Thursday, March 31, 2016

M Train - Patti Smith (2015)

M Train is Patti Smith's follow-up to Just Kids and I misunderstood it to be a kind of sequel or continuation of that critically-acclaimed volume.  I understood M Train to be about Patti Smith's life in the late 70's through the mid 90's, or at least focusing on that period.  I do not know why I labored under this delusion, and it had to be from some kind of misinformation in a review I read about a year ago or whenever it was released (not quite--October of 2015, ironically close to the release of our previous review).  Certainly one wouldn't get that impression from reading the inside jacket.

So it goes without saying that this is not the book I expected it to be, but I would have read it regardless.  And while I personally cannot rate it as highly as Just Kids, it is very close.  It's a loose, experimental book, and it mostly works.  Some moments are as brilliant and heartbreaking as anything that came before, and at other moments, there's just a lot of coffee.

M Train is about many things, but there are several major themes, and chief amongst them has to be coffee.  The #1 topic of this book is coffee.  All Patti Smith does is drink coffee. She is like Balzac, though I believe her reflection on that literary subject and his caffeine addiction is in Just Kids.  Much of the book consists of Smith waking up and crossing the street to Cafe Ino which is somewhere near 6th Ave and Bedford Ave. in the Village.  (Note: Smith also recalls getting falafel at Mamoun's the night before Hurricane Sandy struck.)  She sits at the same corner table and orders brown toast and olive oil and drinks coffee and writes in her notepad, or on napkins.  She develops a possessiveness about the table that is humorous.  One scene where she confronts another woman trying to take it from her is pretty hilarious:

"The cafe was empty, but the cook was unscrewing the outlet plate above my seat.  I took my book into the bathroom and read while he finished.  When I emerged, the cook was gone and a woman was ready to sit in my seat.
-Excuse me, this is my table.
-Did you reserve it?
-Well, no, but it's my table.
-Did you actually sit here?  There's nothing on the table and you have your coat on.
I stood there mutely.  If this were an episode of Midsomer Murders she would surely be found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage.  I shrugged and sat at another table, hoping to wait her out.  She spoke loudly, asking for eggs Benedict and iced coffee with skim milk, neither offered on the menu.
She'll leave, I thought.  But she didn't.  She plopped her oversized red lizard bag on my table and made numerous calls on her cell phone.  There was no way to escape her odious conversation, fixed on a tracking number for some missing FedEx package.  I sat and stared at the heavy white coffee mug.  If this were an episode of Luther, she would be found faceup in the snow with objects from her purse arranged about her: a bodily corona like Our Lady of Guadalupe." (74-75)

For a second I thought Smith was being a little too crazy, but then I realized that she must have a different sort of life.  I'm not saying she deserves to be entitled, but she deserves to feel entitled with everything she has done over the past forty years.  If you don't know who she is, and you don't give her the deference she should command, you kind of deserve it.

The book is not a memoir of 1978 - 2015, but more like a series of snapshots in a life, roughly centered around the 2012-2013 year in Greenwich Village and Far Rockaway.

There are several dream sequences in this book--a certain "cowpoke" bedevils Smith throughout the book--and some of them are heartbreaking and beautiful:

[Smith describes dreaming of a winding path up a mountain with a guide who then abandons her in a very steep open area and then is suddenly safe on the ground approached by a youth and told that they called to Fred, then seeing two men who give her tea and feed her cake and tell her they intervened and called to Fred and he carried her there, but there was the matter of a fee, one hundred thousand dirhams]
"I reached into my pocket and it was filled with money, exactly what he asked for, but the scene had shifted.  I was alone on a stony path surrounded by chalky hills.  I paused to reflect on what had happened.  Fred had rescued me in a dream.  And then suddenly I was back on the highway and I saw him in the distance trailing after the wheel with the face of a clock with no hands.
-Get it, Fred! I cried.
And the wheel collided with a massive cornucopia of lost things.  It fell on its side, and Fred knelt and placed his hand on it.  He flashed a huge smile, one of absolute joy, from a place with no beginning or end." (244-245)

