A chaste hero fixated on doughnuts and tripping on loose ends is nothing new, says Biancamaria Fontana. He has been around for at least a century.

Is Twin Peaks a truly post-modern work, as some critics have argued? An interesting experiment maybe but one which exploits conventional rather than literary and visual strategies. The director has in fact (deliberately or unwittingly) translated into the language of cinema and of the television soap a traditional genre which flourished within European literary culture up to the beginning of our century: the feuilleton.

The analogy is not immediately apparent because we tend to associate feuilletons-- interminable sagas published in weekly instalments by the popular press-- with a "period", generally 19th century, Parisian slums and aristocratic mansions, pirate ships and buried treasures, babies swapped in paupers' hospitals, poisoned drinks, gipsies and so on. Diners, sheriffs and the FBI seem out of place. But that's just historical distortion.

Originally the writer of feuilletons was someone who would use absolutely anything she could think of to tantalise her readers, search- ing for the modern, the eccentric and the exotic without feeling, tied to any particular background.

The basic plot of Twin Peaks is a simple and rather conventional one: a hero attempts to unmask a crime, punish its authors and vindicate their innocent victims. David Lynch's hero is Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) dispatched to investigate the horrific murder of a local girl. Agent Cooper is a knight sans peur et sans reproche, immaculate from his metal shinpads and bullet-proof vest to the top of his brilliantined hair with an exagerated respect for his duties and Federal regulations. He is innocent, brave, honest, generous, loyal, punctillious, pedantic, priggish and is moreover guided in his quest for truth by the assistance of superior forces.

He takes an obsessive interest in trivial practical details and his untimely remarks on black coffee and cherry pie, uttered at the moments of greater dramatic tension, are probably the single most famous feature of the serial (this obsessive interest he shares in fact with Dumas's Edmond Dantes, who in the pages of the Count of Monte Cristo engages in tiresome comparisons between French and Turkish, strong and weak, hot and not-so-hot coffee). Predicatbly, Cooper is chaste and his notion of pleasure runs to a comfortable bed and a generous supply of doughnuts.

In Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris (probably the most famous of all 19th-century popular narratives) the hero, Rodolphe Prince of Gerolstein, fights a private war against crime; he is superhumanly clever, rich and powerful, and secretly manipulates the othe characters. American democratic sensibility would not allow this and the fedral agent's relations to his assistants and to his enemies remain rigorously egalitarian.

The object of Cooper's quest, the murder victim, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), is an "innocent" girl who (like America) has been led by ex- istential restlessness and sexual curiosity into corruption. That sexual corruption for a woman is a terminal sin is one of the established truths of the genre: in the Mysteres de Paris, Gerolstein finally recognises in the child prostitute FleurMarie his own lost daughter. She is restored to her princely status, but since she has been "tainted", is sentenced to a premature death.

Blonde, soft, sensual, smiling vacantly from the picture on her parents' mantelpiece, the ambiguous Laura forms a sharp contrast with Cooper's sleek stiffness and self-contented moralism.

Laura is a girl "full of secrets" and secrets, Cooper warns us, are dangerous. The existence of mysteries and their progressive unveiling was a major source of surprise and gratification for the reader of the 18th and 19th century popular narratives. In the world of the feuilleton, goodness is equivalent to transparency: everywhere deceit and secrecy serve the cause of evil.

In Twin Peaks mysteries take generally the form of cryptic and ambiguous phrases, and Cooper's investigation consists largely in decodig verbal clues, in solving a series of "riddles" ("The owls are not what they seem" he murmurs, struck by a sudden illumination, as D'Artagnan cries "C'est lui!, Lui, cet homme!" every time he recognises in a passing stranger the Cardinal's spy Rochefort). Reviewers have remarked on the unusual length to which Lynch carries his intrigue, and have suggested that the endlessly delayed solution of the murder, and the breaking down of the story into innumerable sub-plots illustrate the post-modern experience of an ever-vanishing narrative.

Yet Lynch's approach would have hardly surprised the writers of the last century, who produced their novels week by week and resorted to all kinds of tricks to stimulate or lull indefinitely their readers' attention, especially when the formula proved successful.

Television and cinema have accustomed us to short narratives and a short span of attention. They also seem to endorse a fairly rigid distinction of genres; social comedy, thriller, historical drama, science fiction, hor- ror, fantasy.

Above all Lynch has revived a taste for the eccentric and the bizarre. In a rather hysterical but determined attempt to break through the legions of beautiful, young, fit, smiling bodies which populate the television screen, Lynch (who made his international debut directing The Elephant Man) has resorted to dwarfs, giants, women with a patch on one eye, men with one arm, talking birds, people whose hair turns white over- night. These images would have been perfectly at home in many respectable 18th and 19th century works, where raving insanity, disfigurements and mutilations were a matter of course.

Inside the television screen there is a television screen. Throughout the story, the inhabitants of Twin Peaks are shown watching the episode of a series called Invitation To Love. When the Sheriff walks into his office and asks his secretary whay has happened she replies by updating him on the plot of the soap oblivious to a series of "real" dramatic events which have occurred in his absence.

Lynch's trick, if not original is amusing: but the joke is on us. The dream of postmodernist critics, the evervaishing-plot, had already seduced our great-grandmothers. There is no way out of the feuilleton: we are still trapped inside it and likely to remain there for a long, long time.

The Guardian, Mars 1991