Wednesday 19 September 2018

Lynch leaves room for a grand mystery to deepen

Biography: Room to Dream, David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Canongate, hardback, 592 pages, €23

Secretive charm: David Lynch describes the memoir as a person having a conversation with his own biography
Secretive charm: David Lynch describes the memoir as a person having a conversation with his own biography
Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Room to Dream manages to tell detailed and intriguing tales from the life and career of David Lynch, without spoiling the mysterious and secretive charm of the iconic artist.

Is any artist's work as difficult to describe as David Lynch? You could say the filmmaker and painter explores the dark underbelly of life and pays retro homage to certain classic elements of post-war American culture, but those are only a tiny part of it.

You might label his output as abstract, surreal, whimsical, disturbing, dreamlike, even deranged at times. But while all of those adjectives fit, none come close to fully capturing just what it is that makes people love Lynch.

Personally, I'm a huge David Lynch fan, bordering on obsessive, particularly with regards to Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. The iconic TV show and wildly praised film (a BBC poll declared it the greatest of the century so far) are probably the biggest single inspiration on my fiction-writing career. I've even dreamed about Twin Peaks, many times, since first stepping into its spooky world over 25 years ago.

So, as a declared devotee, if I had to winnow the man's work down to its essence, I'd quote that famous line by Francis Bacon (a massive influence, incidentally, on Lynch's painting): "The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery."

David Lynch deepens the mystery: of life, the human mind, the nature of this and other realities. That strange uncertainty at the heart of everything, how the universe is ambiguous, utterly contradictory and basically incomprehensible; his works explore it, capture it, express it, celebrate it.

Don't expect linear progression, coherent logic or that dismal Golden Rule of modern-day television, the "narrative arc". His films are more like music, I think, or poetry, and best approached from that starting-point.

Lynch envisions cinema as "images and sounds, moving together through time;" much of it is symbolic, allegorical. It's dreamy and fractured, it suggests rather than dictates; it's about mood and tone, the feeling of something inexpressible that you can't put into words but know when you see it. It's that grand mystery.

Bearing all this in mind, I approached Room to Dream in an almost Lynchian state of paradox: excitement commingled with dread. Excitement for obvious reasons: this is the first - and, given that he's 72, presumably the last - memoir Lynch will write.

(Technically, it's co-written with author Kristine McKenna. Fittingly, the book travels two paths simultaneously: McKenna interviews family, friends and colleagues for their memories of Lynch, then he comments on those memories in alternate chapters. As he puts it, "What you're reading here is a person having a conversation with his own biography.")

The dread was because part of me - and I believe this goes for most fans - doesn't want to know who the real David Lynch is, where his bizarre inspirations come from, what it all means. In short, we don't want the veil dropped and the mystery explained.

Thankfully, Room to Dream manages a canny trick of delivering a detailed and informative account of Lynch's life and career, while retaining the secretive charm of what it produced. We learn the mechanics of how Wild at Heart or Inland Empire were made, but the veil remains in place. A lot of this is down to the man himself: essentially, we discover, there is no "what does it all mean" (and thank God for that). Lynch gathers together themes and concepts and desires, often seemingly unrelated, over many years, and eventually braids them into a cohesive whole, through that wonderful alchemy of the artistic process. Your interpretation, he insists, is as "valid" as anyone's, including his own; what you take from a film or picture or piece of music is deeply meaningful, simply because it's yours.

He was born in 1946 in Montana - there's a little Irish heritage on the dad's side - and had a peripatetic childhood, as his scientist father and teacher mother moved to Washington, Idaho, Virginia then Idaho again. Lynch's formative years, it's clear, were his pre-teens in Boise, Idaho.

Here much of his recurring obsessions were implanted in the subconscious: rock 'n' roll, rebelliousness, alluring women, smoking, motorbikes, 1950s kitsch, chrome and plastic, small-town life, the nebulous and all-conquering concept of "cool".

The book then moves briskly through each period of his life; after meeting the painter father of a friend, he studies art in Philadelphia, drifts semi-consciously into film-making, spends years in LA producing the avant-garde Eraserhead - one of those movies that's as uniquely brilliant as it is unwatchable - gets his big break through Mel Brooks on The Elephant Man.

There are the usual ups and downs of any life. Dune flopped badly, Twin Peaks became a global sensation, "nobody went to see" many of his films but Lynch didn't particularly mind. He stages art exhibitions, produced music for himself and others, made commercials and along the way he became a cultural icon and short-hand descriptor for a certain kind of darkly quirky sensibility.

Lynch has been married four times, a serial monogamist who keeps falling in love; perhaps surprisingly, none of his ex-wives speak badly of him, though Emily (the most recent) admits that he can be selfish. Indeed, hardly anyone has a bad word to say. He seems a genuinely nice fella, and weirdly down-to-earth given how transgressive a lot of his films are; he loves building things, getting his hands dirty, chatting to staff in the local hardware store.

A major part of Lynch's life, since the mid-1970s, has been transcendental meditation. The book ends with him extolling his late guru and declaring, "May everyone be happy… peace."

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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