Book Review: Year of the Monkey

By Briana Weeger

In the first days and weeks of 2020, the season for past reflections and future resolutions is upon us—if you’re into that sort of thing. In Patti Smith’s newest memoir Year of the Monkey, the writer, photographer, and musician takes a surreal look at her life in 2016, the year of the trickster monkey in Chinese zodiac. But Smith doesn’t seem to be a fan of New Year’s resolutions. Instead, in a tumultuous political and personal landscape, Smith is beautifully open to the lessons, connections, and hidden meanings within dreams that the year offers her. Her writing is a surreal mix of fiction and nonfiction as she contemplates what is real and attempts to absorb the absurd truths of living and dying.

Smith starts off Year of the Monkey, and her sixty-ninth year, with news of her long-time friend Sandy Pearlman having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. After visiting him in the ICU, she decides to embark alone on the trip they were supposed to take together from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. She reflects on her memories of Sandy and when they met in 1971 after Smith’s first poetry performance. In this reflection, Smith feels “a cosmic pull in multiple directions.” It is a pull that is felt throughout her writing as memories, new acquaintances, signs, and sights pull her through portals into dream worlds. She also promises Sandy that she will “mentally hold onto him, keep an open channel, ready to intercept and accept any signal. Not just shards of love, as Sandy would say, but the whole goblet.”

And that is exactly what Smith does. She negotiates cosmic pulls and remains open to signals as she embarks on a year of travel from The Dream Motel in Santa Cruz to meanderings in the desert of Arizona. She visits another friend, playwright Sam Shepard, in Kentucky, goes back to see Sandy before he passes away, makes a stop in Lisbon, and ends up at home in New York, where she struggles to understand the impending political change and rings in the next new year.

Smith’s work as a poet and songwriter is present throughout as she narrates dreamscapes and notices the “rays of sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever,” in the life surrounding her. Here Smith sits on the porch of her home in Rockaway Beach and looks out at her garden:

I suddenly felt dead—no, not dead, more other worldly, a grateful kind of dead. I could feel life scurrying about, a plane overhead, the sea just beyond and the unfolding notes of Dark Star drifting through the grid of my screen door. I could not bring myself to move, and let myself be transported elsewhere, long before I knew Sandy, long before I listened to Wagner, to another summer at the Electric Circus, where a young girl slow-danced with an equally young boy, awkwardly in love.

Smith blurs the waking world that she sees and experiences with her own rich inner world. For her, an emotional state, a dream, or a memory is just as much reality as what can be physically seen and felt. This is a strength of hers, and she uses it as a tool to understand some of the absurd realities of life that 2016 brings with it. One reality, a touchstone which helps anchor readers in the physical world, is the marching of time that Smith feels as she approaches her seventieth birthday.

Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that 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 the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual. I notice that I cry more . . . that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating.

Being open to signs and portals into dream worlds helps Smith gain a sense of control over time. She makes her own time as she weaves from past to future and real to unreal.

On a trip to Lisbon, Smith walks, wanders, dreams, and slows time with moving between planes of thought.

In the drawer of the nightstand is an illustrated pocket map, a little guide to the town of Sabrosa, the birthplace of Magellan. I have a vague memory of drawing a ship circling the world at the kitchen table. My father making a pot of coffee, whistling Lisbon Antigua. I can almost hear the notes melding with the sound of the percolator. Sabrosa, I whisper. Someone is fastening my seatbelt. The wooden bed in the corner of the room seems so far away, and all is but an intermission, of small and tender consequence.

Tender intermissions of reflection and dream become Smith’s antidote to the ills of existing in a difficult time. These inward moments are often somber, funny, and nostalgic. But moreover, they offer us an approach to making meaning of the absurdities of life. Time marches on, we age, we lose people we love, and we are confused by the coexistence of catastrophe and beauty. Smith approaches all of this with a sense of wonder, an openness, and an artist’s ability to dream. “Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.” As we enter into 2020, the Year of the Rat, Smith encourages us that, instead of solving the complexities of life, we should let our heads and hearts wander and embrace moments of brightness when confronting the dark.     

Briana Weeger is a native of Southern California and has studied English Literature at UCLA and English Education at Brooklyn College. She has worked with underserved and immigrant youth using story crafting and storytelling as a means of self-discovery and empowerment. In her own writing practice, she is exploring the impact of often overlooked social customs with a mix of both fiction and non-fiction.