The punk chanteuse has become the irresistible siren of middle age, and she has done so not by surviving but by refusing to settle for the glamour of past accomplishment. Except for what she will do next, M Train is the most beautiful thing she’s ever made.
Perhaps M Train represents the attempt by someone whose career is as public as can be imagined to stake out a zone of inviolable privacy, albeit through the public act of writing a book meant for publication. That paradox, of a solitude played out in plain view, plays about the edges of M Train but does not overwhelm it.
The moments like this one...have remarkable power...But in less charged passages, that style can become monotonous, or even (he whispered, quietly) self-serious. The terse, dashed dialogue, the black-and-white photographs reminiscent of Sebald or Berger or Barthes — these are signifiers of the authentic, and therefore faintly inauthentic, unworthy of so indisputably authentic a person.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this book would be, in British parlance, a total wank. But Smith is a generous, charming, and brilliant guide. In her loneliness, her cherished possessions take on talismanic significance and an occasion to wax philosophical.
It is not a perfect book, meandering in places, overly romantic at times about the purifying power of art. But why not? Smith has always represented aspiration as much as achievement, the idea that art ennobles us by bringing us in contact with something, some thread of thought or feeling, larger than ourselves.
Unlike Just Kids, whose linear plot was all about the thrill of 'becoming,' M Train is about enduring erosion. Its narrative, fittingly, is more allusive and incantatory, more like Smith's distinctive song lyrics.
M Train does not move in a simple arc from one destination to another. It meanders between her interior life and her life in the world, connecting dreams, reflections and memories. Smith’s rich, inventive language lures the reader down this nonformulaic path.
Certainly, M Train is self-indulgent. It’s the experimental work you get to do after you’ve made bank. Patti paid her dues for decades, finally got paid, and can write whatever she wants as far as I’m concerned. Sure, I got a little tired of all the paeans to dead dudes. But I ached to be in the Alamo; her dream of life there flew off the page.
Just about any other memoirist this obsessed with detail and fuzzy philosophy would risk a bad case of book-hurled-against-wall syndrome. But Smith is so charming and non-pretentious, so full of genuine delight, that her rambles carry more than their weight in words.
The reader’s enjoyment of M Train...may hinge entirely on the pleasure he takes in, or more accurately patience with, the seemingly endless cups of coffee imbibed by the author in these pages. Cup after cup in cafes from Greenwich Village to Tangiers is downed by the Godmother of Punk as this meandering, but ultimately satisfying book unfolds.
Even readers with well-worn copies of Horses and Radio Ethiopia may find this hard going. There are an awful lot of descriptions of coffee and a lot of summaries of other lives, other books. Smith can seem like an aloof character in her own memoir.