Shelf life: Patti Smith - M Train

Finished the Patti Smith M Train this morning and have felt strange and disconnected since. It’s a book with no story, no real characters apart from Patti herself, and she’s haunted, sleepless, still grief-struck throughout, looking for signs and meanings in everything.

Patti Smith M Train

The book is beautifully written, and often seems little more than a series of dream journal entries at times, or diaries of pilgrimages to the graves and houses of other artists – Rimbaud, Plath, Kahlo, Genet - where she leaves little tokens of respect. On several occasions in the book, she walks away from a scene and leaves something behind by mistake – her Polaroid camera, the book she was reading, her notebook.

And the narrative disappears, often for days, in tangents and diversions. She goes looking for a passage in a book and it leads her back to childhood - and then back to her early days of marriage, and back to present day. And all around her, things change – her children are grown and gone, Fred is dead. Her favourite café disappears seemingly overnight like it might have been a dream all along.

At the centre of it all she finds a scruffy old bungalow in Rockaway and prepares to turn it into a shelter from the city, a sun-drenched, sand-blown writing retreat. And in comes Hurricane Sandy and pushes all of that invested hope sideways, almost obliterates it. The bungalow becomes a central theme in the book for me – a reminder that all of our plans are at the mercy of the elements, at the whim of forces bigger than all of us.

I finished the book like someone awaking from a fever, from a dream full of portents and symbols, feeling confused, strangely satisfied and not satisfied at the same time. And in a way, maybe that’s its success as a piece of art. Maybe that’s what she wanted all along – to transfer her own restlessness and flu-like confusion to the reader.

‘We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.’