Welcome back to 25YL’s series on the biography/memoir of David Lynch, Room to Dream. This series will be written by various staff writers, who will look at two chapters at a time to examine the highlights and insights of the book.
I am personally covering series Parts 2 and 3 and have realized a unique opportunity for citation. In my reference notes, I will first cite the book properly. After that, I will cite from that book in particular with (McKenna, p.) for Kristine’s portions and (Lynch, p.) for his portions.
This part covers chapters:
- “The Young American”
While the chapters of “American Pastoral,” “The Art Life,” and “Smiling Bags of Death” offer insight into David Lynch’s formative years prior to his feature length film work, many avid fans will begin to feel more of a connection to the time periods of Lynch’s life that relate to the work in which they are most familiar. With “Spike,” we are introduced to the years of Lynch’s life where he worked on Eraserhead. From the outset, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a biography and a memoir and less of a decoder ring for the films of David Lynch. Of course, there are details that do hint of influence as well as fascinating human insights, a look into the people who supported the artist through poorer, more trying times. I will directly invoke Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast when discussing Lynch’s times with Dino De Laurentiis in Part 3 of our series covering chapters “Mesmerized” and “A Suburban Romance, Only Different,” and while I failed to reference it for Part 1 in this series, the prologue to Feast works well here.
For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were known by everyone and everyone has written about them and will doubtless write more. … If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.
Now let’s examine the following statement from the Room to Dream prologue.
The book is not intended to be an exegesis on the films and artworks that are part of this story; material of that sort is abundantly available elsewhere. This book is a chronicle of things that happened, not an explanation of what those things mean. As we approached the completion of our collaboration we were both left with the same thought: The book seems short and barely scratches the surface of the story at hand. Human consciousness is too vast to fit between the covers of a book, and every experience has too many facets to count. We aimed to be definitive, but it’s still merely a glimpse.
We know David’s intentions here were not for this book to be looked on as a fiction, but he did intend for Room to Dream to “…throw some light on what has been written as fact.” As we know Kristine McKenna’s portions work as the biographical portion and include perspectives from those in David’s life separate of his memories.
Includes Spoiler Content:
This portion of his life opens with his move in 1970 to Los Angeles with his brother John, his friend Jack Fisk, and Jack’s dog named Five. David was to attend the AFI, which was housed in a Greystone Mansion he cannot say enough about in the audio version. Alan Splet was working as the head of AFI’s sound department. Peggy Reavey remembers an allowance from Lynch’s father of $250 a month, which supported their rent during the time David was to attend AFI. Jack’s sister Mary Fisk would move close soon after. It is during this time that David is working on his script for Gardenback. He had begun the script about infidelity after being inspired by a painting in Philadelphia, McKenna tells us. Kristine McKenna also explains more regarding Gardenback by discussing his paintings in the chapter “Smiling Bags of Death.”
Startling creatures that seem to have emerged from loamy soil, they’re impossible conglomerations of human limbs, animal forms, and organic growths that dissolve the boundaries customarily distinguishing one species from the next; they depict all living things as parts of a single energy field. Isolated in black environments, the figures often appear to be traveling through murky terrain that’s freighted with danger. Flying Bird with Cigarette Butts (1968) depicts a figure hovering in a black sky with a kind of offspring tethered to its belly by a pair of cords. In Gardenback (1968–1970), an eagle seems to have been grafted onto human legs. Growths sprout from the rounded back of this figure, which walks in profile and has a breastlike mound erupting from the base of the spine.
We can wait for Part 8 of this series to engage with the frog-moth inspirational reveal, but looking at the quote above, can we kind of expand upon it? Is there maybe a little Gardenback in The Return’s frogmoth? AFI would encourage David to expand the script, though, an experience that found him bored with the final product. In the process he had begun thinking on Eraserhead. The Gardenback script was 40 pages, which David believes was sufficient for a feature film, but he was financed $50,000 to expand it to 100 or 120 pages with Caleb Deschanel and Frank Daniel. Notable in this section is the fact that as a part of the first graduating class of AFI, he was in the company of Terrence Malick, Tim Hunter, and Paul Schrader as well. He abandoned Gardenback in 1971. AFI would finally give him the green light and a budget for Eraserhead only after he stormed out of the school to quit. There isn’t much new in the way of casting news for avid readers. David does tell the story of his first meeting with Jack Nance, who he describes as having been “…in a grumpy mood, like, What the fuck is this student-film bullshit.” What got Nance on board? He found an appreciation for David’s roof rack for his car. Lynch’s utility is a point that gets appreciated often in the book, both in McKenna’s portions and from his recollections. As McKenna reports on page 98: “Largely built out of scavenged materials, Henry’s world is some kind of miracle in that Lynch did so much with so little. Everything was repurposed and repeatedly reused to create meticulously built sets…” Then, Lynch reports on page 121 as seen below.
