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Living in David Lynch’s Art Life

A new book gives the spotlight to the filmmaker’s often overlooked collaborators.

Hector Mata / AFP / Getty

In 2016’s documentary, David Lynch: The Art Life, one scene stands out from the others like a rip down the front of an evening gown. Lynch, now in his seventies, is recounting memorable moments of his boyhood in Boise, Idaho. He’s already told the tale of the night he and his brother saw a bloodied, naked woman staggering down their neighborhood street, a vision he later recreated with Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet (1986). But the story that comes next, remarkably, is even stranger, so strange that it can’t quite be called a story at all. 

The night before we left Boise... It was a summer night, but it wasn’t a joyful summer night. There’s a triangle of grass between our house and the Smiths’ house, and at the base of the triangle, there is a tree. The whole family was out there, my dad was out there, I think my brother and sister were there ... And Mr. Smith came out, and …

Lynch interrupts himself with the wordless exhale of someone registering profundity. “I can’t tell the story,” he resumes, gruffly. Low notes of music rest underneath his voice. “I never talked to Mr. Smith, hardly ever, but, boy….” We’re shown closeups of Lynch’s art: a watercolor of grays and blacks, with the words and home above a crude tree, a fence, and a house with a single body filling the space inside. The effect is to convey the faint outline of an incident too disturbing to be spoken aloud. “Then we went to Virginia,” Lynch says, and the tone lifts a little. The transition is disorienting enough that upon my first viewing, I immediately stopped the film to re-watch that part, convinced I’d missed whatever filled the narrative gap.

On the internet, fans speculated that Mr. Smith had a stroke or a heart attack, which would parallel another of Blue Velvet’s indelible moments—the otherwise idyllic opening sequence in which a man watering his yard is apparently stung on the neck, and falls down in a seizure. The documentary’s director, Jon Nguyen, affirmed in interviews that the film crew was unable to coax Lynch into concluding the tale; it seemed that no one but the people present on that mysterious night would know the truth. But this summer’s Room to Dream, a jointly-written biography by Lynch and iconic interviewer Kristine McKenna, finally offers up the rest. Lynch writes:

Mr. Smith appears and I see him talking to my dad, then shaking his hand. I stared at this and started feeling the seriousness of the situation, the huge importance of this last night. In all the years living next to the Smiths I had never spoken one-on-one with Mr. Smith and now here he was walking toward me. He held out his hand and I took it. ... I didn’t really hear what he said—I just burst into tears. I realized how important the Smith family was to me. ... It was beyond sad.

So that’s the whole story? 

Well, yes and no. With Lynch’s work as well as his life, stories might end, but they’re never quite whole. Or maybe they’re more complete, more multidimensional complex than the world “whole” ever suggests. When Lynch says “I can’t tell the story,” he means less that he can’t tell the story, and more that the story itself is untellable.

Life’s frequent untellable-ness is a good place to start with Room to Dream, a book that, we’re told in the introduction, “barely scratches the surface of the story at hand,” an insistence that carries through to the end: “If I look at any page of this book,” Lynch writes on the last page, “I think, Man, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” 

The tip of the iceberg has been visible for a while. Lynch is over 70 years old and has been an obsessed-over figure in cinema for the greater part of his adult life, but he’s notoriously tight-lipped about his processes of creation. He worries that any details about the making of his movies will corrupt viewers’ reception of the work, and he’s right—they do. (But then so do the theories that abound in their absence. I can’t watch Eraserhead without thinking about common speculations of how Lynch made the alien-looking baby, which include a skinned rabbit and, less plausibly, an aborted fetus.)

But that means most available stones have already been turned over, and Room to Dream, consequently, doesn’t contain much new information. It takes us from Lynch’s upbringing in Idaho and Virginia, to the release of his first feature film, Eraserhead, in 1977, to the notorious failure of 1984’s Dune, and the rapturous reception last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return. The book directly cribs from Catching the Big Fish, Lynch’s sparse and beguiling 2006 flirtation with memoir, and rehashes much of what was disclosed in—among other places—the livelier and ultimately more interesting Lynch on Lynch, a collection of interviews by Chris Rodley last updated in 2005. There’s internal repetition, too; co-author McKenna writes one chapter on Lynch in a typical journalist’s style, and then Lynch weighs in, occasionally disagreeing with the reports of others, primarily adding details and tangents to the picture McKenna’s sketched out. The pacing is slow and discursive, as are Lynch’s films, but text doesn’t function as a film (like The Art Life) does, with its inclusion of visuals, sound, the molten quality of facial expressions. 

This is the primary reason Room To Dream is far more dull than I’d anticipated, or rather is only as stimulating as reading about Lynch ever is—which is actually still pretty stimulating. I receive at least a small hit of inspiration whenever he’s the subject, because few creative people give themselves over to their work with comparable commitment. When I’m reminded that a person can fully devote themselves to their own idiosyncrasies, I experience a “feeling that all possibilities are available,” as Lynch puts it in Catching the Big Fish while praising the light in L.A. 

