Patti Smith’s “Year of the Monkey” is a book of dreaming. Not individual dreams so much as the condition itself. “I just sighed,” she confides late in this deft and enigmatic narrative. “Was it all a dream? Was everything a dream?” She is referring equally to the story she is telling and the insubstantiality of life.
“Year of the Monkey” may come billed as a memoir, but really it is less in the vein of Smith’s National Book Award-winning “Just Kids” than of her poetry, or impressionistic works such as “M Train” and “Woolgathering.” There, the author traces a line between the routines of existence and what she has called “the unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour.” That muse emerges via the “silk of souls” she has assembled of the friends and family she has lost.
For anyone familiar with her career, those souls will be familiar: the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, her brother Todd, her late husband Fred. The last two appear in “Year of the Monkey,” as well as an array of cultural heroes, including Roberto Bolaño and Jerry Garcia. Along with two dying friends — producer Sandy Pearlman, whose cerebral hemorrhage serves as a precipitating incident, and Smith’s beloved Sam Shepard, the playwright and actor whose deterioration from ALS leads to the book’s denouement — they ground “Year of the Monkey,” reminding us that despair and possibility often spring from the same source.
“Here’s what I know,” Smith intones. “Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. … Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen.” This may seem a contradiction, but that’s the point: that life can’t help but confound us, that what centers us, paradoxically, is our unknowing, that the line is always blurred between present and past.
For Smith, this blurriness sits right on the surface; brilliantly, she weaves it into her narrative. “Marcus Aurelius,” she writes. “I opened his ‘Meditations’: Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. … This made terrible sense to me, climbing the chronological ladder, approaching my seventieth year. Get a grip, I told myself, just revel in the last seasons of being sixty-nine, the sacred Jimi Hendrix number, with his answer to such a caution: I’m going to live my life the way I want to.”
Were she less assured in her telling, the passage might appear forced, off-putting, those other voices keeping us at arm’s length. In “Year of the Monkey,” though, the opposite happens: The distance is collapsed. Smith is showing us her inner life, the interplay she shares with that silk of souls. It is as if everything she has heard or read, everything she has been, continues to co-exist inside her. We recognize this to be accurate because something similar is true of us.
Smith makes the connection explicit in the way she activates her dreaming as a narrative device. “Our dreams are a second life,” she writes, quoting the French romantic Gérard de Nerval. In “Year of the Monkey,” this plays out in a series of repeating riffs or figures: a mysterious man named Ernest, whom Smith encounters first in California and later in Virginia Beach; a fascination with Ayers Rock, in Uluru, Australia, “the dream capital of the world,” where aboriginals have walked existence into being out of the dreamtime since the beginning of the world.
Then, there are the photographs she weaves throughout the text, less as illustrations than another form of blurriness. Smith calls them “amulets,” but I think of them more as portals, trap doors to a world beyond the page. Late in the book, she recalls sitting “in the center of my own disorder,” surrounded by boxes of Polaroids. Eventually, she discovers a folder containing several shots we have already encountered: “Sam’s Stetson hat. My own boots. Two linden trees in the mist. Two Adirondack chairs. One after another, each a talisman on a necklace of continuous travels.”
As with Ernest or Ayers Rock, the effect — enhanced further by a photo of these images strewn, or repeated, across a table top — is of a kind of doubling, echoing Smith’s writing: the experience as lived, and then recorded, and after that, recorded again. It is as if, with each picture, she is summoning this scene, this moment, giving it the weight of a reckoning.
The real reckoning “Year of the Monkey” makes, however, is with mortality — or, perhaps more accurately, with time. Taking as its frame the Chinese Year of the Monkey, the book begins in January 2016 and ends after the inauguration of Donald Trump. That’s a different sort of reckoning, and it has its place here, although Smith is careful not to let it overwhelm. Or maybe it’s just that she sees it as one more reason to hold onto what matters, for as long, and as fully, as she can.
This means Pearlman, fading in Marin County, and most essentially, Shepard, cared for by his sister in Kentucky, surrounded by the horses he can no longer ride. “We’ve become a Beckett play,” Shepard jokingly tells Smith, leading her to imagine them “rooted in our place at the kitchen table, each of us dwelling in a barrel with a tin lid, we wake up and poke out our heads and sit before our coffee and peanut-butter toast waiting until the sun rises, plotting as if we are alone, not alone together but each alone, not disturbing the aura of the other’s aloneness.”
That’s a kind of dream too, an image in which love is enough to sustain us, and loss, if not revocable, can, for a moment anyway, be redeemed. A fantasy? Yes, a dream of life, as Smith once sang. “[S]hards of love, Patti, shards of love,” she recalls Pearlman insisting, and the recollection gives him voice again. At the same time, Smith is too smart for such easy consolations; she has been through too much. Or, as she writes, thinking of Shepard in his Kentucky kitchen, “[T]he trouble with dreaming is that we eventually wake up.”
Alfred A. Knopf: 174 pages, $24.95
Ulin is a former Times book editor and book critic.
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