Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) is many things at once: a metaphysical detective story, a lament for the current state of the world, and a meditation on aging and mortality. Illustrated with reproductions of Smith’s photographs, it’s a diaristic account of the trajectory of her wanderings over the course of the Chinese lunar year that encompassed the 2016 American presidential election (in which “[t]wenty-four percent of the population had elected the worst of ourselves to represent the other seventy-six percent”). It’s a year Smith approaches with uneasiness, uncertainty, even dread, traveling for work, visiting dying friends, sometimes moving only by “finally deciding to follow whatever impulse dominated other impulses.” Noticing that her “sense of time seems to be accelerating,” she often falls out of time altogether. Waking from a dream, Smith writes, “The hotel phone would not stop ringing. It was the front desk, but which front desk, which city, which month?”
The book opens just on the other side of her sixty-ninth birthday, fresh from a string of concerts at The Fillmore, when Smith checks into the Dream Motel in Santa Cruz, CA, “well past midnight” on the first day of the New Year of 2016. She finds herself unexpectedly alone, as her friend of forty years, Sandy Pearlman, who was to make the trip with her, is suddenly on his deathbed.
Smith explores beaches, takes photographs. She hears the hotel sign talking to her and “could not help feeling like Alice interrogated by the hookah-smoking caterpillar.” Smith doesn’t seem disturbed by her Alice in Wonderland-type adventures (“In truth, being somewhat wall-eyed, I often witness such leaping about”), but is aware of her fractured state. She writes, “When I reentered my room, I could see that I was still sleeping, so I waited, with the window open, till I awoke.”
Smith writes, “It suddenly occurred to me that it wasn’t really necessary that I be at the hospital with Sandy. For the past twenty years we have lived on opposite coasts, keeping channels open, trusting in the power of the mind to transcend three thousand miles. Why should anything be different? I could keep vigil where I may be.” She pushes herself to visit, though, despite her hospital phobia. “Machines pulsing. Saline solution dripping. Sandy squeezed my hand but the nurse said it didn’t mean anything.”
She drifts along the California coast. She finds a beach littered with strange candy wrappers. They continue to turn up in unexpected places. She discovers in the pocket of her coat “a fragment of the red skin of Ayers Rock, that I had not yet found, on a walking path in Uluru, where I had not yet walked.” She hitches a ride to San Diego, riding first with a couple who forbids her to speak, then with a woman who never stops talking. “Still silent, but it was a different kind of silence,” Smith observes. At a café on a pier, she first eavesdrops then interrupts some young people engaged in deep conversation. The next day at the same café, one of the young men, Ernesto, “entered moccasin silent” and jolts Smith from the exile of her solitude. He becomes a kind of spiritual guide, but does he even exist? Unconcerned about whether or not he’s real, Smith is instead simply intent on the clues she gets from their conversations. “I couldn’t help but marvel at our mutual ease winding from one obscure topic to another, from Swedish crime writers to extreme weather,” Smith writes.
The changing weather is just one of many things on Smith’s mind. She writes, “[A]n insidious insomnia was slowly claiming my nights, giving way to the replaying of the afflictions of the world at dawn.” She makes note of “Valentine’s Day, the coldest on record” in New York City and the “wildfires in Southern California”; it’s “the unprecedented heat and the dying reef and the arctic shelf breaking apart that haunts me.” Elsewhere she makes note of “assault rifles” and records her fears surrounding “the rise of pediatric cancers, diabetes and high blood pressure, the fast-food world closing in on our young.”
Smith takes a maternal instinct in her old friend and lover, Sam Shepard, traveling to Cincinnati to help him finish his book. When he and his sister pick Smith up, she “noted with a pang that Sam wasn’t driving.” While she and Shepard are able to lose themselves in the work, “the reality of the present hits hard, no banging on the typewriter keys, no roping cattle, no more struggling with his cowboy boots.” Unable to sleep at night, Smith discovers a huge mass of black butterflies on Shephard’s garden wall, but “can’t really tell if they are dead or just sleeping.”
Smith reckons with her own mortality, and it’s here that the book’s center comes most clearly into focus. She writes, “I would be turning seventy in the Year of the Monkey. Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself as the darn egg.” Despite making light of the fact, there is a kind of attendant shock. “I plodded up the stairs to my room reciting to myself, “Once I was seven, soon I will be seventy.”
As in all her books, Smith’s writing here is elegiac: “It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.” The scenes are full of both real and imaginary conversations, private talismans and totems (her Polaroids, her coffee, her “well-traveled boots”), along with rituals, such as “packing my small suitcase. The same drill: six Electric Lady T-shirts, six pairs of underwear, six of bee socks, two notebooks, herbal cough remedies, my camera, the last packs of slightly expired Polaroid film and one book, Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg, a nod to his coming birthday.” Smith travels with a phone with a dead battery, and keeps track of time through her family’s birthdays, Saints’ days, and the anniversaries of the passings of old friends.
“This is what I know,” Smith writes. “Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow.” Not necessarily optimistic, Smith remains ever-hopeful. By drawing our attention to the things that matter to her, Smith gets us interested in them, and perhaps imbues us with a little of that hope ourselves.
Finishing this small, fine volume, we may consider our own responses to the questions she’s raised. Having pondered the mysteries in “a small but profusely illustrated book on the Ghent Altarpiece,” Smith writes, “What will happen to us, I wondered, closing the book. Us being America, us being humanity in general.” What The Year of the Monkey reminds us is that there is no us versus them. We’re all in this together. There is only us.