Fred of course is her late husband and the book opens up with a description of their trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, "a border town in northwest French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America," the site of a former French penal colony, where hardcore criminals would be kept before going onto Devil's Island.  Jean Genet had supposedly wanted to go there (to ascend the ladder of criminality), and he was about 70 at the time, and Patti wanted to bring back some stones from the jail to give him, with William S. Burroughs promising to help deliver the stones to him.  This is easily one of the best parts of the book.  It reads like an adventure thriller.  A movie could probably be made about it.

The ending finds Smith at Genet's grave in a town outside Tangier in the late 90's, on assignment interviewing Paul Bowles, taking a side trip to deliver the stones she never got to him in person.  It's a beautiful opening and closing motif.

From here the book goes to Cafe Ino, already described above, and she fantasizes for a moment about opening up a cafe in New York, even going so far as to procure a space with a down payment, before Fred "Sonic" Smith asks her to marry him and move to Detroit with him.  She laid out her inspiration, and I was pleasantly surprised to find an establishment just a few blocks from my present abode:

"An unwinding spool of obscure angles, a glass of tea, an opened journal, and a round metal table balanced with an empty matchbook.  Cafes.  Le Rouquet in Paris, Cafe Josephinum in Vienna, Bluebird Coffeeshop in Amsterdam, Ice Cafe in Sydney, Cafe Aqui in Tucson, Wow Cafe at Point Loma, Caffe Trieste in North Beach, Caffe del Professore in Naples, Cafe Uroxen in Uppsala, Lula Cafe in Logan Square, Lion Cafe in Shibuya, and Cafe Zoo in the Berlin train station.

So Patti must have come back fairly recently to her place of birth.  Actually, she was here just a few days ago, hosting an event at the Old Town School of Folk Music with her family.  It was $25 and I thought it was too much, but really I should have looked more closely into it because I thought it was just a speaking gig.

From there she remarks upon Zak, the owner of Cafe Ino, telling her to visit him at the new coffee shop he's opening near Rockaway Beach, which opens up the whole narrative about her finding a little bungalow that she falls in love with there and ends up buying after touring and making a bunch of money over the summer of 2012.  Then, Hurricane Sandy hits.  This is another great part of the book, because its a narrative of one of the quintessential New York disasters of late.  Like the way City on Fire depicts the blackout in 1977, Smith depicts Hurricane Sandy memorably and accurately.

Smith also writes about her membership in the CDC--the Continental Drift Club, which celebrates the life of Alfred Wegener, who pioneered the idea.  I would imagine that most people would think this is another hilarious facet to her.  But she meets Bobby Fischer on a trip to Iceland with the CDC, and that is another classic scene.

She also writes about a trip to Mexico to see the coffee capital Vereacruz, followed by an engagement to photograph Frida Kahlo's home and belongings in Casa Azul.  This was the only part of the narrative that baffled me--did Smith really fly home in between the two trips?  Because it seems like she was pretty much in the same area.  She flies into Mexico City, buys a round trip train ticket to Veracruz, checks into Casa Azul, finds it closed, goes to Veracruz, has adventures there.  Then, it cuts to her packing in New York and flying out to Mexico again.  Maybe she has to go to Casa Azul twice?  I digress...

One of her favorite authors over the course of the book is Haruki Murakami.  She writes of first discovering him in St. Mark's Bookshop and reading a few books but then getting bowled over by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  And she becomes obsessed with this image of a well on an abandoned property in Japan.

Smith later does go to Japan, and visit several graves of artists she admires,  I think I've done a pretty good job of spoiling almost every little thing this book is about, but it won't matter (oh right--also detective shows, especially The Killing) because the pleasure of it lies in Smith's voice on the page and the poetic flourishes she sometimes employs.

