Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith (Penguin/Random House) is the memoir of a year – 2016 to be specific – the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese lunar calendar – hence the book’s title. However, it’s not just a recounting of a year’s events, it’s an internal journey as well – into Smith’s memories, friendships, and dreams.
Smith recounts how the year doesn’t have the most auspicious start – what with someone puking on her shoes at the conclusion of a New Year’s Eve concert she and her band gave at San Francisco’s most hallowed hall – the Filmore West. Unfortunately that’s not the worst this night has on offer. One of her closest friends (Sandy Pearlman) has had a massive stroke in a parking lot and has been rushed to hospital while Smith is on stage.
Smith starts her solitary pilgrimage through the year in Santa Cruz. Pearlman and her were supposed to have been spending a few days together on the coast, but of course all that has changed. She draws us into her wandering state of mind where dreams, poetry and reality blend together so we, and she, are having a hard time differentiating between them.
She talks around her late friend – not even mentioning him for the first little while – and we wonder whether the dream states she recollects on the page are part of her avoiding his condition; a way of coping with the trauma of a friend in a comatose state. Smith is craving isolation – talks about wanting to live in the back room of an old diner – and we wonder if the conversations she recollects, and the people she has them with, are real or part of some dream.
She wanders in this fugue/dream like state throughout the book and we drift along with her. Smith surfaces occasionally – her visits with Sam Shepard as he deals with the final stages of ALS in particular are harsh intrusions on this otherwise surreal journey. Once lovers, always close friends, watching this vital and brilliant man succumb to this wasting disease can’t have been easy for Smith.
This is a difficult book and can’t be read quickly. A multi course meal which requires each dish to be properly digested before the next can be savoured. You might find you’re putting Year of the Monkey down after each chapter, in some cases after a paragraph, before continuing the journey onwards and inwards.
Smith has a poet’s care in her choice of words. Sometimes you feel like you’re awash in streams of her thoughts and it’s just best to let yourself be carried away by the imagery and delight in her mastery language. Other times you’ll sit and read a paragraph over and over again just to be absolutely sure of what is being said.
There’s an impression that it’s always raining in Smith’s 2015 – or at least grey. Oh she does describe the sun shining and it being warm, but the impression left behind is one of perpetual overcast. Perhaps it’s foreshadowing for the deaths she knows are coming, or, as she talks about in the final few chapters, the looming idiocy of a Trump presidency in 2016. The Year of the Rooster when America elects its own strutting cock.
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith is a wonderful trip inside the mind of a poet. Difficult, convoluted and a little absurd, but well worth the effort. Enjoy it for the epic poem on life, grief and dreaming that it is and be grateful she took us along for the ride.