Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Those who only know Patti Smith as a punk rock icon may be surprised that her new memoir, M Train, dwells more in libraries and cafés than in the sleazy clubs and cheap hotels that typically fill the pages of rock-and-roll memoirs. Unlike her first book of prose, Just Kids, which is set in New York City’s gritty 1970s music and arts scenes, M Train contains only passing references to Smith’s punk rock alter ego.
Smith has said that she always considered herself a writer and that she became a rock star somewhat by accident. Yet the evolution of Smith’s public image from punk poetess to bestselling author has only recently reached a tipping point. Even when she received the National Book Award in 2010 for Just Kids, some skeptics attributed her success as a writer to nothing more than a bad case of hero worship. Now with M Train, a brilliant and beautifully written follow-up to her acclaimed debut, Smith has solidified her place as one of today’s top literary talents.
Smith’s prowess as a writer can certainly be attributed in part to her voraciousness as a reader. Patti Smith does not simply read books; she surrenders herself to them. She writes that, as an adolescent, she would “enter a book so wholeheartedly it was as if [she] were living within it.” “I finished many books in such a manner,” she continues, “closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content by the time I returned home.” Now in her sixties, Smith remains just as vulnerable to hypnotism by literature. When she finishes Haruki Murakami’s 600-page novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, she immediately turns the book over and begins to read it a second time. “I did not wish to exit its atmosphere,” she writes, though she admits that her second reading was driven primarily by her obsession with the Miyawaki house, an abandoned residence that the novel’s protagonist stumbles upon while searching for his cat. Eventually, Smith’s enchantment with the house inspires a real-life trip to Tokyo.
It is a similar urge that takes her to King’s College in Cambridge, where she hopes to locate the room where, in the book Wittgenstein’s Poker, Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein quarrel with one another. In another chapter, Smith travels to French Guiana to collect pebbles from a penal colony described in Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal.
Patti Smith’s M Train traverses the globe, taking the reader not only to Tokyo, Cambridge and French Guiana but also Berlin, Tangiers, Mexico City, Reykjavik and back to Manhattan. But the journey of the titular M train — a stand-in for “mind train” — is very much an internal one. This is a book about solitude, loss and mourning. Smith loses her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, to heart failure at age 45 and her younger brother Todd to a heart attack only a month later. She loses a beloved coat that she had received as a gift from a poet. She loses a Polaroid camera on which she had taken countless photos (some included in this book) of sacred objects — Herman Hesse’s typewriter, Frida Kahlo’s crutches, the interrogation room from “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” About halfway through the book, the Greenwich Village café where Smith spent nearly every day, huddled in a corner drinking black coffee and writing, closes down. Hurricane Sandy destroys the Rockaway Beach boardwalk where she recently bought a house. After the storm passes, the beach house somehow still stands tall and sturdy, surrounded by the wreckage of neighboring homes. “My Alamo,” she calls it.
Smith’s meditations on loss in M Train are some of the most wonderful passages in the book. After losing her tattered black coat, Smith writes: “Why is it that we lose the things that we love and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth after we’re gone? Then it occurred to me. Perhaps I absorbed my coat. I suppose I should be grateful, considering its power, that it did not absorb me.” By the end of the book, Smith stands alone, but tall and sturdy, having absorbed the many people places, novels and objects that she encountered in her life. As much as M Train is a dedication to lost objects — “An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café,” she writes in her final chapter — it is best read as a book about solitude and the power of imagination. It is a lesson about growing old and the sustaining power of curiosity.