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On ‘M Train,’ Crybabies and the art that moves us

| Thursday, October 29, 2015

MTrain_Bannertop_WebJanice Chung | The Observer

“It’s not so easy writing about nothing.”

That is the declaration that opens “M Train,” the new memoir from the musician and writer Patti Smith. Those words are relayed to her by a cowboy in a dream, but they also serve as a guiding force for the book. “M Train” isn’t about nothing per se, but Smith is more concerned with capturing her inner state than giving a play-by-play of the pivotal events of her life. Interiority is favored over traditional narrative, attempting to give the reader a glimpse inside the mind of the Godmother of Punk.

While Smith’s previous memoir, “Just Kids,” documented her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, “M Train” is centered on solitude. Again and again throughout the book, Smith writes of going to her beloved Cafe ‘Ino in Greenwich Village and sitting down at “her table” to write, accompanied only by her usual order of black coffee, brown toast and olive oil. In Smith’s hands, this quotidian act becomes a ritual that verges on the spiritual.

Smith has called the book “a roadmap to my life,” and she populates it with surreal dreams, memories of her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, travel diaries and reflections on her writing process. But she bestows the most reverence on the artists she adores, especially writers, who become saintly figures in her mind. Smith seems especially fascinated by visiting the graves of her literary heroes, including Arthur Rimbaud, Sylvia Plath and Jean Genet. On these pilgrimages Smith frequently brings talismans — a string of beads for Rimbaud, stones from a French Guiana prison for Genet — as signs of her devotion.

There is a spiritual dimension not only to Smith’s idolization of certain artists, but to the very act of reading itself. In one chapter she recounts a period of intense obsession with the Japanese surrealist writer Haruki Murakami. Smith recalls spending several weeks fixated on the abandoned house at the center of Murakami’s novel “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” wondering whether the property is real or imagined. She even considers that she could “just innocently meet him for coffee where portals connect” in order to find out the answer. She later leaves the novel in an airport and despairs over having lost the “mascot of [her] resurging energy.” In Smith’s world, books have the immense power to revive one’s spirit.

Smith holds a similar romantic view of the crime procedurals she loves, which include “Law & Order,” “CSI: Miami” and “The Killing.” Even the act of watching these shows becomes its own kind of ritual. At one point, when Smith’s connecting flight home through London is delayed, she decides to check into a hotel and spend all day and night in her room watching British detective shows. The sense of the mystical is reinforced when she runs into an actor from one of these dramas in the hotel bar. “Yesterday’s poets are today’s detectives,” she declares — speaking to how seriously she takes her favorite detective shows.

I was compelled by the web of cultural references Smith weaves in “M Train,” even when many of her literary references were unfamiliar to me. She seems aware this might be the case with many readers, but insists it is fundamental to the way she conceptualizes herself. “Writers and their books. I cannot assume the reader will be familiar with them all, but in the end is the reader familiar with me?” Smith asks, after discussing the German writer W.G. Sebald’s “After Nature.” “I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions.”

I think Smith is correct in her hope that these allusions are revealing. Part of this is my misguided belief that if I read Murakami with a similar intensity I will somehow tap into the swagger she embodies on the album cover of “Horses,” clutching her suspenders and black jacket slung over her shoulder. I could watch every episode of every crime procedural and I wouldn’t become Patti Smith.

Nonetheless, the art that is important to us — especially the works that move us so deeply as to regard them with an almost religious intensity — becomes a part of how we experience the world. Smith’s love of crime dramas isn’t purely for their entertainment value. For her, there is a resonance to be found between herself and these “detective inspectors whose moodiness and obsessive natures mirrored [her] own.” When art connects with us on such a deep level, it can speak to our personal experiences and affirm our feelings as valid and real.

It is for similar reasons that I have recently become obsessed with Crybabies, a podcast hosted by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean and the actress Sarah Thyre. Orlean and Thyre invite guests on their show to talk about the films, plays, songs and other moments that bring them to tears. Guests on past Crybabies episodes have included many artists I idolize: comedians Amy Poehler, Julie Klausner, Jason Mantzoukas and Jenny Slate; writers Tavi Gevinson and Hilton Als; “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.

While the concept behind the show is great, it only works because of how vulnerable their guests allow themselves to be about why certain works affect them so deeply. On a recent episode, Gevinson discussed the song “These Days” by Nico and its use in one of the most memorable scenes from “The Royal Tenenbaums.” She said the song brings her back to watching the film for the first time as a young teenager. Gevinson eloquently describes how the song fills her with nostalgia for that time in her life and evokes a “real chemical reaction” in her.

MTrain_Bannerbottom_WebJanice Chung | The Observer

On another fantastic episode, Megan Amram, who wrote for the sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” discusses a short exchange between Leslie and Ron during the show’s final season. Leslie asks, “Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?” to which Ron responds, “People are idiots, Leslie.” Amram talks about how the scene channels all the emotions she felt as the show came to an end earlier this year — both the joy of having worked in such a great environment, but also the sadness over the death of fellow “Parks and Rec” writer Harris Wittels.

Listening to the podcast, I was incredibly moved by these two moments in particular. Gevinson and Amram so eloquently speak to the ways in which art can be shaped by personal experience. The podcast as a whole is all about art at its most affecting — when it provokes a visceral emotional reaction. Critical distance is fine, but art is really at its most powerful when it becomes so deeply embedded within our lives and our memories. Both “M Train” and Crybabies share this profound belief that the art that moves us becomes an intertwined part of us. And those discussions aren’t really “about nothing” at all.

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew earned his BA from Notre Dame in 2016, and he is currently pursuing an MA in English and American Literature. He thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

Contact Matthew