But for all possibilities to be available, almost all obligations must be gone. Lynch is a quintessential “art monster,” someone who refuses to concern himself with quotidian chores and instead folds himself into the depthless ocean of his own creative will. His fourth and current wife Emily Stofle told McKenna that “he’s selfish, and as much as he meditates, I don’t know how self-reflective David is.” (Since the shooting of Twin Peaks: The Return, McKenna reports, Stofle and Lynch have lived in separate homes on the same property.) When Stofle told Lynch she intended to have a child, he warned her, “I need you to know that I have to do my work and I don’t want to be made to feel guilty.” And after the birth of his fourth child, Lula, he made good on his promise of “disappear[ing] into work.” Of his second child, he writes, “Austin came to see me in Berkeley a couple of times. He was three or four years old. How the hell did he get out there?” (Austin was living with David’s second wife, Mary Fisk, in L.A. at the time.) “I may not’ve been the best father to my kids, because I just wasn’t around much,” Lynch muses in the book’s final chapter.

In spite of its dryness, Room to Dream is valuable as a historical record, not only because it collects so much in a single manuscript but because McKenna’s shrewd and constant acknowledgement of the people who’ve surrounded and supported Lynch for decades chisels those names into the same record. It’s a list not limited to the four women who’ve filled the role of wife, though many are women. One of the most notable is Catherine Coulson, a longtime Lynch collaborator best known for her role as Twin Peaks’s Log Lady. Coulson so believed in Eraserhead that she took all the furniture from her own living room for its set, and brought food and money to the film’s crew—all of which she acquired from the waitressing job she kept during the hours she wasn’t working on the movie. Over forty years later, though she was dying of cancer and advised not to travel, she planned to fly to Lynch to shoot her scenes for Twin Peaks: The Return. She disguised the extent of her illness to Lynch, but a protective friend blew her cover and told him the cameras would have to come immediately to shoot her in her home. She died five days after completing her scenes.

The phrase “art monster” belongs to Jenny Offill, who writes in her novel, Dept. of Speculation: 

My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

According to his assistant, Micheal Barile, Lynch “hasn’t pumped gas in thirty years” and “doesn’t think about where his next meal’s coming from—lunch just appears.” And in Lynch’s own words: “I loved [my first wife] Peggy, but I don’t know that we would have gotten married if she hadn’t been pregnant, because marriage doesn’t fit into the art life.”

It’s telling that where Offill’s female narrator sees a “monster,” Lynch simply sees a man living the life he was meant to live. In Room to Dream, after Lynch talks about his own record as a father, he adds the equivocation that “my father was never around much either ... Maybe it’s not the presence of the father but the love that you feel coming through that’s important.” And it’s true that McKenna quotes myriad friends, actors, colleagues and employees who praise Lynch’s ability to make them feel special, valued, cared for, and deeply seen.

But the sort of absorption Lynch lavishes on his cast and crew members to foster “an atmosphere of joy” on set can lead to a sense of great loss when it’s withdrawn from those who aren’t working with him anymore. “He completely cut me out of his life and left me with a phone call telling me he never wanted to see me again,” former girlfriend Isabella Rossellini told McKenna. “It took me years to get back on my feet ... I loved David immensely and thought he loved me.” Mary Fisk, his second wife whose marriage ended (in part) because of Lynch’s affair with Rossellini, said, “My heart was truly broken ... I’d lost my best friend.” These women are rarely only lovers; from Fisk to Rossellini to Stofle to third wife Mary Sweeney, they were first, or simultaneously, collaborators. Mary Sweeney was prominently involved with seven of Lynch’s eleven feature films, and four of his five TV projects; it must have been unspeakably painful to live through the dissolution of a romantic relationship while knowing the creative partnership would also die.

While adequately describing the infinite textures of any individual’s life is an impossible task, Lynch’s life might present a particular challenge because so many other people’s lives have been devoted to making his possible. “There are kites and there are kite-holders,” actor and singer Chrysta Bell tells McKenna, adding that Lynch’s current wife is “happy to be the kite holder and let her partner soar.” In this frame, Room to Dream is a chronicle of a kite relay, one in which holder after holder passes off the handle when their arm gets tired. Lynch is not a monster, but he is someone whose existence demands an unusual amount of assistance, and the people who provide that assistance matter, too.

In his legendary profile of Lynch, David Foster Wallace noted that Lynch used the paintings of an unnamed ex-wife (it could be one of two) on the walls of a set in Lost Highway, and that it was “unclear” how these paintings—which Wallace deemed “far more interesting” than Lynch’s own—came to be in Lynch’s possession for the occasion. In this telling, the paintings, like Lynch’s son Austin or his lunch, seem to just appear. But the people who make the lunch and shepherd the children and paint the more interesting paintings have names, and McKenna has provided a valuable service in giving them credit for their labors. Room to Dream may not be an especially deep dive into Lynch himself, but it widens the field of inquiry to bring in those who’ve been instrumental in letting his kite soar.