In Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey, 2016 Was Always Doomed Before It Began

There is no “ideal” symbolism when it comes to the monkey as a portent. Sure, Chinese culture speculates that the monkey is a sign of good luck, but when it comes to their inherently mischievous nature, come to roost in 2016, the Year of the Monkey, it’s not something one wants around during an election year. This much is ruminated upon in Patti Smith’s latest book of the same name, a year in the life of her strange journey through 2016. One that begins in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve after performing a show at the Fillmore before she dips down into Santa Cruz for New Year’s Day, a desolate void considering the aftermath of the celebrations.

Choosing to check in to the Dream Inn (which she keeps referring to as Dream Motel, much to the sign’s protest), Smith engages in numerous instances of what can best be described as Steve Martin in L.A. Story Syndrome, where he keeps communing with a freeway sign that’s supposed to only rattle off the traffic conditions but instead seems to talk exclusively to him in offering riddle-like advice about his love life. In the Dream Inn sign’s case, it’s more like predictions about where Smith will travel next, namely Uluru in Australia, to see Ayers Rock. It sounds like a good omen despite the fact that while playing her New Year’s Eve show “some guy…leaned over and puked on my boots. The last gasp of 2015. A good or bad sign? Well, considering the state of the world, who could tell the difference?”

Alas, it’s plain to see in the present that for even as horrendous as the world was in early 2016, it’s infinitely worse now, in just a short three-year span. But in that unknown ether of January 1, Smith–and the rest of the world along with her–still had hope. Or at least a blissful unawareness of what was to come (though the death of Bowie on the 10th quickly foretold of unprecedented ills). Through it all, however, she carries out her signature knack for appealing to the reader’s gustatory sense, wasting no time in describing food on that first morning in Santa Cruz, when the new year didn’t yet feel so ominous (even if she describes the beach as having “a sense of everyone gone. A J.G. Ballard kind of gone.”). Even in the face of this candy wrapper-littered tableau (the candy wrappers becoming some bizarre part of her Bolaño-inspired detective narrative, often heavily name-checking 2666 and alluding to elements thereof), all she can think is: “I had a sudden desire for a particular breakfast: black coffee, grits with green onions. Not much chance for such fare here but a plate of ham and eggs would do.” And they did, until her fiendish desire for coffee kicks in again, forcing her back into her room to make use of the Nescafé tubes on the desk. That’s the thing about Smith: she knows the devil is in the details when it comes to conjuring the imagery that is part and parcel of the lone traveler. Dingy hotel rooms and the sad offerings that come with them, communion with a sign, an empty beach riddled with wrappers. Well, maybe those last two things aren’t so part and parcel, but one gets the drift.

Time and time again, Smith makes mention of Alice’s foray into Wonderland and the various characters in that realm, as though to subtly underscore the impending nonsensicality of America as brought on by the imminent election. In her further conversations with the Dream Inn sign, she asks how it could have possibly known she wanted to see Ayers Rock. The sign replies, “Uncommon sense.” Smith ruminates of this exchange, “The trouble with dreaming, I was thinking, is that one can be drawn into a mystery that is no mystery at all, occasioning absurd observations and discourse leading to not a single reality-based conclusion. It was all too reminiscent of the labyrinthine banter of Alice and the Mad Hatter.”

One is supposed to have increasingly less zeal for food as they age–and aging is one of the many topics Smith broaches in this narrative, yet for Smith, her fervor only seems to intensify as she comments once again, “It was time to find something to eat. I bypassed the active pier and walked aimlessly down some side streets, stopping before the Las Palmas Taco Bar. Somehow, though I had never been there, the place seemed familiar. I sat in the back and ordered black beans and fish tacos. The coffee had an Aztec chocolate edge.” She feels as though it is the place Sandy Pearlman wanted to take her before a cerebral hemorrhage landed him in the hospital in a comatose state. They were meant to come to Santa Cruz together, just she and her partner in crime from way back in the early days of New York when she was still content to work at the Strand and had not yet considered becoming a rock music legend. But now Smith feels a strange obligation to carry out the journey alone, as though in homage to what Sandy would want her to do.

And the more she wanders, the more her seemingly “improvised” movements through California each seem to have a kismet purpose, with her next stop in San Diego leading to sharing a ride with a woman named Cammy, who starts to tell her about some missing kids but then never finishes the story. It’s a clear overlap of the missing women of Bolaño’s Santa Teresa (a fictionalized version of Juárez). And just like that, fate brings Smith into a conversation between two men named Ernest and Jesús regarding the opening to 2666, entitled “The Part About the Critics.” Seated at her new cafe of choice, WOW, she eavesdrops while “they were focused on the critics’ dreams. One of an infinite sinister swimming pool and the other of a body of living water. ‘The writer must know his characters so well that he can access the content of their dreams,’ Ernest was saying. ‘Who creates the dreams?’ asked Jesús. ‘Well, who if not the writer?’ ‘But does the writer create their dreams or does he channel the actual dreams of his characters?’ ‘It’s all about transparency,’ said Ernest. ‘He sees through their skulls when they’re sleeping. As if they were crystal.'”

The bizarre metaness of this conversation, of course, pertains to Smith herself, who has rendered her own person into a character within the context of this narrative, even referring to two selves while at the Dream Inn: the one that sleeps and the one that watches her dream. This inexplicable bifurcation between reality and fantasy also hits heavily on the state of the world in 2016, as a cartoonish orange man took hold of the nation. One that, like so many others, Smith feels no need to address by actual name at any point in the book. Year of the Monkey says it all. And, in contrast to the Chinese, it is Native Americans who have long viewed the monkey as an emblem of trickery, an augury of misdeeds that lead to long-lasting issues. Just like the election of the Orange One.

