Book Review: M Train

M Train by Patti Smith – A memoir of nothing.

Five years after her first memoir, the highly-acclaimed Just Kids, Patti Smith has published her second autobiographical book.Published in October this year, M Train marks a distinct break from her last book and details an utterly different stage in her life.

While Just Kids traced her development as a young woman, discovering the exciting world of New York City and her intimate relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train follows a much older woman, still primarily in New York, but also tracing the other places she passes through on her rambling journeys.

Patti Smith opens her newest literary offering by reminding the reader that it isn’t so easy to write about nothing. She is self-deprecating in the opening pages, she lives a life drinking coffee in quiet cafes and scribbling notes on crumpled napkins.

Though while her narrative seems, at first, to lack a clear plot it is certainly not a narrative of nothing, rather it is a tale of personal travel on multiple plains.

In stark contrast to her first memoir, in M Train she is more or less alone. The book follows a present day Patti dealing with the strong sense of loss in her life after the death of her husband, fellow musician Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, closely followed by that of her brother in the early nineties.

However, the text is not a eulogy to the dead as Just Kids was; written to fulfil a promise to Mapplethorpe before he died.

Rather the ghosts of her husband, brother and other past souls, (including beloved and inspiring authors), walk through her present life beside her, small memories of them appearing as flashes between the present moments.

She collects and delivers dedications to them and cherishes moments which added colour to her life as well as theirs. What is most engaging in Patti’s story is not the events themselves, but the spin of the yarn; her mastery of words.

The narrative weaves through dreams, the past and present, truth and fiction, the lives of others, along with the dead.

As images and places are echoed throughout the chapters, the German writer, W.G. Sebald’s distinctive style of blurring the lines between reality, fantasy and historical, haunts the pages and is similarly evoked in the black and white photos scattered through the book.

As a self-proclaimed ‘orphaned child’ of the Beats, that generation’s stream of consciousness poeticism also laces through the memoir’s pages.

The influence of Allen Ginsberg on all her work becomes evident, as in fleeting moments, her personal style of punk poetry, (which shot her to success in the 1970s with her debut album Horses) can be heard.

“Everything pours forth” writes Patti late in the text: “Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds” and this is exactly what she achieves.

By having no clear plot, no point of destination, she allows her everyday life and thoughts to pour over the pages. Over seemingly endless cups of coffee, she creates a text which may not be a normal, linear novel, but is a rich story which invites the reader into her pensive life.

Written by Elizabeth Lee Reynolds.

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