Musings on Patti Smith’s M Train

Review by Chad W. Lutz

M Train

In War and Peace, a book I’ve never read, Leo Tolstoy is quoted as saying, “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In a dream to open M Train, a cowboy tells Patti Smith, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” But both were lengthy volumes and both have sold millions of copies; are quoted and reread and studied and held tenderly; in bed, at the library, at the local café, or while riding the bus. The words in their pages have been lauded. Both about nothing. Both wiping the eternal slate clean.

Reading M Train was my first introduction to Patti Smith. Opening the book to find the first line a quote from a cowboy in a dream made me curious. I instantly assumed the rest of the book would turn out to be as much of a surreal dreamscape. I wasn’t disappointed, but I wasn’t affirmed either. And that’s the beauty of Patti Smith’s writing.

M Train is a piece of non-fiction that reads like a detective story. In the book, Patti Smith is the sleuth that’s hot on the trail of the world’s greatest mysteries and most timeless treasures. She goes to Japan to seek out a well she ends up forgetting about. She visits Greenland in search of chess legend Bobby Fischer, but doesn’t get to talk about chess. They sing Buddy Holly songs and then part ways forever. She searches for Roberto Balaño’s chair, to not sit in it, but to also sit in it, knowing it won’t give her any magical writing powers, but also that it might. The book talks about the love between her and her partner, Fred, that doesn’t last (cancer), a friend (Zak), whose business fails, a confederation of scientists that folds unexpectedly, and a ramshackle bungalow bought on a whim she endearingly dubs The Alamo after it survives the fury of the strongest storm to ever hit the Jersey Shore and nothing else does.

These images are pieced together in a kind of chronology; not one happening directly after the other, but close to it. The action picks up in 2007 and takes us through the beginning of 2013. We spend time with Patti on vacations, holidays, business trips, and emergency evacuations. We find her eating, and drinking a hell of a lot of black coffee. We find cafes that were meant to stay open forever closed, and we find passions and pursuits one never saw coming blossom right before our very eyes. This is the kind of divulging done in private to no one, for no reason, and yet we see them on the page, one after the other. There’s a kind of floating mysticism you can almost see steaming off each and every word; evaporated water. Air. Nothing.

But the way each chapter is told is rich and detailed. Lots of somethings. Very particular somethings. Whole grab bags of them. You know where, when, why, how, and to what extent Patti does everything in the book, but there’s always some pullback, some admission of insignificance to each journey.

On pg. 86, she writes, “Not all dreams need to be realized,” in reference to an idea she and her partner come up with at a café for a TV talk show. “We accomplished things that no one would ever know,” she says, two lines later. Ideas that never take real shape. Life unrealized, or maybe more realized than we could ever act them out. Either way, nothing into something, and vice versa.

Patti Smith also does this odd thing where she omits commas from lists. The first instance of this occurs on pg. 47, and the trend continues throughout the book. In some places, she uses commas to differentiate items in lists. In others, she doesn’t. I tracked her use of commas in lists and found the frequency completely arbitrary. In other words, a whole lot of nothing doing. Perhaps saying something about the idea of formality in text, showing the stuffy big wigs in academia a thing or two about phenomenology and the ability of the human brain to organize and still understand skewed data. Like writing h8. In no way adhering to the Owl at Purdue or the Chicago Style Guidelines, but you know what that word means and you know why I wrote it. And does it matter either way?

“I looked up at her, somewhat surprised. I had absolutely no idea.”

‘What are you writing?’ was the original question.

Reading this book, I don’t feel as though I learned a lot about any one subject, but a little about a lot of subjects. Specifics, like the experience of living. You take in what you come in contact with and glean only what you’re exposed to, what you’re perceptive of, what you care to remember. It makes me think about putting the pencil to paper or my fingers to the keys and trying to shape or form anything. There might be something you’re trying to get at, but like many, many things in life, there’s no guarantee that when you get there you’ll know, or that such a place, thing, or idea even exists.

It’s like the well in Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” Patti Smith brings up repeatedly. It’s a well that lies beneath a house that exists inside of a fictitious world created by the author. She feels compelled to seek the house out, anyways, but never gets around to it. Like laundry, only if your laundry was never laundry but a fleeting dream.

Maybe fiction is like that? Maybe non-fiction is like that; all words? Maybe they’re just hinting at something, and piecing things together still gives us this unclear, bastard version of whatever we’re trying to express, no matter how glistening the images or playful the prose. Maybe writing is more of a pick it up, put it down ritual, a habit we sometimes think we have more or less of depending on where we’re sitting, who we’re with, or the way the light trickles in through the living room window in the fall when the clouds finally part.

