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.