While there is so much to admire in this book, its reach is more limited than her previous volume (she would not sell a Showtime series based upon it).  It is much more of a "journal" type book.  It's labeled as a biography, which just seems blatantly wrong.  It actually says "biography" on the back near the bar code.  In any case it's beautiful writing, but it sometimes dissolves into basically what amounts to a diary.  I never wrote this well in a diary or journal so there's a difference.

Some sequences in the book are better than others, and it tends to ebb and flow with momentum.  I'm not sure what Smith expects us to think about her life, but basically, she is human.  Her talk of detective shows makes her seem like less of an otherworldly artist who would shun television.  She even writes what amounts to fan fiction at one point.

Fans of Smith will love this, and those still unacquainted probably will too.  And others may not get it, or find parts boring, but on the whole this will likely be a pleasurable and educational experience for most.  It seems like a good book to read while you're traveling to an exotic city.  Or holed up in a storm.      

Sunday, March 20, 2016

City on Fire - Garth Risk Hallberg (2015)

I first heard about City on Fire on NPR.  Usually I listen to NPR when I drive out to courthouses in collar counties, so this must have been in August or later of last year.  (Update: I believe that day was October 20, 2015, a.k.a. the Day Before Back to the Future Day, or the Day Before the Cubs Would Not Win the World Series Day, due to this.) It had just come out, with a huge buzz attached.  I had no immediate interest to read it, because in fact I had just re-read Please Kill Me and the idea of reading about a fictional group in the same milieu struck me as dull: what fun is it when it's populated by characters we don't recognize?  Ragtime and Underworld successfully blended recognizable personas into their narratives--and yeah, even though Hallberg doesn't reference DeLillo in his acknowledgements at the end, this is basically an alternate version of that heavy tome about New York in the 70's (mostly).  Some remark that it owes a debt to The Bonfire of Vanities and other works by Tom Wolfe, an author I have never read but have always been mildly curious about (in fact my sister recommended that very volume to me recently).

Then, the Christmas season rolled around and my parents asked me to send a letter to Santa to them.  I had been requested in the comments to the review of Modern Romance to consider City on Fire or Book of Numbers and I gave Santa the choice.  On Christmas morning I felt a hardcover heavy gift and unwrapped it to find this.  

I started reading it January 9, 2016, and took brief breaks to read and review Why We Write about Ourselves and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.  This book lurked in the background.  And I was writing the review of Just Kids as I began City on Fire, and will now be reading M Train as I write the review of City on Fire.  For some reason, this feels a little too close for comfort:

"Two days before the shooting, Samantha dreamed of Patti Smith.  She herself was in a pitch-black room somewhere.  She could not see the walls or reach them--she was unable to move--but the room felt small.  And there was a window nearby, she sensed, a vista of mountains and seas and tiny humans paddling around in canoes and just generally going about their business, if only she could see it.  And then Patti appeared above her in a caul of low blue wattage and informed her that a time was coming when she would have to choose." (739)

So it took me about two months, and I really don't read all that often--just mainly at lunch and on the train ride home and sometimes before bed.  If I'm taking more time out to read something than that, it usually means I really like it.  In this case, I liked it, but I also was pressed to finish it because I don't think I'll be able to renew M Train and need to finish and review that in the next three weeks.  So I was trying to make progress.  

Recently a friend of mine posted on Facebook to ask if he should read Infinite Jest and another friend proposed a 100 page test to determine if a book was worth reading.  It made me think of this.  I couldn't finish IJ and tried twice.  City on Fire is significantly easier reading.  It has relatively broad appeal, but it might fail the 100 page test.  This is mainly because it operates with a cast of characters that doesn't fully coalesce for several hundred more pages.  Still, the writing is engaging, and once one finishes it, somewhat awe-inspiring.  Don't misunderstand--this will not be named to the Best Books of Flying Houses--but it's certainly in the "also ran" category with that Brownstein memoir read concurrently.  Then again, this book is much more entertaining than the Raymond Carver biography.  Basically, Hallberg establishes himself right out of the gate as an Ambitious Writer.  I actually think this would be a much better book if it were about 300 pages shorter, but in spite of some annoying qualities, one must respect the sheer gesture.  This is much much more than a rehash of Please Kill Me.