***

Chad W. Lutz was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986, and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. Alumna of Kent State University’s English program, Chad earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College and currently serves as an associate editor for Pretty Owl Poetry. Their writing has been featured in KYSO Flash, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Gold Man Review, and Haunted Waters Press, was awarded the 2017 prize in literary fiction by Bacopa Review, and was a nominee for the 2017 Pushcart in poetry.

Tiana’s Book Spotlight for the Thirteenth

by Tiana Coven

shout

Review: 5/5

“untreated pain/ is a cancer of the soul/ that can kill you”

Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson (TW- sexual assault)

This book is the memoir told in verse of the author of Speak– an amazing novel that has been so important in educating teens about sexual assault. In her memoir, Laurie speaks about her own experience as a survivor, how she coped/ refused to cope, her father’s physical and emotional abuse, what she has learned as an advocate for sexual assault prevention, and so much more about her incredible life. Laurie has been such an active voice in the fight against sexual violence and is obviously such an inspiration in many different fields. I first read Speak when I was in eighth grade and I have never forgotten the story of Melinda. That book has done so much for so many survivors worldwide and I definitely foresee this memoir achieving the same! Any poetry lover should pick this one up.


Hunger

Review 5/5

“No one wants to be infected by obesity, largely because people know how they see and treat and think about fat people and don’t want such a fate to befall them.”

Hunger by Roxane Gay (TW sexual assault, fatphobia)

This is the first memoir I’ve read as an adult and it was so insightful. I actually listened to the audiobook for this one and hearing Roxane’s words about her experience with sexual assault, weight gain, family and societal pressure to lose weight, and her thoughts on how society equates being thin with being healthy were so important for me to hear. It’s easy to fall in line with society and abide by the fatphobia that runs rampant within it. As someone who is not overweight, it’s easy for me to forget how systematic fatphobia is. In the memoir, Roxane dedicates a whole chapter on weight loss commercials and what they tell the viewer. The intelligent way she picked apart the subject truly resonated with me and I would recommend every person who isn’t overweight give this book a read.


The Commitment

Review: 5/5

“The Bible is only as good and decent as the person reading it.”

The Commitment by Dan Savage

I listened to this book on audio and I loved it so much. The Commitment is a non-fiction book about Dan’s life, though it’s not quite a memoir as it’s not necessarily about his entire life, or memorializing it. In the book, he speaks about his family- his husband and son mostly and their experiences as a family unit. He talks in depth about raising his son, gender roles, marriage, and true to much of his writing- sex. He really explores what it means to be married and how exploring his relationship with an open mind and a willingness to change has strengthened his relationship with his husband and enhanced their intimacy. I really loved this book and definitely subscribed to Dan Savage’s podcast, Savage Lovecast, right after finishing it because I wanted more of Dan’s thoughts! I will definitely listen to his other books as soon as I can!

REVIEW: Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn (5/5)

by Tiana Coven

“The black seeps into her, masking any sentiments, mangling any desire to forgive, hardening the weak pulp of a muscle beating inside her chest.” -Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Tiana_HereComestheSun

tw: sexual assault/homophobia

It’s not often that I come across a novel that is so raw and honest as Here Comes the Sun. The story follows four women in Montego Bay, Jamaica: Margot, a woman who has been sexually exploited by her mother as a result of homophobia and poverty, and has learned how to sell her sexuality to make ends meet, Delores (Margot’s mother) who runs a tourist shop and faces the trials of raising two daughters while facing poverty, Thandi (Margot’s younger sister, who struggles with colorism, which runs rampant in Jamaica, and Verdene [Margot’s lover], a woman who is regarded as a witch because she is openly gay.) This book touches on heavy subjects such as sexual assault, colorism, fetishization, homophobia, and how tourism negatively affects the native community in Jamaica. Overall, this book truly reflects the harsh reality of life as a woman in Jamaica within its fictional pages.

***

You can read more of Tiana’s reviews and recommendations on her book blog, Tiana Reads LGBT.

 

 

REVIEW: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (5/5)

by Tiana Coven

“I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth.”
-The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Tiana_SongofAchilles

 

This book tore me apart and then put me back together again by the last page. This book has shot past all others and moved immediately into my favorites list. It is both romantic and action packed, keeping me on edge with every page. The way the author writes through Patroclus’ eyes about his love and devotion to Achilles is such a balm for my heart. The book tells the story of how Patroclus, once a prince, becomes an exile after he accidentally murders a boy and gets disowned by his father, the king. He finds himself, mercifully, in Achilles’ father’s kingdom, taken in as an orphan. Achilles takes a fast interest in him, to Patroclus’ surprise, and the two become fast friends. And then something much more. As the story follows them from childhood training to adulthood war, their love for each other grows stronger despite any trial put in their way.

