Peaks and Valleys

Earlier this year, in a burst of post-holiday optimism, I signed up for one of those ‘reading challenges’ on GoodReads and set myself the goal of reading 25 books this year.  There was a time when this would have been simplicity itself; I used to read at least 50 books on the regular, more if I was out of a job (which happened a lot).  I’m still chronically underemployed, but the three part-time jobs I do have, in addition to a busy domestic schedule, social life, volunteering, and my own writing projects get in the way, as does encroaching age and a solid regimen of cannabis abuse.

All of which is to say, I didn’t expect to be padding out my 25-book total with what is essentially a merchandising tie-in for a television series.  But, well, 2016 broke a lot of rules, my friends, and here we are.  I bought The Secret History ofTwin Peaks by the series’ co-creator, Mark Frost, as soon as it came out; Twin Peaks is one of the few shows about which I have a genuinely powerful sense of nostalgia — due in no small part to the fact that it was, and still is, an authentically groundbreaking show of excellent quality — and I’m very much looking forward to its revival, so I set aside my usual objection to such peripheral marketing gimmicks and ponied up the dough.

It helps that The Secret History is a handsome volume, beautifully designed, that works well as an object of contemplation as well as a book.  (That makes it of a piece with the show itself, which pushed its visual lushness to the fore — one of the many qualities that made it so unique at the time.)  Also helpful is the fact that Twin Peaks has a history of such tie-in books of pretty decent quality, including two contemporaneous with the show — The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper by Frost’s brother Scott, and the excellent The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer by David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer. (Apparently, the show has created a sort of make-work cottage industry for the creator’s family.) Presented as a series of documents, dossiers, and other evidence presented in the case files of Dale Cooper, it contains some gorgeous pieces of visual layout and reproductions of historical items both authentic and invented that serve to build a fascinating bit of world-building about the town’s enigmatic past.

There’s nothing particularly essential about The Secret History.  It does a workmanlike job of fleshing out the town’s eerie history, going all the way back to the Lewis & Clark expedition; this, and the presence of some early, creepy reference to Native American mysticism and, yes, good ol’ Masonic conspiracy theory, is the most enjoyable part of the book for me, because I’m a huge mark for that sort of thing.  (It’s even better when, as with the case of the unexplained death of Meriwether Lewis, the conspiracies have at least some grounding in reality.)  There’s also bits and pieces that serve nicely to round out the personalities of some of the members of the cast; although the book is best-written when it’s told in the sincere, straightforward, and oddly earnest voice of Dale Cooper, it also reels out some interesting, and sometimes revealing, background when it gives voice to less prominent characters, especially Deputy Hawk Hill and fringe psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Jacoby.

Towards the middle section of the book, and for most of its end, the story focuses on aspects of what appear to be some kind of UFO-related shenanigans.  I’m not all that interested in this stuff — as a friend says, it makes it read a lot more like an X-Files tie-in than a Twin Peaks one — and it makes me a bit anxious that the series reboot is going to go that route rather than the deep occult surrealism that made me love the show in the first place.  But then I remember that David Lynch is going to be involved, and that puts my troubled soul at ease.  Besides, it gives Frost an excuse to bring up the Shaver Mystery, which is always a good thing, and it helps you suss out the identity of “the Archivist”, who’s supposed to have pulled all these documents together.  (It’s actually not that difficult to figure out even without the flying saucer business, but it’s kept close enough to the vest that the ultimate reveal is still pretty fun.)

The question with a book like this is twofold:  how much does it succeed as a standalone work of art, and how much does it succeed as a means of getting you interested in the art it ties into — that is, essentially, as an advertisement?  As to the first question, well, it’s not a great literary accomplishment or anything, but it’s neither cheap nor shoddy, either visually or narratively.  Frost is a skilled writer who’s got a fine grasp on his characters (though, troublingly, he gets a handful of details from the continuity of the original Twin Peaks series wrong; and if he can’t be bothered to keep track of that stuff, who can?).  It’s not really a book that had to be written, and I somewhat question whether it’s going to attract any readers who aren’t already interested in either the original seres or the new one, but it succeeds quite fine on its own merits and is probably even a good deal better than it strictly needs to be.

As to the second, I’d say it does a pretty fine job.  The continuity issues aside, it fulfills its purpose of filling in a lot of the background of the series and answering some of the questions that were left hanging in the air after its abrupt departure from the airwaves.  The further question of what happened in the intervening 20 years will be answered in a second volume that’s already been announced — and which I’m very eager to buy, thus confirming the whole project’s success (and that I’m still a huge mark for Twin Peaks).  So if you love, or even like, the show, it’s a fine read, a great tie-in, and a perfect holiday gift, so pick one up, and I’ll see you in the Ghostwood National Forest in 2017.

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