What is the plot of this book?  Well, it opens on William and Mercer, a gay couple, white 33-year-old and black 24-year-old, moving a Christmas tree down a block in a shopping cart.  William is a former heroin addict and Mercer is a high school English teacher at an all-girl's school.  It then shifts to Regan, (William's sister) and her husband Keith, and their two kids, Will and Cate.  Regan and Keith are separated as the novel opens, around Christmas--and here I should mention a unique feature of this book: it shifts around in time a lot.  As in, each new section seems to begin at some point further back in the past.  Or rather, the chapters alternate in time.  Effectively, there is a "present" part of the book, a "past" part, and a "future" part (which really could be one of the best parts about the entire book, but feels oddly underdeveloped, or tacked on).  The "present" encompasses December 1976 through July 1977 (New Year's Eve and the night of the NYC Blackout serve as bookends).  The "past" primarily concerns 1959 - 1976, and the "future" concerns 1980 - 2004.

William and Regan are the children of a corporate scion, heirs to a fortune.  William used to be in a punk band called Ex Post Facto, which was "taken over" by an imitator known as Nicky Chaos.  At certain points, there is reference to a t-shirt that reads "Please Kill Me," but this band does not sound at all like Richard Hell and the Voidoids.  A number of young people have gotten into the punk scene, and one of them is Samantha, who lives on Long Island.  She is the daughter of a "fireworker," which supplies one of the novels primary motifs.  She is also friends with Charlie, who is adopted but raised Jewish by his parents, and later reads the Bible and establishes himself as a "prophet."  Charlie is in love with Samantha, but in practice they are "best friends."  They go to a show on New Year's Eve and meet other band members/groupies D.T. (Delirium Tremens), Solomon Grungy and Sewer Girl.  In a way, these other band members feel oddly cliched or underdeveloped--but I really shouldn't complain about underdeveloped characters in a 900+ page book.

But then, Samantha has to go, and Charlie later plans to meet her at 72nd St just before midnight.  Meanwhile, nearby on the upper west side, Regan is at her family's lavish annual ball, feeling awkward, and runs into Mercer, who is also feeling awkward and crashing the ball as a way of finding William, who has walked out and disappeared after a small fight.  It occurs to me that Mercer spends way too much of this novel trying to find William.

William and Regan's father, also named William, is being held over in Chicago because of "bad weather," so he cannot attend the party.  His first wife passed away, and he remarried Felicia.  Her brother, Amory, is soon invited into William's family business.  Amory is sort of a sinister character and feels more cartoonish than the rest.  Note: I have never seen a character named Amory anywhere else except here, and I'd prefer that future authors do not use the name for villains.

Now something happens this evening in Central Park--there is a shooting.  One of the characters (it's really not a spoiler to say who, but I will keep mum) ends up spending the majority of this novel on life support in Beth Israel Hospital, and one of the most unsatisfying elements of the ending is the ambiguity of their fate.  Perhaps another reader could elucidate the intended effect, or probable truth.

This shooting is so compelling that a journalist begins investigating all of the involved characters.  This journalist later meets up with his neighbor, a Vietnamese-American girl named Jenny, and share nightly whiskey nightcaps.  Jenny works for Bruno, an art gallery owner and dealer, who has been something of a mentor and protector of William.

I think I've covered most of the characters.  At this point I must comment, as I often do, that this also reminded me of my first novel, Daylight Savings Time.  There is a cast of characters with interlocking narratives and coincidences.  It concerns a relatively specific time and place.  One of the characters is heir to a mini-fortune and has no anxieties or insecurities about his lack of a professional life.  There are drug sequences.  And both include a fantasy about being interviewed by The Paris Review.  All comparisons aside, City on Fire is more ambitious and much better.


