“It’s not so easy writing about nothing” is how this second memoir by Patti Smith begins. Turns out, it isn’t so easy for me to read about nothing either. There are certainly books about “nothing” I love- books so isolating they hug you in a kind of loneliness. The nothingness of M Train was hard for me to connect to…it felt too threadbare, precarious, and any semblance of narrative or thought process was hard to grasp. It was also difficult to read because she reminded me of parts of myself I wish were different. You know that thing where sometimes we don’t get along with people who are too much like ourselves…it was painful to read about her lethargy, loneliness, obsession with detective shows, and tendency to routine because it was such a mirror of what my life can be….which is ironic because I picked this book up because it seemed like I would relate to her positively- skimming through, I saw entire chapters about coffee, Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and The Killing, all past and present loves of mine. I must also admit, there was a self-indulgent and navel gazing quality to her writing that I unfortunately recognize in myself.
So why am I writing about this book? Because about halfway through, I saw past the threadbare ends to the substance they used to form, and it broke my heart. Yes, this is a book about nothing, but only because it is a life that is now about nothing. There is no narrative and no thought process to grasp because after the loss of her love Fred Sonic Smith, her life has splintered. The book is aimless, she gets letters to do things and she goes, she has interests and ideas and she pursues them, but always in an almost detached way. It doesn’t seem like pursuing even her own interests and living in her own obsessions gives her any kind of meaning. We get these very brief snapshots of her life with Fred, sprinkled with her wanderings, and her writings about the physical losses and devastations of Hurricane Sandy and the Sendai tsunami amplify the emotional wreckage of her life after Fred. Her friend asks her to take a photo of her at the site of the Sendai tsunami ruins and she wonders…”how could I take a picture of nothing?”
At one point, she is watching TV in Japan and she describes a sleeve of a robe “adorned with the outlines of a lucent brand of delicate plum blossoms whose dark centers were a spattering of minuscule droplets. I closed my eyes as if to join the maiden as the droplets rearranged themselves, forming a pattern resembling …an undisturbed blankness.”
At another point she writes-
“Captain Jack Aubrey reminded me so much of Fred that I watched it twice. Mid-flight I began to weep. Just come back, I was thinking. You’ve been gone long enough. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes. Mercifully, I fell asleep, and when I awoke, snow was falling over Tokyo.”
“I will stop traveling. I will wash your clothes.” All of her restlessness seems to be a way to kill time now that Fred is gone, to find a place of “undisturbed blankness.”
One of the saddest fragments, “We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”
Perhaps this is why her life is so centered on routine. And why everything is so meticulously kept and curated in her life- curation is sometimes one of the only ways we can control our space and our lives. And maybe this explains her obsession with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, particularly the mysterious property and well which leads to a parallel universe. She likens it to Harry Potter eventually, and thinks of the well as a place you can get to if you think your happiest thoughts. Eventually she finds a well in a store with her daughter, and laments that they are now in the part of their lives that is After Fred. She buys it for her new home, maybe a touchstone, representative of a way back, if she could only figure out how.
And so, in the end, I loved this book. We quietly circle grief with her, touching only briefly the wound which casts the rest of her life in shadow. This is the transcendent life of an undisturbed blankness, of a life more memory than living. Her shattered life shattered me, and most of all, I’m in awe of the sublime love she and Fred shared. A love that is the reason for your living. A love she describes-
“looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind.”
This book, a meditation on that question…of how to capture an absence, of how to portray a blankness, “how could I take a picture of nothing?” was a plaintive attempt to show us her now empty life after Fred.
I can’t imagine how it must feel to be this unanchored, a ghostly galleon haunting the seas.
I can’t fathom what it means to have been lucky enough to have been able to lose that,