A girl grows up in a working-class family in New Jersey, the eldest of four children. Her mother is a waitress, her father works nights. The girl collects things, pebbles, marbles, charms—things that speak to her because of where she found them. She reads a lot of books. At the Philadelphia bus depot, she finds a book called Illuminations, which she pockets because she was attracted to the author’s face. Why was a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations waiting for her at the bus depot?
In 1967, when she drops out of college and moves to Brooklyn, she meets a beautiful boy. Like her, he feels destined to be an artist. But while she draws a little, writes a little, occasionally sings, the boy is focused, convinced that their artistic yearnings are not childish dreams. The boy and the girl promise always to take care of each other. She keeps a lock of his hair, a box of letters, a goatskin tambourine, a vial of his ashes.
“In 1978 I came into a little money and was able to pay a security deposit toward the lease of a one-story building on East Tenth Street,” writes Patti Smith in M Train, the sequel to her National Book Award–winning memoir Just Kids. She doesn’t say so, but she came into a little money because in 1978 her song “Because the Night” (written with Bruce Springsteen and produced by Jimmy Iovine) became a hit single. Smith’s first album, the groundbreaking Horses, had appeared in 1975: Its now-iconic cover image—Smith with a black jacket tossed over her shoulder, Sinatra-style—was shot by the boy who grew up to be the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The girl who found Rimbaud in the bus depot grew up to be named a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
Like Patti Smith’s life, M Train feels guided simultaneously by determination and serendipity. It’s hard to gauge Smith’s attitude when she says that in 1978 she “came into a little money,” but I don’t think she means to be coy. She knows who she became, and she knows that we know. But she’s not very interested in talking about that person. Mostly she’s interested in things—little talismanic things and, by extension, other things, other people. This is what makes her previous memoir, Just Kids, so poignant, so lacking in the narcissism endemic even to the best of memoirs: The story of her life is indescribable except inasmuch as it is also Mapplethorpe’s story. “When I look at it now,” says Smith of the cover of Horses, “I never see me. I see us.”
M Train perpetuates this method, except that the cast of characters is much larger, each chapter set in motion by a little Proustian moment that provokes an unpredictable chain of memory and observation, one thing talking to another. To the degree that we’re led to imagine the life of the book’s author, that life feels familiar, even ordinary, the life of a woman who was once a dreamy little girl in New Jersey. But simultaneously, the life feels exotic, extraordinary, the life of a woman who has visited places and seen things that, without her having written about them, we would never imagine.