I forgot one more character: the polio-stricken NYPD detective that is friends with the journalist.  It's fair to say that some characters come across more strongly than others, and Pulaski initially interviews Mercer after he discovers the shooting victim.  Then he kind of fades out of the narrative for a while and later gets introduced as one of the characters that get "first personish-third person" treatment.  The novel only breaks into first person when Will narrates.  That feels like a bit of a spoiler, so I'm sorry, but part of the fun of this novel is trying to figure out how everything is going to end, or who that person was in the opening pages talking about their cell phone vibrating.

One reviewer commented that most readers will identify with one character most strongly, if not all of them.  For him, it was Charlie.  And I've got to admit, I found Charlie's chapters oddly tedious at first.  To me, they were the most cliche.  However, as it went on, I grew to like them, and maybe that is just because Charlie is one of the few characters that undergoes something of a transformation in the novel.  Many of the characters change, but he is the only one that transforms.  And I did find one passage from one of his chapters notably beautiful, the kind of writing that I've sometimes endeavored to produce.

But I've just re-read that segment (from pages 576-579), which is basically when he kisses Sam for the first time, under kind of gross circumstances, and none of the passages are especially beautiful.  I guess what I meant was, the whole atmosphere of the scene, as it takes place on July 4, 1976, the bi-centennial, and the setting is just sort of perfect.

Also, I've re-read the last chapter discussing the shooting victim, and it appears that there is something of a definitive resolution.  I'm surprised I missed it the first time, but Hallberg does have his way of obfuscating that can sometimes seem like he is just showing off his vocabulary.  Again the book could be a lot shorter with a fair amount of fluffy stuff taken out, but it doesn't feel that bloated due to its large cast of characters.  Many of the same events get repeated over and over again, and retold from different perspectives.  To some this may seem tedious, and it can be, but on balance remains entertaining.


Another one of my friends posted a link to the "50 Most Unacceptable Sentences in City on Fire" and I glanced at it when I was still in the first couple hundred pages.  A couple other links showed up on Facebook beneath it, like one from the NY Post that rips this novel to shreds.  The negative reviews have a point, but the NY Post gets it wrong.  They make fun of Hallberg for listening to Billy Joel instead of the Ramones or Television, but there's nothing wrong with Billy Joel!  "Captain Jack" was pretty much my soundtrack to NYC in late 2001.

Clearly there are flaws in the novel, and there are some really pretentious sentences.  But on the whole, the book is pretty down-to-earth.  It's readable.  It's not a challenge like IJ.  A couple critics have made comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and something about the tone did remind me a lot of The Corrections (read almost a year ago, sad!).  I think the film rights have already been sold and an HBO Series may or may not be in the cards, and another review focused on how Hallberg's writing was "televisual" and influenced by The Wire and seemingly made to be adapted.  I would watch the show, and I think the show would be one of those that has the potential to eclipse its written precursor.

Final point: I think this book grows on you.  It can be a little awkward at the beginning, but by the end, you will probably be invested in the characters and know them better than most people you know in real life.  And if you have lived in NYC, it will probably feature a scene close to your past neighborhood(s).  "You can usually find a cab up on Clinton," (116) rang true to me, at least in 2011.

And with several of the characters as artists, Hallberg uses the novel as something of a mirror to the work created by his characters:

"It was as if William Hamilton-Sweeney, despite to her knowledge never having sold so much as a painting, had been trying to re-create the face of the entire city, right here in this attic.  She couldn't tell if it was good, exactly, but no one could say it wasn't ambitious." (667)

Hallberg is only a few years older than me, so he couldn't have firsthand knowledge of the way the city felt in 1977, but it feels pretty real.