Book review: Patti Smith's M Train goes off the rails straight away

Fans of her memoir Just Kids will be disappointed that the singer doesn't deliver a second volume of that engaging work

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 October, 2015, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 October, 2015, 12:00pm


Punk rocker Patti Smith added "literary sensation" to her resume with the 2010 publication of her captivating memoir, Just Kids. That book simply and beautifully described her life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe beginning in the late 1960s, long before they found fame, as they scrounged for food and art supplies, holed up in New York's Chelsea Hotel and revelled in the city's downtown club and arts scene, encountering celebrities wherever they went.

Fans hoping for Volume II of the story of Smith's life with her new book, M Train, will be sorely disappointed. "It's not so easy writing about nothing," is the first line of M Train, a line that unfortunately proves true.

At best, M Train is filled with memory fragments and poetic-sounding descriptions. At worst, it's 250 pages of free association and mundane drivel. There are descriptions of her junk mail, her dreams and her repeated visits to a coffee shop. But there is nothing resembling a story.

Even readers who weren't fans of Smith's music were drawn into Just Kids by its strong autobiographical narrative and brilliant evocation of an era in New York City when subcultures flourished amid urban decay and old-school neighbourhoods. But it's not just the lack of a chronologically ordered story or historical context that's missing in M Train. This book just feels like the journal jottings of a bored goddess, meandering aimlessly as Smith flies to visit a writer's grave or give a talk somewhere, without ever offering a coherent theme, never mind a plot.

Occasionally Smith begins to veer into a semblance of a narrative, with memories of her late husband, Fred, or the story of her purchase of a house in New York's hipster Rockaway Beach neighbourhood shortly before the area is devastated by Hurricane Sandy. But those incipient tales merely tease the reader into thinking a full-blown story is on its way. It's not.

Skip M Train and stay tuned for a forthcoming Showtime series based on Just Kids.

M Train by Patti Smith (Alfred A. Knopf)

Associated Press