In times of boredom, insomnia, or carsickness, Patti Smith distracts herself with “an interior hopscotch played in the mind”: an associative word game that flows with the stream of her consciousness. She allows her mind to jump from one word to the natural next, “advancing in order to reach a mythic resonance,” or until she finds herself sufficiently diverted.
Smith’s new memoir, M Train, works the same way, “recording time backwards and forwards” as she skips from moment to moment across the past 40 years of her life. Reading the book feels rather like navigating a lucid dream, and it’s precisely this tone that makes it an uneasy sequel to Just Kids. In Smith’s 2010 chronology of her onetime twinship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the narrative is linear — the straightforward telling of a story with a clear beginning and a definitive end. M Train, by contrast, is a book that Smith is, in her own words, still living; it is broader and blurrier in its scope, and less specific in its aims. She writes somewhat lethargically, haphazardly, with “a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia.” M Train is the story of Smith’s adult life, and her adult life is diffuse and lonely.
At 68, Smith is older than she ever imagined she’d be — older than her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, her deceased brother Todd, or Mapplethorpe had the chance to grow. Her age is evident in her particularities: the allegiance to the same seat in the same café where she eats the same meal, the penchant for detective dramas, the tendency to talk to inanimate objects, the attention to her cats’ individual personalities in picking out their dinner plates, her habit of wandering outside with stray socks tucked up in the folds of her jeans or the pockets of her coat. But if M Train is marked by a touch of something like senility, Smith’s words are as rhythmic as ever, still arranged according to “the music of [her] imagination.” Comparisons are evocative, uncanny, precise: a cat “the color of pyramids,” “the human current heading home,” the “mammoth disco in the shape of an armadillo.”
The playful tone is endearing, and buoys what is, above all, a meditation on loss — of people, yes, but also of the objects to which she has become attached: a careworn Murakami paperback, a frayed black coat with “human experience bound in its threads,” a trusty old camera. All gone, disappeared or accidentally abandoned, but none forgotten.
“Lost things,” she writes. “They claw back through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday.” Often they succeed. Yet Smith moves forward; she blows across the world on a whim: Mexico, Berlin, Colombia, London, Japan, French Guiana. She acquires new objects of obsession, like a shabby bungalow on Rockaway Beach. She sticks to routines and seeks “to stay present,” but remains always at the mercy of her memory. The result is that time shifts in M Train as easily as Smith slips into sleep — constantly, irrespective of situation or place. One moment she is in a café, the next she is staring at Fred as he crouches over a spilt cornucopia of her most loved lost things. On his face, there’s this “huge smile, one of absolute joy, from a place with no beginning and no end.” That seems to be the place from which — or for which — Smith writes.
This is also the largest complaint that has been levied against M Train: that it fails to launch, doesn’t make sense, goes nowhere. All these words and nothing said! True, M Train begins where it ends — in a dream — and true, Smith’s words don’t always make perfect sense in sequence. What does it mean for her massive tomcat to be in her kitchen “by default,” for example? What does it mean for a cat to be anywhere by default? Or the “slug, curled up in a rusted conch shell” — what causes a conch shell to rust? So yes, poetic license occasionally eclipses meaning. But to get tangled up in Smith’s incongruous qualifiers is to miss the point.
Because dreams and remembrance and grief do not abide logic. Memories aren’t linear. They break in on us abruptly, unannounced; the smaller details of daily life send us spinning back to the time before, when things were as they should be. If Smith attempted to impose order upon her mind space and her narrative, the things that are so charming about the book — what makes it really work — would evaporate. There would be no interior hopscotch. There would be no Patti Smith.
“Time once moved in concentric circles,” Smith recalls. In M Train it still does, recalling boats beaten back against the current, or the roller-coasters on her beloved Rockaway boardwalk. “All is present tense on such a ride, physically impossible to look back.” Yet even as you speed forward, even as you fix your eyes on the track ahead, you’re being delivered back to the place you started.
M Train’s opening sentence — “It’s not so easy, writing about nothing” — reverberates through its pages. The words come from a lone cowpoke who features frequently in Smith’s dreams and seems to hold the cryptic, collected wisdom of the world under his Stetson hat. His final piece of advice to her: “Love not lightly.” It’s advice well taken; Patti Smith loves nothing lightly, and if she makes writing about it look easy, consider that it’s not actually nothing she’s writing about — it’s everything. M Train is “an aria for a coat, a requiem for a café,” an elegy for an earlier life and all the many things she has loved and lost to it.
M Train by Patti Smith is out now from Knopf.