The book proceeds to move back and forth between the real and the fantastic. Unresolved mysteries and shaggy dog stories pastiche a Bolaño novel. Missing children, the mysterious appearance of thousands of sweet wrappers on a beach and a strangely familiar old photograph of a woman and her son make puzzling appearances. References to the Pied Piper, The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland amplify the sense of fantasy. The mood is whimsical and improvisatory, with Smith following wherever her imagination leads her.
Everything is unprecedented in Year of the Monkey, Smith seems to be saying. Time concertinas, reality is unmoored. But you get the feeling that Smith might exist in a permanent Stendhal syndrome swoon, as Flemish altarpieces, Dragon Ball anime and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit all swirl around in her mind.
The book is a highly individual stocktaking of a most unusual 70th year of a great woman of letters. But what happens next? Towards the end, Smith has an apocalyptic vision in her dreams, perhaps brought on by Chinese herbal tea, in which vast numbers of refugees, “clothed in the fabric of lamentations”, plough across a benighted landscape, watched by people on their tablets and smartwatches: the next reality TV hit.
If you were to categorise this trickster book you could call it a travelogue of the imagination, with the Dream Motel (‘Inn!’) sign as Smith’s spirit guide in her encounters with the lost and the leaving. ‘Across America, one light after another seemed to burn out,’ she writes, and those lights are both the lives of the people she cherishes and the hopes she held for her nation. At the end, she enumerates her griefs (including ‘my dog who was dead in 1957’ and is ‘still dead’), but concludes: ‘Yet I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen.’ There is plenty of wonderful in this small, sly, mystic book.
That extraordinary moment is noticeably absent from Smith’s new memoir, Year of the Monkey, but it’s illustrative of how masterfully the writer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer can rescue beauty from disaster. Beginning on New Year’s Day 2016 and ending a few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration the following January, Year of the Monkey is a moving account of the emotional stumbles, physical and intellectual wanderings and deep losses Smith experienced in her 70th year.
Both mundane and magical, this book is a world away from Just Kids, Smith’s award-winning 2010 account of her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, though the unique artistry of her prose remains. There are greater similarities to M Train, Smith’s previous memoir which found her staying in hotels or shuffling around her apartment, watching Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders reruns on TV. Here she once again cuts a solitary figure prone to forgetfulness, who falls asleep in her coat a lot, and holds conversations with inanimate objects. The ghosts of those she has lost – her mother, her husband, her brother – remain close.