I loved this book so fiercely, and will definitely be buying my own copy to reread for years to come!

***

You can read more of Tiana’s reviews and recommendations on her book blog, Tiana Reads LGBT.

Review of Lou Yardley’s HELLHOUND

Self Portrait
Features Editor Cooper Anderson
By Cooper Anderson

With a shady barman, creeps wearing sunglasses at night, and the mother of all hangovers, Hellhound by Lou Yardley is a dark and grisly modern-day telling of the werewolf mythos set in a strangely hot English summer. This month I got a chance to read the new release from Y Books Publishing and here is what I thought:

Just A Taste

Hellhound is the story about down on his luck and low on self-esteem Kit Byers and how a chance encounter at a random pub in summertime London changed his life forever. After retreating from another failed job interview, Kit finds himself in desperate need of a drink and sanctuary from the heat. He wanders into The Hound & The Philosopher Inn where he meets a charming barman who is used to the whoa and blather of pub patrons and decides to supply Kit with enough drinks to get him horizontal and then proceeds to pull Kit by the ankles into the back room of the pub.

Christine (our other main character of the story), who while waiting for a cab, also decides to pop into The Hound & The Philosopher Inn to get out of the heat. There she sees a pub patron who’s seen better days and has drunk himself into a belligerent mess on legs. The man tumbles backward onto the pub floor and is then dragged into the back room by the barman who never stops flashing his rogue-like smile. Finding her cab waiting for her outside, Christine decides to leave but not before hearing a loud, blood-curdling scream. A scream that nobody else seems to notice.

Unable to get the scream out of her head, Christine finds herself visited in the middle of the night by a strange man in dark sunglasses who tells her to stay away. To forget what she thinks she heard at The Hound & The Philosopher. That it’s going to get very painful and very messy if she doesn’t stay away. So, with a fresh dose of terror freshly applied, Christine does exactly what she knows she shouldn’t be doing. She goes back to the pub.

Meanwhile, Kit wakes from his drunken stupor to find himself naked and with a strange painful mark on the back of his neck. He finds his clothes waiting for him in a box with his name on it and quickly legs it home to sleep it off. But once he’s home, however, he soon notices something. Something about himself that’s not quite right…

I’m not going to spoil any more of the story for you. Like I said it’s just a taste.

The Delicious Bits

Hellhound has a lot of things going for it that I like to see in my horror books. There is a definite sense of unease that permeates throughout the book that leaves the reader on edge. Twists and turns can happen at any moment throughout the story and it’s not entirely predictable which is always a plus for horror writing. There is also a very ominous voice that is first introduced in the prologue and then shows up occasionally as thoughts implanted into the characters head which I think is a pretty inventive way to set the tone.

Classic elements of horror are also present throughout the book. There’s a smiling barman that you never feel comfortable enough to trust. Blackouts in houses that normally have power. Things that accentuate the genre that it’s in.

There’s also no “Heavy Lifting” when reading this book. You don’t have to ponder secretive character motivations or deep-rooted symbolism throughout the book. It’s just an easy read that you can do on a plane ride or at the beach and not feel bad about doing so.

The Gristle

The things that make Hellhound a fun read are also its biggest problems. The characters that we meet feel like horror movie characters. We meet them with little backstory and are thrown into the supernatural story of blood and gore. Here is the main character, here is the villain, here is the premise and off we go. We aren’t given enough information or background to care too much about the characters. It’s hard to care about Christine being threatened by a creep in sunglasses when we don’t really know anything about her. What kind of person is she? What does she care about? We don’t really know. However, this kind isn’t entirely a bad thing. The same things that I think are problematic are probably what a lot of people would find enjoyable. Just characters reacting to a horrifying situation. We tend to bring our preconceived notions as to the type of person Christine is because we know this archetype in the horror genre.

Final Thoughts

Hellhound is a book that I have no problem recommending to my friends who are casual readers. It’s a light non-complex book that does a decent job at making me want to turn the next page to find out what happens. It’s fun, it’s simple and above all, it has a lot of blood.

While this is her first standalone novel, Lou Yardley is also the author of THE OTHERS series, Jingle Bells (a novella), and the short story “Lydia.” You can find more of Lou Yardley and her work at LouYardley.com and @LouciferSpeaks on twitter

***