YEAR OF THE MONKEY by Patti Smith (Knopf, 192 pp., $24.95).
“The things that transport us can be so random,” muses singer-songwriter Patti Smith in her autobiographical book "Year of the Monkey." She is referring to a moment when the simple observation of a waitress spontaneously morphs into a surreal daydream, allowing her imagination to transfigure the scene into something weirdly compelling. Indeed, the personal, cross-country odyssey captured by her prose and Polaroid portraits in this book finds her mining magical moments within even the most seemingly mundane of circumstances. Life really is about perspective.
A collection of ruminations, adventures and unexpected connections in the artist's life, "Monkey" transpires mostly during the titular year of the Chinese Zodiac. Taking place at the start of her 69th birthday at the end of 2015, this first-person account steers us through the author's world as she copes with her longtime friend Sandy Pearlman having fallen into a coma, aiding playwright Sam Shepard in finishing his final book, and coping with the jarring social implosion of America. It is a personal journey rife with longing, grief and cautious hope.
Throughout, Smith weaves threads of everyday experiences and warm recollections of the past together in the manner of a waking dream. The author engages in seemingly telepathic banter with the sign of the Dream Inn. She repeatedly bumps into a mysterious new friend and dissects the work of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. She even humorously yet earnestly imagines how the perky sounds of Belinda Carlisle and the Go-Gos could magically heal the world and unite everyone, and she finds herself swept into this vision.
The narrative thread here is transformation. Whether she is traveling along the coast of California with quirky strangers or working with Shepard in Kentucky, Smith is constantly grappling with the specter of change and the realization that many rich personal experiences will soon be shared only in personal memories. She tries to make sense of it all through artistic discourse, intense dream cycles and vivid daydreams.
An inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the winner of the National Book Award (for her 2010 memoir "Just Kids"), Smith has been heralded as the punk rock laureate who first rose to fame in the 1970s, and she brings that poetic elegance to her literary work. She is a true artist who carries herself with modesty and humility, which seems an anathema in this age of narcissistic, prefab pop stars. One of the book's best moments occurs after hitching a planned eight-hour ride to San Diego with an oddball couple that requests she not speak the whole time. She finds herself ditched by them partway through after she freshens up at a public restroom. (The crisis is averted by another ride from an overly loquacious millennial.)
Funny moments like this are what makes Smith relatable. Even if one does not have a deep working knowledge of certain artistic or religious references she makes (it does help), the way in which she expresses herself allows one to understand how she feels and appreciate her perspective. She is equally a participant and observer of life, and as much as art provides sustenance and solace for her in troubled times, by the end she is invoking a greater call to action.
If there is anyone capable of living in the past, present and future simultaneously, and occupying that space between reality and dreams, it is Smith. Her life seems to be filled with an aura of magical realism as art provides a gateway to a higher consciousness. It may not be easy to conveniently explain Smith's style or approach, but that is not the point. You simply need to surrender to it to be inspired by it.