A review of Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Year of the Monkey
by Patti Smith
Hardcover, Sep 24, 2019, ISBN 9780525657682

Patti Smith’s prose is so deeply intimate, it seems to cut through structure, introduction, and description and move directly into the unconscious. Her latest book Year of the Monkey, is even more surreal, unbounded by a linear narrative or by genre, as it transcends its form. The book moves with little warning between dream and reality, past and present, grief and joy, modern historical events (like Trump’s election) and timelessness, so deftly that the distinction between these binaries becomes almost irrelevant. Not many writers could pull off such a diffuse structure but Smith does it beautifully, using her poetic vernacular and pulling the reader in so tightly, we begin to think and perceive in Smith’s fragmentary, hallucinogenic way. The result is strangely exhilarating.

As the title suggests, Year of the Monkey is set over the course of a year, Smith’s 69th, beginning on new year’s day 2016 . The book gently moves forward through the year, anchoring itself through the changing months and seasons.  It’s opens with the appearance of a talking sign for “The Dream Motel”, which is also “Dream Inn”. From that point on, we are in Wonderland (“like Alice interrogated by the hookah-smoking caterpillar”) or some kind of David Lynch universe, where dreams happen during the daytime and insomnia takes over the night. The book contains seventeen essays, which are more meditations on grief, loss, memory, love, aging, playfulness and politics. One of the defining characteristics of Smith’s promise is the humility of her perspective. She comes to the page, and into each situation, with ‘beginner’s mind’: an attitude of curiosity and openness that is never cynical. Though the essays focus on universalities, they remain  personal and solitary, while simultaneously drawing the reader in and encouraging engagement in this act of walking, reflecting, interacting, observing, eating and drinking, and of making something beautiful that endures through the transitions and losses that constitute life:

The deeper task is to rescue aloneness. The aloneness required to write, the absolute necessity to claim those hours as though hurled through space, like the astronaut in 2001, never dying, just continuing on and on in the realm of film that never ceases, not the infinitesimal, where the Incredible Shrinking Man is still shrinking, and in that universe, is its perpetual lord. (119)

The book progresses like a travelogue, moving along the US West Coast where Smith’s old friend music producer and critic Sandy Pearlman is dying, across the country to Smith’s Rockaway home in New York, and back out to Sam Shepherd’s Kentucky ranch, where Sam is dying of ALS. Smith does an exquisite job of weaving old grief with new and making something tender and beautiful out of it:

This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow. A tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows. (168)

As with Smith’s other nonfiction books, the book is peppered with Polaroid photos, some as surreal as her prose.  There is a narrative consistency in Smith’s travels that harks back to her earlier books, particularly M Train: the ever-present hot black coffee, the ubiquitous cafes and diners, the ekphrasis involving art of all varieties – music, literature in particular, and artwork, the circle of long-standing and often famous friends, and perhaps most importantly, the benign ghosts. One of the more pervasive in this book is Ernest, a familiar stranger she first sees in a diner. Ernest, whose identity shifts, seems to be a kind of intermediary between dreams and waking (a “hologram”) who shares Smiths’ love for the work of Roberto Bolaño. Much of the book involves Smith looking for, or attempting to respond to Ernest.

Throughout the book, the descriptions are vivid, beautiful, and poetic:

Valentine’s Day was the coldest on record in New York City’s history. A complex mantle of frost covered everything, bare branches strung with a symphony of frozen hearts. Pendants of ice, lethal enough to wound, cracked and plummeted from the edges of the overhangs and scaffolding onto the sidewalks, left to lie like discarded weapons of a primitive age. (77)

It’s a strange year for Smith, one with “corrosive edges” where Donald Trump becomes President (“an avalanche of toxicity infiltrating every output.”), the world moves further into the Anthropocene, and Smith loses several friends:

Heart-wrenching injustices constituting the new facts of life. The Year of the Monkey. The death fo the last white rhinoceros. The ravaging fo Puerto Rico. The massacre of schoolchildren. The disparaging words and actions against our immigrants. The orphaned Gaza Strip. (167)

We can’t fix the problems that the book explores tangentially. As the Dream Motel sign tells us, “Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion”. The dead don’t come back, lost species don’t return, the world edges further into peril, and even now that we’ve moved into the Year of the Pig, heart-wrenching injustices take place daily, often perpetrated by those we’ve elected to represent us. Yet in spite of the sadness that permeates the book, Year of the Monkey is hopeful and upbeat. In these quiet, dream-like contemplations, and in the connections that we create through love, friendship, and parenting, become part of who we are. These connections provide permanent solace of a kind that doesn’t negate grief, but does still uplift: “Our quiet rage gives us wings, the possibility to negotiate the gears winding backwards, uniting all time.”