Smith expertly lays down the lines to articulate the times before and after the 2016 presidential election in a way that is political only because it is deeply personal.
With Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith has confirmed her gift as a master of memoir. Following Just Kids and M Train, Smith takes her readers on a voyage, to places both familiar and surreal. The surreal is, after all, so unsettling because of its familiar feel. Year of the Monkey recalls the Chinese Lunar Year that began in January 2016 and saw the death of two of Smith’s beloved friends, music critic and producer Sandy Pearlman, who died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, and author and actor Sam Shepard, who died from complications from ALS. Smith herself turned 70 during the year of the monkey, and her awareness of the scarcity of time colors her stories.
The surrealism that winds through her stories begins with Smith narrating her arrival at the Dream Motel in Santa Cruz. The next page features a Polaroid snapshot of the neon sign for the Dream Inn. The sign engages Smith in conversation. She addresses the sign as Dream Motel, only to have the sign be exasperated by her mistake. Smith has famously documented her life in Polaroids for more than four decades. Her photos have been exhibited in galleries and collected in the book Camera Solo, published in 2011.The use of her Polaroids in Year of the Monkey raises interesting questions: are these photos art or evidence? Do the photos document the odd experiences during this surreal year? Or are the photos the inspiration?
Smith is in Santa Cruz because she planned to travel there with Sandy Pearlman after her concerts in San Francisco, but Pearlman’s cerebral hemorrhage occurred the day before the first concert. At the hospital in Marin County, Smith wonders what we do when a beloved friend may be dying. Do we sit by and watch, and wait, one way or another? Smith writes that she and Sandy maintained a deep, psychic connection over the decades of their friendship, and that would still be so even in his unconscious state. She left San Francisco, embarking on her adventures but always carrying him with her.
All of this happens against the background of the 2016 presidential election, which Smith tries to sidestep at every opportunity, recognizing that engaging with it would be an act of self harm. Yet like the looming feeling of bad weather approaching, she senses danger that must be reckoned with somehow. This is, after all, the business of the year of the monkey. When she is invited to Lisbon to visit the archives of writer Fernando Pessoa, Smith brings only one book with her, Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems. She recalls Ginsberg “chanting, dancing, howling. Allen in his death sleep with a portrait of Walt Whitman hanging above him and his life companion, Peter Orlofsky, kneeling by his side, covering him in a swathe of white petals.” These are the polarities Smith moves between: life and death, real and surreal, where uncertainty prevails.
In light of the coming election, she is certain that Ginsberg would insist on mad, animated bell-ringing protests but wonders if such a response is even possible in what she indicates is the end of a particular era. Recounting Pearlman’s death, and her urgent wish to communicate with him one last time, Smith notes that the day of his death, wildfires raged in Southern California, the Democratic National Convention was uneasily underway in Philadelphia and the solar-powered experimental aircraft Solar Impulse 2 completed its final rotation around the earth. She writes that no matter what, it was still the year of the monkey: “I was still moving within an atmosphere of artificial brightness with corrosive edges, the hyperreality of a polarizing pre-election mudslide, an avalanche of toxicity infiltrating every outpost.”
Where readers have turned to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to compassionately observe her sorting out the devastation of losing her husband and her daughter soon after his death, Smith presents a more certain voice, despite the uncertainty that circles around her. She expertly lays down the lines to articulate the times before and after the 2016 presidential election in a way that is political only because it is deeply personal.