The detective-style tone of Smith’s prose, as though trying to unravel the mystery of how this could happen–even in the face of all the portentous warnings throughout the beginning of the year–is highlighted only further when talking about her own reading of a Martin Beck-starring novel called Murder at the Savoy. Of the ending, she remarks it was “something I never saw coming.” And yet, sometimes the most obvious things are the least visible to people, especially when they have no desire to see it.

Before she leaves town, she tells Ernest she has a Polaroid of the inside of Bolaño’s closet in Blanes, filled with board games (The Third Reich being a title inspired by one of said games). She offers to give it to him, not remembering where she put it. Maybe that’s what makes it even easier to flee again, switching California towns like t-shirts as she heads away from San Diego and back up to L.A., persisting in her references to mystery novels as she comments, “Venice Beach, city of detectives. Where there’s a palm tree, there’s Jack Lord, there’s Horatio Caine.” Like a detective (or just a good writer, which is increasingly difficult to unearth therefore we almost can’t fathom it when we actually read one), Smith’s attention to detail sets her apart from the average person, taking in such nuances as, “a white mug decorated with an engaging blue starfish floating above their motto–Where the Brew Is as Good as the View. The tables were covered with dark green oilcloth. I had to keep swatting flies away, but that didn’t bother me. Nothing bothered me, not even the things that bothered me.” Her tone certainly gives Philip Marlowe’s a run for its money.

Yet for all her perspicaciousness, she still can’t understand how the world–specifically the U.S.–got to this point. Or could it simply be as Ernest put it to her while driving her to get huevos rancheros (always with the food), “Anything is possible. After all, it’s the Year of the Monkey.” As such, “Across America, one light after another seemed to burn out. The oil lamps of another age flickered and died.” That age being when Smith’s own generation could at least make some sense of the “logical illogicality” of politics. A bygone era that once more makes her reflect on her agedness as she quotes Marcus Aurelius, “‘Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live.’ This made terrible sense to me, climbing the chronological ladder, approaching my seventieth year.” Of course, if anyone can say that they’ve lived many lives within one, it’s Smith, who continues to travel the world and will likely do so until and if the ravages of time stop her.

As she goes through some old personal effects, an abrupt torrential downpour infiltrates through her skylight. It is “The Game of Havoc, an uppercase game with a lowercase deity, spelling nothing but trouble for the unwary participant… Unequivocal havoc instigated by the current lunar god and his band of winged monkeys, a pervasive lot who once preyed upon the unsuspecting Dorothy in the hypnotic fields of Oz.” Now come to prey upon the collective Dorothy of the United States population as they watch and wait in terror for the monkeys of the Orange One’s reign to swoop in on them. Because you can’t control the chaos of havoc. And once it starts, it’s almost impossible to stop it.

As the year progresses, Smith’s tone shifts to one that comes across as bleaker and bleaker in its sense of fatalism, most noticeably when she states:

No matter which way I stepped or whatever plane I was on, it was still the Year of the Monkey. I was still moving within an atmosphere of artificial brightness with corrosive edges, the hyperreality of a polarizing pre-election mudslide, an avalanche of toxicity infiltrating every outpost. I wiped the shit from my shoes again and again, still going about my business, that of being alive, the best I could. Although an insidious insomnia was slowly claiming my nights, giving way to the replaying of the afflictions of the world at dawn. At some point I tried sleeping with the television on… Avoiding the news, I accessed the on-demand channel, choosing random episodes of Mr. Robot to play at a low volume.”

What is the fate of man? What is the fate of the men she knows? Sandy dies, so, too, will Sam Shepard of ALS-related complications, a day after a year from the former’s on July 26, 2016. Sam’s departure in the Year of the Rooster is merely a consequence of the Year of the Monkey’s havoc. One that makes Smith increasingly uneasy as we draw nearer to the moment of truth. She fills her descriptions with a constant sense of dread, the very same kind she said forced her to put down The Third Reich before getting all the way through it. For instance:

It was the Day of the Dead. The side streets were dressed in sugar skulls and a kind of stale madness hung in the air. I had bad feelings about an election in the Year of the Monkey. Don’t worry, everyone said, the majority rules. Not so, I retaliated, the silent rule and it will be decided by them, those who do not vote. And who can blame them, when it’s all a pack of lies, a tainted election lined in waste? Millions poured down a hole lined with plasma, spent on endless contentious television commercials. A true darkening of days. All of the resources that could be used to scrape away lead from the walls of crumbling schools, to shelter the homeless or to clean a foul river. Instead, one candidate desperately shovels money down a pit, and the other builds empty edifices in his own name, another kind of immoral waste.”

But what if there is another world, there is a better world (like Morrissey said in reference to both sleeping and suicide)? That on another plane, none of this has really happened. Watching the Redux version of Apocalypse Now, Smith delineates, “Aurore Clément is whispering in French as she packs the bowl of an opium pipe. There are two of you, she says, drawing closer to Martin Sheen, one who kills and one who doesn’t. There are two of you, she repeats, slipping out of the frame. One walks in the world, one walks in dream.”

Maybe it is that other realm, the dreamscape, that allows us to survive. To hold onto the hope that the Year of the Monkey and its effects can’t last forever. That in the pelting storm of all evidence to the contrary it is as Smith says at one point, “Still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen.” And how? With the therapeutic release of an imagined dream world. The only problem with dreaming is, as Smith must break to us gently, “we eventually wake up.” Oh if only life was the inverse of a dream in this case. This case called the Orange One’s apocalyptic ascent and all that it has signified in America and beyond.

Leave a Reply