Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna – review

An enjoyable biography of director David Lynch is rich in detail, but doesn’t get to the root of the man’s mystery

A few years back I interviewed David Lynch at his lithographic studio in Paris. The film-maker sat at an ink-splattered table in a sky-blue smock. He was courteous and serene and blithely unrevealing about his life and his work – keen to present himself as an unconscious translator of pre-existing ideas, or an angler at the water’s edge, waiting for something to bite.

“You don’t make the fish, you catch the fish,” he explained patiently. “Now you can cook it in a good way or a bad way, but that’s as far as it goes.” The hour flew by in a haze of happy abstractions. I came away thinking that while I’d genuinely enjoyed meeting the man, I could not say for sure who it was that I’d met.

Now along comes Room to Dream, a hybrid biography bulging with more than 100 interviews (everyone from Sting to Isabella Rossellini), to give a fuller picture and a finer grain. Written by Lynch in collaboration with the journalist Kristine McKenna, it shows us Lynch the artist, the director, the lover, the child, skipping from his boyhood in Idaho and across his four marriages, 23 exhibitions, eight studio albums and 35 movie credits. Which is another way of saying that the book’s waters run wide but not necessarily deep. Room to Dream provides contours and edges, brief splashes of insight and teasing tugs on the line. But the man at the centre remains a beautiful mystery.

How reassuring it is when the art and the artist appear to be in snug sympathy; when film-makers conveniently embody the films they make. Martin Scorsese in person is a ball of nervous energy. Jim Jarmusch is languid and studied and self-consciously cool. And yet Lynch has always been a different kettle of fish: a wholesome, strait-laced Norman Rockwell-type who produces the cinematic equivalent of Goya’s black paintings. He’s like the white picket fence at the start of Blue Velvet. Behind that placid facade, the horrors are lurking.

Lynch’s finest work contains themes of doubling and twinning. Fred Madison wakes up as Pete Dayton in the undervalued Lost Highway. Two women arguably play the same character in 2001’s Mulholland Drive. So it’s fitting that Room to Dream should be structured as a series of alternating chapters, with Lynch and McKenna passing the narrative back and forth like a baton. First the journalist maps out the terrain, interviews the witnesses and outlines the basic story. Then the artist steps in to add personal colour and detail. “What you’re reading here is basically a person having a conversation with his own biography,” McKenna explains in the prologue.

Blue Velvet (1986) trailer.

In a Lynch picture, I suspect this exchange would eventually pitch towards chaos. There would be discrepancies, competing frequencies and casual asides that then take on a darker significance. But here the biographer and her subject steer a largely parallel course, intent on accentuating the positive every chance they have. Figuratively, at least, these two are on the same page.

Room to Dream, then, is at its most illuminating when it focuses on the nuts and bolts of the director’s work; charting his ascent from a gawky art student to “a brand and an adjective”. McKenna recounts how the director’s apprenticeship in depressed, crime-ridden Philadelphia provided the “rich mulch for Lynch’s imagination” that would eventually bear fruit in his 1977 breakthrough Eraserhead, and how his fascination with the OJ Simpson trial sparked the existential noir of Lost Highway.

Along the way, though, the man sporadically breaks cover or is briefly hooked on the line. Lynch, we learn in passing, once suffered from anger-management issues until transcendental meditation ironed out the kinks in his system. Elsewhere, he admits to being fascinated by blood and bone and body parts. He insists on being present at the birth of his first child because “I wanted to see it just to see”. He buys mackerel from the fishmonger so he can dissect them at home. On learning that producer Raffaella De Laurentiis is to have a hysterectomy, he promptly requests that she give him her uterus. “I’m obsessed with textures,” he explains at one point. “What the average person sees as grotesque isn’t grotesque to me.”

Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001).
Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001). Photograph: Alamy

It’s tempting to read these passages as evidence of hidden depths or even latent sociopathy; some motivating factor behind the twisted films that he makes. Except that maybe this interpretation misses the essential nature of the man. Tellingly, Lynch and McKenna choose to airily fold these instances alongside all the book’s other elements, rustling up a sunny, holistic portrait of a corn-fed American dreamer who simply likes to show his nightmares to the world. Lynch emerges from these pages as principled, flighty and resolutely incurious about his own inner workings. He’s constantly chasing the next big idea or the next regenerative love affair, reluctant to pause and unpick his decisions, at least for public consumption, away from the meditation mat. The world is a mystery and his films live in darkness. He’s prepared to tell us how they happened but he’s not about to tell us why.

“David has the ability to put things in closets in his mind and [either] deal or not deal with them on his own terms,” says his friend, the music supervisor Dean Hurley. “He’s got a mastery of his own mind and the world’s best poker face.”

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna is published by Canongate (£25). To order a copy for £18.99 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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