On Board the M Train February 22, 2017

Speaking of Patti Smith.

I read her book M Train mainly on planes to and from Minneapolis, where I attended the American Booksellers Association convention. Also in the airport, since the plane home was hours late. Also when I got home to backed-up work and needed some quiet in the evenings.

In my usual vandalizing fashion, I turned down corners of pages when I found a provocative sentence or paragraph, and I liked this one the best:

“I let my coffee run cold and thought about detectives. Partners depend on one another’s eyes. The one says, tell me what you see. His partner must speak assuredly, not leaving anything out. But a writer has no partner. He has to step back and ask himself—tell me what you see. But since he is telling himself he doesn’t have to be perfectly clear, because something inside holds any given missing part—the unclear or partially articulated. I wondered if I would have been a good detective. It kills me to say it, but I don’t think so. I’m not the observant type. My eyes seem to roll within.”

M Train strikes me as a book of eyes rolling within. The M Train can be taken as the mind train, Patti Smith’s mind, since it’s a discursive memoir that dips in and out of her experiences with other artists, many of them dead before she met them.

You can pull several threads out of the book, but I was most intrigued when she talked about immersing herself for whole years in given books and authors.

“I had spent the past two years reading and deconstructing (Roberto) Bolaño’s 2666,” she writes, “swept back to front and from every angle. Before 2666, The Master and Margarita (by Mikhail Bulgakov) had eclipsed all else, and before reading all of Bulgakov there was an exhausting romance with everything Wittgenstein.”

Which begs the question: how would Patti Smith like to be read?

I once heard Alice Munro say during an onstage interview—or maybe I read it in a print interview—that she likes to read books and stories out of order, sometimes reading the ending first, not always reading the beginning at the start, and often starting in the middle.

Afterward, I read one of Munro’s stories out of order and it still resonated masterfully. I don’t know if it resonated more than it would have if I’d read it from beginning to end, but I liked doing it, putting the different sections of the story together like pieces of a puzzle. And of course that’s what it’s like to try and read people in the real world: putting a puzzle together.

It also taught me that Munro doesn’t rely on linear narration, although there’s always a coherent timeframe to her stories. Instead she accrues a story through scenes that mysteriously add up to more than the parts, and they don’t do it all at once. I often glimpse what I think she’s doing a while after finishing the story, sometimes quite a while after. Standing at the sink doing the dishes and suddenly: Oh. I see.

But since Patti Smith seems to read obsessively, I wondered if she would like readers to immerse ourselves as thoroughly in her work. Whether she wants me to run out to buy her first memoir, Just Kids, and her several books of poetry. Maybe she’d like readers to go back and listen to her music, which personally I’ve followed only sporadically over the years.

No doubt that’s part of her point in writing a memoir, to send people back to her earlier work. But if I were to immerse myself in Smith’s writing for years the way she did with Bolaño’s, I wonder if it would strike her as creepy and stalker-ish. As a celebrity she might have had some experience with stalkers and it can’t have been good, although maybe it was interesting on a clinical level.

At one point, she offers a hint about her expectations.

“Writers and their process. Writers and their books. I cannot assume the reader will be familiar with (all the books she mentions), but in the end is the reader familiar with me? Does the reader wish to be so? I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions. As one held by the stuffed bear in Tolstoy’s house, an oval platter that was once overflowing with the names of callers, infamous and obscure, small cartes de visite, many among the many.”

The one time I saw Patti Smith was not in concert but in person, when she was browsing the gift shop at the Art Gallery of Ontario a day or so after a show of her Polaroid photographs opened. This was almost exactly four years ago. She was dressed as she describes in M Train, pretty randomly, her grey-streaked hair long and a little stringy. She kept her head down, not inviting eye contact, or maybe just immersed in the books she was examining.

And having seen that gives another clue about reading her, especially in conjunction with Paul McCartney.

When we were living in Brazil, I went to a McCartney press conference before his band Wings did a mega-concert in Maracanã stadium. This would have been in the late 1980s, early 90s, and I was there to take photographs. I happened to turn and see McCartney as he walked in at the back of the room. He looked ordinary until the rest of the media saw him, when he turned on like a bank of floodlights.

He started posing as he walked, contorting his face and shoulders outlandishly, lifting a knee, half swivelling, pouting out his lips, looking as if his strings were being worked by a puppetmaster, although he was both master and puppet. The quick impression I got was of someone who sold at least a part of himself so shamelessly to his public that he’d grown cheapened with use. That’s harsh, but it’s the feeling I got.

In the gallery, Patti Smith seemed habitually withheld, and because of that, more tantalizing. There’s something tantalizing about her book, the way she pares down her writing, making you pause very often to try to understand what she’s getting at, what’s she’s looking at—there, in the distance.

This makes me think she might want people to read her not obsessively, but more than once, and I’m going to read M Train again. That’s demanding of me, because the question becomes, Is the book worth reading over? Some books aren’t, and I find that if I get bored a second time, stopping partway through, any charm the book had on first reading is lost.

I don’t know how I’d like to be read myself, for however many people read my books, or will read my next one. I think I would like readers to have a conversation with the book. Enjoyment would be good. But I like conversation, so I’ll make that the hypothesis for now.