Patti Smith’s latest book is not a novel; there is no storyline. While it is full of memories written in piecemeal fashion, it is not an autobiography. In fact, in the opening chapter, she lets the reader know that she will be writing about nothing.
The ‘M’ in the book’s title could be referring to memories, meditations, memoir, the Japanese writer Murakami, Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita, or even mundane musings about a melancholy malaise. The ‘Train’ in the title could be referring to trains of thought beginning and ending at each chapter like the stations where it stops.
M Train is a book of stories and thoughts, but it is also about the writing process as Smith sits at the same table everyday at Cafe ‘Ino in Greenwich Village, New York City where she lives. She shares her acute clarity in her thoughts and emotions as only the great American poet and punk musician can. Polaroid photographs are interspersed throughout the book to accompany Smith’s memories. The fragmented yet honest stories from her life include being with her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith in French Guiana, her love of television detective shows, her incongruous membership of the Continental Drift Club, singing with Bobby Fischer in a hotel room in Iceland, sleeping in Diego Rivera’s bed at Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico, and other extraordinary stories from her life centred around poetic thoughts and mundane physical details.
She pays homage to Sylvia Plath, and writes of her gratitude to the Beat poets, particularly William Burroughs, for laying the foundations for her unconventional melancholic style. Yet a deadpan sense of humour shines through occasionally. There is a wonderful irony when she writes “Personally, I’m not so much for symbolism. I never get it. Why can’t things be just as they are?”
The omnipresence of Smith’s grief for Fred throughout the book is heartbreaking. There is a beautiful ode to her husband and their life together: “Looking back, our way of life was a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind.”
M Train is a book of musings, but written with such honesty and beauty it is hard to put down. The ‘M’ may well stand for Masterpiece.