aboard the m train
by Kristyn Seigert
Patti Smith sits for hours signing copies of her new novel M Train. Hundreds of fans leave with freshly inked inside covers. This is the second night in a row she hosts a book signing. Sitting and signing, speaking, then sitting and signing. To a packed fourth floor at the Union Square Barnes and Noble, she sheepishly admits, “I don’t know what to say tonight.” She flashes her jagged, imperfect teeth and wipes her stringy gray hair to the side, “I’m sorry.”
The audience is not disappointed. This is just the type of character she presents on the page: casual, witty, a bit shy and always matter of fact. There is a certain spirit about her, as if she is guided by the writers — Proust, Borroughs — about whom she writes so frequently. She wears black, as she normally does, as if in a state of perpetual mourning. Death seems to follow her, yet her eyes appear freshly splashed with cold water — she mourns with the written word, following her influences with blank pages (or napkins), a pen, and her camera. M Train, as well as her previous novel, Just Friends, follows many of her encounters with the now deceased. She spends much of her time sitting before gravestones, paying homage to either a close friend, lover, or removed influence (like her beloved Arthur Rimbaud). M Train specifically catalogues her life with, and the eventual loss of, her husband Fred Sonic Smith. He was similarly adventurous and followed Smith to various public libraries to study or delve into classic novels. He was the muse of her art and shared in her favorite activity: drinking diluted black coffee while reading at neighborhood cafés.
When asked to share her reasoning for the title M Train she says, “there are two train lines called the M, one in New York and one in Tokyo. The title has nothing to do with these trains. It represents a ‘mind train.’ When I started writing, I wanted to write what came to mind with no particular agenda.”
The result is a fascinating account of her life in prose that seamlessly shifts between imagination and reality. Readers are given an acute lens into her world as she unapologetically follows her passions across the globe. Few books really allow you to tag along, experience the writer’s world without some sort of impenetrable wall of separation. M Train does. Whether Smith is becoming a member of the Continental Drift Club to honor Alfred Wegener, traveling to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in French Guiana with Fred and investing money in a new café, or visiting Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico, she traverses each destination driven by obscure prompts. She chose to visit Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, for example, so that she could see the remains of the French penal colony. Smith’s fans seem to be pulled by her intellectual pursuits and fiercely non-judgmental perspective. She does the coolest things out of sheer curiosity. It is refreshing.
She ends her reading at Barnes and Noble by thanking the audience: “thank you for joining our gathering. It was an honor and a pleasure. It [the book] is sort of a mystery to me. I have no idea who would like this book. Hopefully all of you.” The audience erupts with applause, in awe of Smith and the passages she chose to read. Of course, it is no mystery to them who would like the book. Who wouldn’t?
Originally published 12/09/15