day’s journey into night, taking audiences on a hallucinated tour through the underworld of their own splintered psyche. In a world, or perhaps I should say industry, often bereft of visionary spellcasting, Lynch has been the equivalent of a cinematic shaman, a goofball deviant in bi-polar shades, trafficking in symbols, archetypes, glyphs, images and impressions, fished out from a fathomless substratum. His oeuvre, a steam-punk Frankenstein of interchangeable parts, speaks to the savvy and glee of a mad scientist at play, while his blending of the eternal with American pop has given us a surrealistic soap-opera with an eye toward the numinous. Carl Jung eating apple pie in a diner while riffing on anima with a gum-clacking waitress named Flo; the red-jacketed ghost of James Dean partying on top of a toxic mushroom cloud while Marilyn Monroe lip-syncs “Happy Birthday” in Yiddish; a blue jukebox isolated in the desert where it serves as an altar for a congregation of devout rabbits . . . these could be dispatches from a world of Lynch’s making.
There is a grayscale term, “gnossienne,” from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which is defined as such: A moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored — an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you because ultimately neither of you has a map or a master key or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.
On the heels of last year’s documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, comes the memoir, Room to Dream, written by Lynch and Kristine McKenna, and both of these “inventories” of Lynch’s personal and creative life bear the gravitational tease of gnossienne, a sense of enlightenment wrapped in even greater mystery. Or to remix it in Lynchian Lodge-speak: it’s the seductive allure of the red curtains, and not what’s behind the red curtains, that matters most.
Written in alternating chapters — McKenna would cover a certain period or timeframe in Lynch’s life, drawing from research and the varying perspectives of Lynch’s friends, family, peers, and then Lynch would offer his take on the covered material — gives the book a conversational quality that is fluid and spatially dynamic. The white-picket haven of 1950s Boise, Idaho, which is the remembered heartbeat of Lynch’s childhood, provides both a template and emotional overlay to his sensibility, or as McKenna states, “The 1950s have never really gone away for Lynch. Moms in cotton shirtwaist dresses smiling as they pull freshly baked pies out of ovens; broad-chested dads in sport shirts cooking meat on a barbecue or heading off to work in suits; the ubiquitous cigarettes . . . classic rock n’ roll; diner waitresses wearing cute little caps; girls bobby sox and saddles shoes, sweaters and pleated plaid skirts—these are all elements of Lynch’s aesthetic vocabulary.”
It is this postcard-enshrined notion of innocence, a bubblegum veneer of insouciance, which, when squared against its shadow-side, grows dim and muddy “in the complicated zone where the beautiful and the damned collide.” That collision-point has been the primary thrust and incubator behind Lynch’s creative output — as a painter, filmmaker, musician; as someone, who from a relatively young age, burned to live what he called “the art life.” McKenna, in referring to Lynch and his artist-pal from youth, John Lynch, said, “For them, art was a noble calling that demanded discipline, solitude, and a fierce single-mindedness; the cool sarcasm of pop and cocktail party networking of the New York art world had no place in their art-making practices. They were romantics in the classic sense of the word and were on another trajectory entirely.” The fateful moment that opened Lynch up to the possibilities of cinema occurred in 1967 “while working on a painting depicting a figure standing among foliage rendered in dark shades of green, he sensed what he described as ‘a little wind’ and saw a flicker of movement in the painting. Like a gift bestowed on him from the ether, the idea of a moving painting clicked into focus in his mind.”
The picture that comes across of Lynch himself — or at least one of its angular perspectives — is of a man living in a bubble of his own making, a happy bubble, and his childlike curiosity, optimism and sweetness have endeared him to many of his peers and those who have worked with him. Laura Dern said, “David would say meditation is the source of his happiness (Lynch is a longtime practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, and the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace was founded in 2005), and I’m sure that’s true. He knows who he was and who he became almost immediately after he started meditating, so he’s the best judge of that. I would add, though, that I think part of his happiness has to do with the fact that he places no limits on himself as a creative person. There’s a lot of self-judgment and shame in our culture, and David doesn’t have any of that. When he makes something he never wonders what people will think of it, or what he should be making, or what the zeitgeist needs. He makes what bubbles up out of his brain, and that is part of his joy.” And then, from Lynch himself: “I don’t know how I got to that thing of not caring what other people think, but it’s a good thing . . . you fall in love with ideas and it’s like falling in love with a girl. It could be a girl you wouldn’t want to take home to your parents, but you don’t care what anybody else thinks. You’re in love and it’s beautiful and you stay true to those things. There’s this Vedic line that goes, ‘Man has control of action alone, never the fruit of that action.’ In other words, you do the best you can and how the thing goes into the world, you can’t control that.”
The operatic sentimentalism and starburst innocence that is a staple counterpoint to the shadow-side of Lynch’s work, is very much in line with his character — or, as one woman described him during his college days, “a corny, clean-cut guy who drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot of cigarettes. He was eccentric in how straight he was” — and Lynch’s own musing, “Many of the things I see in the world seem very beautiful, but it’s still hard for me to figure out how things can be the way they are, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why my movies tend to be open to different interpretations.” In regarding Lynch’s films as intuitively orchestrated dreams, a radical interplay of sounds and images, I think of something I once read about the feeling of a dream being more important than its possible meanings. In this respect, Lynch is cinematic sibling to Fellini, with whom he shares a January 20th birthday, both auteurs having created worlds parallel to Hermann Hesse’s magic theater from Steppenwolf, a between-the-veils place, which is “not for everybody.”
Yes, the book is a must-read for fans of Lynch, but beyond that, if you are a fan and lover of cinema, creative process, inspiration, and following your bliss, Room to Dream strikes those chords with a down-to-earth immediacy. It is, in essence, one man’s multi-layered valentine to his enduring flame: the art life.
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. His latest novel, Nocturne Variations, will be published by Unsolicited Press. To see more of John Biscello’s work, visit johnbiscello.com