There was this incredible studio way down on the eastern end of Sunset Boulevard that was closing up shop, so I rented a thirty-five-foot flatbed truck and Jack and I went over there on a cloudy day and they were selling everything. We left there with this truck piled twelve feet high with flats, kegs of nails, wire, a thirty-by-forty-foot black backdrop, the radiator that’s in Henry’s room—different things. We said, “How much,” and the guy said, “Hundred bucks.” I built every set for the film out of those flats.
Part of David’s sense of construction, of creating, features as a happiness in his, Peggy’s, and Jennifer’s memories as well, particularly in a story about him and Jennifer building a mud tower on their table for Peggy. He makes note to point out how great Peggy was in his life, how she appreciated the gift that would end up damaging the table, where other spouses would have been livid. The happiness didn’t last. Still, we can go ahead and capture that story as a connection to the dirt towers and mounds he was creating at this time: on Henry’s bedside table, later holding Laura’s half of the broken heart necklace with the paper note of “Fire walk with me,” and the Owl Cave ring Chet Desmond reaches for. This also recalls a story he tells of his and Jack Fisk’s trip to Woodstock (not the concert). “It was in the winter and we went up there because we’d heard about this hermit who lived there, and I wanted to see this hermit. Nobody could ever see him. He built this kind of mound place out of earth and rocks and twigs with little streamers on them, and when we went there it was covered with snow … you couldn’t see him. We didn’t see him, but we felt him being there.”
As Kristine McKenna writes about Eraserhead, she likens the structure of it to a Beckett play. Jack Fisk explains in his view that “‘Eraserhead is about karma … I didn’t realize it when we were working on it, but the Man in the Planet is pulling levers that symbolize karma.’” I admit to not being prepared to take that stance in my own reading of the film, but Fisk’s quote is indicative of the insights you get from those directly involved outside of Lynch in this biography. On a another fun note, I am happy to report for J.A. Fairhurst that there actually is a Hamlet connection here, though not quite Shakespeare-related as his brilliant The Key to Eraserhead presents it. After a final cut was finished and some failed screenings of the film—with a vacant Cannes crew in New York, a rejection from the New York Film Festival, and a volume-corrupted screening for Filmex—Lynch took the principal cast and crew out to Hamburger Hamlet where he made agreements on napkins that they would all receive a percentage of profits from the film. Catherine Coulson confirms the fact that they were still receiving paychecks at the time of her interview. Sissy Spacek, who is married to Jack Fisk and would many years later act in The Straight Story, met David through Fisk on the set of Eraserhead. We also learn during this time period of Lynch and Reavey’s separation and eventual divorce, which was shortly followed with marriage to Mary Fisk.
It would be easy to transition to his time with The Elephant Man here, except for one important occurrence: he discovers Transcendental Meditation during his time on Eraserhead. I would like to jump ahead a bit with this one in making a general statement about the novel’s entirety. Throughout the biography/memoir and perhaps even more in the audiobook, Lynch enjoys tangents into a sort of proselytizing on the practice and beliefs of TM. Only this week, his approach to interview statements utilizing the precepts of such led to much confusion over the internet in which he responded with clarification later. It emphasizes that TM is a practice he has been sharing widely through his Foundation and heavily since his publication of Catching the Big Fish. It is an interesting effort on his part to still utilize his life’s story as an example of the benefits of such. So, I note with fascination the fact that through the eighteen hours of Twin Peaks: The Return, he created a self-curated retrospective on his life’s work. Then, in the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, he allowed cameras to follow him around to give a precursory view of his life and work before the publication of this book. Further, he allowed uncanny behind the scenes documentaries of his time on Twin Peaks. This is all to say that it becomes obvious how important it is for David Lynch to share not only his life story with his audience but to also share his spiritual beliefs and hopes. At some points in the book, those tangents can feel distracting, perhaps even over-emphasized to some degree, but what this all adds up to is an unavoidable air of mortality. That mortal narrative once noticed in all of these pieces together is hard to ignore.
