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
(1986). But the story that comes next, remarkably, is even stranger,
so strange that it can't quite be called a story at all. 

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
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:

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

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
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
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 Katherine 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: 

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.