Daily Book Review: 'M Train'

Monday, October 12, 2015 - 5:06pm

Patti Smith is really cool. She’s also funny, extraordinarily well-read and well-traveled, multi-talented and palpably kind and compassionate. She’s the kind of person you want to nurse a cup of coffee with for hours and hours, talking about everything on your mind, and things you didn’t even realize were.

Smith is best known as a musician — her 1975 album Horses is considered a watershed in the development of punk rock, among many other popular records and singles. In recent years, she has also received acclaim as a writer, winning the National Book Award for “Just Kids,” a memoir of her passionate, tumultuous relationship with the acclaimed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and their life together in the bohemian art scene of 1970s New York. And, this past week, she released a new book, the enigmatically titled “M Train.”

If you’ve read “Just Kids,” or decide to read “M Train,” you’ll know what I meant in the first paragraph. Smith’s writing is a stream of passionate consciousness. Take this passage from “Just Kids”: “There were days, rainy gray days, when the streets of Brooklyn were worthy of a photograph, every window the lens of a leica. We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night until, exhausted, we fell into bed. We lay in each other’s arms, still awkward but happy, exchanging breathless kisses into sleep.”

“Just Kids” worked because it had that Mapplethorpe relationship as a narrative baseline, off of which Smith could riff. You could forgive her occasionally vatic prose and erratic scene setting, because the book still told a specific, heartfelt story. “M Train,” heartfelt and passionate as it is, suffers from a lack of specificity. It’s a meandering lecture of a book, often interesting, sometimes beautiful, but also tedious and exasperating.

“M Train” is seemingly structured as a series of dreams, reflections and flashbacks that Smith has while sitting in her favorite Greenwich Village café, which she attends every morning for a sacrament of black coffee, bread and olive oil. These vignettes trigger further ones, and they others, until you’ve moved with Smith from Suriname to Tokyo to Detroit to Tangiers. Woven throughout are brief, yet aching, references to her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, a musician who passed away in 1994, and whose memory seems to haunt many of these places. Other tropes include Smith’s passion for visiting, and tending to, the graves of her literary heroes (Jean Genet, Rimbaud, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa), her love of coffee, her attachment to detective shows, and the inevitable nostalgia that accompanies aging.

The book has its moments. There are lines so poetic and pure that you want to etch them on the inside of your eyelids. After losing the photographs she once took of Sylvia Plath’s grave in autumn, she returns years later to take new ones: “There is now one of Sylvia in spring. It is very nice, but lacking the shimmering quality of the lost ones. Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.” After losing both her husband and her brother in a short period of time, Smith recalls “hours sitting in Fred’s favorite chair, dreading my own imagination. I rose and performed small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.”

And, if nothing else, “M Train” is a series of recommendations. I walked away with a page-long list of things to read: Jean Genet’s “The Thief’s Journal,” Roberto Bolano’s “2666,” Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” That’s not including dozens of poems, songs, paintings, TV shows and a veritable atlas of cities and towns to explore. Smith intended it this way, claiming, “I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions.”

But, ironically, it’s in offering so much of her unedited world that Smith makes things difficult for the reader. Books are like belly buttons: They can be innies, ones that force you to look deep into yourself, outies, ones that force you to confront the vastness of the world and all its knowledge, or the rare combo of both. “M Train” is, unfortunately, an outie. As you read page after page chronicling Smith’s diverse adventures, friendships and musings, but with no real unifying theme, the whole thing feels like an extended brag, a 250-page account of how amazing her life has been.

Yes, this is Patti Smith’s book about Patti Smith’s life. But the “narrative” is so loose, and yet so relentless, that reading it is exhausting rather than enveloping. And in a book of moments, the beautiful ones stand out, but so do the cringe-worthy, like this description of Veracruz, Mexico: “The air was perfect, like milk from the breast of the great mother. Milk that could be suckled by all her children — the babes of Juàrez, Harlem, Belfast, Bangladesh.”  

So what would you get out of reading this book? Some beautiful prose, enough book titles to keep you reading for years, a definitive stance on the pleasures of drinking coffee alone. But really, “M Train” ’s existence is, in and of itself, an exhortation to live a fuller life. Drive across the country on a whim, it says. Bake your own bread, go to the movies, learn how to play chess, whatever. Write poems and take photos. Travel. Fall in love. Have stories that could fill a book.