That’s a heavy observation to drop like that, but be encouraged as this takes us to his time on The Elephant Man.
“The Young American”
At the beginning of this piece, I stated that this would cover highlights and insights. I seem to have ignored that. For your time and the sake of space, I’ll try to do more of that in this portion. For instance, most of us are aware that Mel Brooks would hire David Lynch to make The Elephant Man. This chapter explains the decisions Lynch had control over and those he did not. Lynch had hoped to hire Jack Nance for Joseph Merrick, but he admits that like Dennis Hopper was Frank Booth, John Hurt was Merrick. Brooks hired Hopkins. Following that, Lynch and Hopkins’s relationship on set reads as quite beleaguered. There is an instance in production where Lynch had been up late at the hospital due to a miscarriage situation with Mary. As he explains on page 164: “…then I had to get up real early to go to work. … So I go into his room at the end of this long hallway and I’m pale, hadn’t had any sleep, and he tears into me and says, among many other things, that I have no right to direct this picture. I said, ‘Tony, I’m sorry you feel this way, but I’m the director of this picture and I’m going to keep on directing it,’ and I left. Again on page 165, he shares another instance of the uneasiness between them that ends in Hopkins making a call to Brooks to fire Lynch with no such luck. The tension is too obvious. Most of the unease that follows this—there is plenty—comes from Lynch being a young director and in a foreign country to him. The misunderstandings between him and his cast and crew were seemingly mutual.
Here is a possible highlight moment, a moment of déjà vu that requires quotation.
We were living in this real British little house with knickknacks all around, and one day I was walking through the dining room and suddenly I had a déjà vu. Usually a déjà vu feels like “Oh, this has happened before,” but as I entered the déjà vu it got slippery and it went into the future! I saw it and I said to myself, “The Elephant Man makeup is going to fail.” Because I saw it. I saw the future. You can go into the future. It’s not easy, and you can’t do it when you want to, but it can happen.
Did you see it? Time became slippery. This is how he describes déjà vu and psychic time travel. I absolutely suggest we keep this moment in mind when pondering and interpreting Phillip Jeffries’s statement ”It’s slippery in here,” as he searches to connect Cooper to the night of Laura’s murder in Twin Peaks: The Return. This is an experience Lynch has had personally during his time on The Elephant Man.
Still, about that unfortunate and surely devastating miscarriage mentioned earlier—those emotions are not dwelled upon in the text, Lynch points out a Ronnie Rocket connection. “Mary got pregnant while we were in London and we found out it was twins. There are two characters in Ronnie Rocket named Bob and Dan, so I wanted twin boys and I’m going to name them Bob and Dan, and they’d have round black shoes, polished, and slick haircuts. Neat little guys. I was pretty pumped about that…” David Lynch also meets Stuart Cornfield early in this chapter of his life. It was that relationship that opened the door to Elephant Man for Lynch, and Stuart may have been his strongest supporter of Ronnie Rocket, which they simply couldn’t find the necessary support.
I wrote an extensive Lynch Night feature about Ronnie Rocket for this site that I hope to extend soon, so I will save some of the insights in this book for that feature, though I hope you enjoy them on your own. Following the miscarriage, Mary and David would get a Jack Terrier that Lynch claims as “the love of my life” named Sparky. As an audience, we can see one of Sparky’s curious traits in an early scene in Blue Velvet, a love of biting water from water hoses. Of course, the name Sparky is also used for the name of the child in Dumbland.
I’ll close with that reference so that the book, only a week old as of this writing, can continue to surprise and inform your Lynch experience. Basically, why ruin all of the Sparky stories for you? As you can tell, each of these chapters will be quoted for many years to come as we continue to write about the art and life of David Lynch.
 Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), preface.
 David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream (New York: Random House, 2018), xi-xii.
 McKenna, p. 71.
 Lynch, p. 120.
 Lynch, p. 89.
 McKenna, p. 95.
 Lynch, p. 162.
 Lynch, p. 164.