A Miss for Patti Smith: My Thoughts on “Year of the Monkey”

Year of the Monkey is Patti Smith’s third full-length memoir. The book came out last month but the story takes place in 2016. Thom snagged it for me as a birthday present because (a) he knows I love Patti and (b) before we knew each other well, he used to say “Happy Birthday,” instead of “Hi” every time we saw each other, and when I lodged a complaint approximately 4 months in, he switched to “Happy Year of the Monkey.” And now we’re getting married.

I hate to say it, but I didn’t like this one. (Still, it was the perfect birthday present @Thom.) I underlined one good line (to follow), but I had a hard time staying invested and interested.

I deeply enjoyed her previous memoirs Just Kids, M Train, and even Devotion (Why I Write). I also find her photographs and style inspiring and even used to have a prominently displayed poster of her in my apartment. But along the way, I have come across a few of pieces that have not captured me – e.g. most of her music and a lot of her poetry.

So it’s not entirely shocking that a memoir finally fell into the latter category. But first, a few things I did like:

The element of Patti’s memoir style that keeps me coming back is her way of living and thinking like a monk. M Train, for example, was mostly scenes of her walking down the street, drinking vats of 7/11 coffee, strolling back to her house, and watching cable news in bed. She zooms in on these little things, creates a sensory space for the reader, and is not at all anxious or self-conscious. I find these passages relaxing, and almost too weird (too good?) to be true, so I keep reading. An aging, successful artist who takes the same foam cup back to 7/11 every day for 16 oz burnt coffee refills? Puzzling, yet wholesome.

She puts this concept into words halfway through Year of the Monkey: “All is but an intermission, of small and tender consequence.”

It’s the opposite sentiment of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;” or the darker Macbeth version: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”

In contrast to Billy the Shake’s distressing picture of the pressure on each of us to perform as we move through the world, Patti’s philosophy of life is a major relief. The spiritual isn’t found in creation and achievement, but rather in getting stale M&M’s from a vending machine during Romeo and Juliet’s intermission. She does not spell out what she’s doing here (the above sentence is the closest she comes); instead she just dives in. Her faith in the value of these small moments calls the reader to buy in and see these daily sensory experiences with new reverence.

Yet Patti can’t entirely get away with this attitude towards life, because she’s a career stage performer. She is currently performing live perhaps more than she has in several decades. Now 73 years old, she has become wildly popular among a new generation of young people and is publishing a book every two years. But she doesn’t acknowledge any of this change. In Year of The Monkey, where her late-stage success was presumably most prevalent – she alludes to it least of all, never going further than explaining that she’s in X city because she played a series of concerts there Y days earlier.

Moreover, Patti executes the aforementioned concept (“all is but an intermission, of small and tender consequence”) much better in her earlier memoir, M Train than she does in Year of the Monkey. In this new book, Patti oscillates between dreams and reality in a way that’s hard to track and ultimately not that interesting. For example, one scene opens with her sitting on a porch near a beach in Santa Cruz, looking at the waves, feeling the wind, putting up her sore feet, etc. – but quickly shifts and becomes an imagined conversation with a motel sign and hallucination of thousands of misprinted candy wrappers on the beach. I wished she would not keep introducing the latter element. I find the small moments more affecting without the accompanying visions – probably because that is the less-universal part of being Patti Smith.

Furthermore, to put it crudely, all of the real friends she writes about in the book all have one foot (or both) in the grave. That her world was contained to either small sensory moments alone, or imagined, chronically ill, comatose, and dead companions made the whole reading exercise kind of lonely and sad. I wanted more grounded human interaction – and I know it must exist, because she has a band, living kids, and tons of fans.

Maybe she wants to hold onto the vagabond, bizarre parts of herself by describing dreams and (imagined?) hitchhiking experiences and voices in her head. But I can’t help but think there’s some important element of her life missing from this picture. The narrative almost struck me as dishonest – as if her new audience/platform hasn’t changed her days or thought patterns at all. As if this new life was not perhaps responsible for her increasing loneliness. I think she could add some such reflection without losing her artistic center. In any case, I’ll keep an eye on her because, despite it all, I remain her devoted reader.

~~~

Thanks for reading! I’ve read dozens of books since I last blogged… but not everything inspires a type-athon. I will be writing reviews more regularly now that I’ve got some unstructured time this winter. ❤

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