Patti Smith's Year of the Monkey is a beautiful, elegant, and poetic memoir that takes a single year in the artist's life, 2016, and delves deep into the events that shaped it — and the feelings and memories they produced.
Effortlessly weaving together fiction and nonfiction, Smith takes readers on two unique journeys: one that can be traced on a map and one, infinitely richer and more complex, that takes place inside her head and heart. The result is a hybrid narrative that's part travel journal, part reflexive essay on our times, and part meditation on existence at the edge of a new decade of life.
After a series of New Year's concerts at the Fillmore, one of San Francisco's most renowned music venues, musician, writer and photographer Patti Smith decides to spend a year traveling by herself, contemplating life, and connecting with old friends. The journey takes her from a strange hotel in California that talks to her to a long, dreamlike walk in the Arizona desert — and from a farm in Kentucky to the side of the hospital bed of a beloved mentor and friend who unceremoniously collapsed in a parking lot. Along the way, memories abound, strange events happen, and Smith ponders everything around and inside her as she approaches her 70th birthday. The process is a deep conversation with art, politics, a variety of places and books, and some of the people who have influenced her.
The Year of the Monkey walks a fine line between fiction and nonfiction. She is aware of the difference between what happens outside her head and what only goes on inside it, but she happily walks that fine line and allows her writing to obliterate the dividing line. The places and people Smith writes about are real, but the way her mind filters and shapes the events give the narrative a touch of surrealism that sometimes seems to approach dream logic:
"In the Dream Motel, I was certain I did not dream, yet the more I thought about it, I realized I did dream. More precisely, I skated along the fringe of dream. First it was morning, then night, then dawn, and the rays of the sun warmed everything. I left all thoughts of the world behind and followed my dream to the sea. The seals were sleeping, save the king, more like a walrus, who lifted his head and bellowed at the sun. There was a sense that everyone was gone, a J.G. Ballard kind of gone."
In this memoir, the reality of the western landscape melds with Smith's internal landscape. The emerging place is both real and imagined, immediate and accessible only through memories, welcoming and awful. Despite the amount of time readers spend in Smith's head, the real world is always present. Places, airplanes, people, food, businesses and politics all anchor the narrative in immediate reality. Smith's own Polaroids serve as proof of every trip and encounter. These constant reality intrusions range in tone from nostalgic and fun to scary and depressing. For example, she writes about the way the political landscape made her feel:
"No matter which way I stepped or whatever plane I was on, 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."
While The Year of the Monkey is wildly entertaining and, at times, touching, the beauty of it comes from Smith's writing. Her musical career sometimes threatens to overshadow her accomplishments in other creative fields, but every page in this book is packed with enough outstanding prose to constantly remind readers that Smith is an accomplished novelist, essayist, and poet who won the National Book Award in 2010. In her capable hands, a simple look at New York City in winter becomes a flash of beautiful poetry:
"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."
The Year of the Monkey is a beautifully realized and unique memoir that chronicles a transformative year in the life of one of our most multi-talented creative voices. Smith's approach to nonfiction is unique and brave: It counts as true if it happened, if she imagined it, and if she felt it. This is a book about Smith and the world all around — and that world includes all of us. And that is just one more reason why everyone should read it.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.