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Patti Smith performs on stage during The New Yorker Festival 2015 at SVA Theater on October 3, 2015 in New York City.

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Title
M Train
Author
Patti Smith
Publisher
Knopf Canada
Pages
253
Price
$32

"It's not so easy writing about nothing," Patti Smith confesses on the first page of her new memoir, M Train. Indeed it is not, and for lesser writers, the excruciating effort of such writing would come second only to the excruciating effort of readers to read it. Happily, Smith is a very fine writer indeed, and her "nothing" will afford the reader a charming, melancholy, at times frustrating, yet strangely welcoming something special.

You'll read this book and wish you knew Patti Smith. Wish you could go for coffee with her (she drinks a lot of coffee), talk about books and British crime dramas, wander around with her as she takes Polaroid photographs, and generally be her friend. There's a warmth to her on the page that the famous proto-punk, rock-star persona might seem to belie.

Smith came to prominence in New York in the mid-seventies: androgynous spoken-word poetry pioneer, fierce singer, and soul-mate of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. (It was Smith who suggested he pick up his first Polaroid camera, the medium that made him infamous.) She recounts their relationship in her previous memoir, Just Kids, a National Book Award winner and New York Times bestseller.

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Fans of Just Kids might miss the narrative momentum of that account, not to mention the aura of myth and celebrity – Andy Warhol at Max's Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, Bob Dylan, CBGB.

M Train is neither star-struck nor particularly linear. Smith, on the cusp of her seventies now, portrays a life of austerity and solitude devoted to the pursuit of her many obsessions: coffee, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, Coney Island in winter, a recurring dream she has about a cowboy, the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, visiting graveyards, the AMC/Netflix crime drama The Killing, and the Continental Drift Club – an obscure society serving as an independent branch of the earth-science community. Twenty-seven members, scattered across the hemispheres, have pledged their dedication to the perpetuation of remembrance, specifically in regard to Alfred Wegener, who pioneered the theory of continental drift.

Smith is member No. 23.

At a certain point you will begin to suspect that Smith is a crazy old lady. This will not make you crave her company any less. She buys a derelict bungalow in Rockaway Beach, without setting foot inside it, scant weeks before Hurricane Sandy ravages that community. She talks a little too much about her cowboy dream. She seriously considers delaying her travel plans so she can stay in her London hotel and watch an upcoming Cracker marathon on TV. (This after delaying her plans once already to take advantage of The Saint, A Touch of Frost, and Whitechapel).

Eccentricities aside, though, the overriding impression M Train gives is of a great artist turning inward. She thinks a lot about death (that of her beloved husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, in 1994; those of her favourite writers). She craves solitude and time to work. This inward turn doesn't exclude her fans. You sense she wants to bring us with her as she moves into this next phase of her career: a generous, intimate dialogue with times both before and after her own time in this world.

Smith still travels: performing, receiving honours, exploring the haunts of her favourite writers. A trip to Japan takes shape in her mind: "I would spend some time alone, to write, in the Hotel Okura, a classic sixties hotel near the American Embassy. Afterwards, I'd improvise."

Afterwards, I'd improvise: this phrase lies at the heart of what makes M Train so compelling. Smith's list of what to pack for the trip is dominated by books. She's guided by nothing more or less than pure instinct, and faces the world with an innocence that's simultaneously childlike and terrifying. This way of living, of writing, of experiencing every moment brings an openness to pain and beauty that are the hallmarks of a great artist:

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I finally chose a few books by Dazai and Akutagawa. Both had inspired me to write and would serve as meaningful companionship for a fourteen-hour flight. But as it turned out I barely read on the plane. Instead, I watched the movie Master and Commander. Captain Jack Aubrey reminded me so much of Fred that I watched it twice. Midflight I began to weep. Just come back, I was thinking. You've been gone long enough. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes. Mercifully, I fell asleep, and when I awoke snow was falling over Tokyo.

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