A Bookhouse Bulletin: We Are Like the Reader

Critical Esssays on Twin Peaks: The Return

Whenever there’s a forthcoming book on Twin Peaks I immediately plan to read it as soon as I can obtain a copy. There’s joy to be found in that first foray into the table of contents–to discover what other fans/scholars find fascinating enough to motivate a chapter-length essay or a full-length monograph. Sometimes the approaches and insights can spin readers right back into the emotional world of Twin Peaks as if we’re Bobby Briggs spotting Laura Palmer’s photo on the evidence box in Season Three. Sometimes the approaches fail to conjure new research and/or angles that serious fans haven’t already considered. One must simply crack open the new book to see whether it contains thrilling mysteries or simply the secret of how it ever got published in the first place. Unless that is, someone’s already explored the book and is sharing a review.

In this case, the review is of Critical Essays on Twin Peaks: The Return, a collection of essays by scholars, edited by Antonio Sanna, published at the start of 2019. In short, this book hooked me right away, and I burned through it with many of the diverse chapters calling to me for a near-future second reading. That said, I think it’s fair right up front in this review to inform you that this book is very expensive indeed. Still, if you can access it through a library, Critical Essays is well worth your time.

I’ll begin by highlighting the two chapters that provoked the most enjoyment and enlightenment on my first pass through the collection.

The final chapter of the book, by David Sweeney, a Glasgow-based scholar, is about music, nostalgia, and estrangement. Sweeney manages to walk the reader deftly through very sophisticated analysis of the various musical acts performing at the Roadhouse. Drawing on the path-breaking critical work of phenomenal scholar/blogger Mark Fisher, Sweeney attends to the complex invocations of multiple eras that several of the acts such as Chromatics, Cactus Blossoms, and Rebekah Del Rio embody in the styles of their songs and stage performances. By articulating the specific eras that coexist in these and other Roadhouse acts, the chapter provides the reader with a chronology that is fascinating to bring to analysis of the season along with the other chronologies of personal and world-historical events in its narrative. What’s more, Sweeney compares several of the musical mysteries in The Return with David Lynch’s deployments of mixed-era music elsewhere in his oeuvre in order to demonstrate how this new Twin Peaks season is both consistent with and innovative in relation to what’s come before it.

The second chapter of the book, by Matthew Ellis and Tyler Theus, both PhD students at Brown University, also delivers some keen insights. They open the chapter by citing the decades’-long tradition of critics putting Lynch’s cinema in conversation with psychoanalytic critique while noting the shift in The Return from the Freudian Oedipal focus on the father in the original seasons to the Kleinian pre-Oedipal focus on the mother. What’s noteworthy here is that Ellis and Theus take time and care to state clearly what they consider the benefits and drawbacks to psychoanalytic cinema critique, particularly in regards to Lynch’s work. Fans and scholars alike can benefit from their example as they navigate between those who outright reject psychoanalytic analysis and those who might rigidly attempt to force Twin Peaks fully into a simplified framework. In addition to its clear definition of approach, this chapter outlines the relationships between elements of The Return that resolve enigmas from the original seasons, elements that introduce new enigmas, and elements that undermine spectators’ grasps on previous characters and/or plot points. By mapping out the scene where Bobby, Shelly, and Becky discuss Steven’s delinquency and the day’s gunplay over coffee at the RR Diner followed by the young boy firing a guy and the uncanny vomiting young girl with the floating arms, this chapter identifies a path for making sense of how The Return creates frisson with the original seasons and why this makes the series overall a work of art about life as detection and indeterminacy.

The two chapters just described should appeal to scholars as well as general readers who’re up for doing a bit of supplemental poking around to get a basic notion of the critical concepts the writers are referencing. Also on offer in the collection are chapters that are ready-made for general readers who don’t specialize in film studies but who savor intellectually rigorous analysis. Chapters 4-6 constitute a fine example as they each consider The Return as it has circulated in an era of digital media platforms that enable all kinds of fan community building and communications. Just as a number of scholars over the years have written about the original seasons of Twin Peaks inspiring some of the earliest widespread online forum interactions among television fans, these chapters take up the roles that podcasting and internet memes have played in connecting fan communities since the simultaneous Twitter announcement of the new season.

As an adjacent note, while these chapters give sound provocations, I still can’t recommend enough the fascinating Transmedia approach Dan Hassler-Forest took in his essay “‘Two Birds with One Stone’: Transmedia Serialization in Twin Peaks published in the online open-access M/C Journal.    

Final mention goes to Antonio Sanna, the editor of the collection. In writing the Introduction, Sanna faced the deeply challenging task of describing and framing the history of Twin Peaks so that it might prove both accessible to the novice and engaging to those fellow scholars who’ve read widely in the field of Twin Peaks and David Lynch scholarship. To a large extent, Sanna succeeded. A key reason why is the formidable range of research put into productive conversation here. To read the Introduction is to observe a committed scholar/fan extrapolating conversations from the vast archive of writings on the series and then advancing them through his reflections on The Return and on the essays he’s collected and edited for the rest of us who can’t seem to get enough of that place both wonderful and strange.

Written by Andy Hageman

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