Did the world begin to collapse in 2016 because corporate greed reached its zenith as political courage reached its nadir, or because it was the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese zodiac? Mystic punk rocker Patti Smith investigates in Year of the Monkey.

This book follows Just Kids, a National Book Award–winning memoir about the Chelsea Hotel scene in the 1970s and Smith's relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and M Train, a series of reminiscences that Michiko Kakutani called "eloquent—and deeply moving" in the New York Times.

Year of the Monkey is essentially a structured, whimsical, somewhat gloomy journal entry covering late 2015 to early 2017, a time marked by worldwide political upheaval and more personal losses for Smith. In these pages, she reckons with the death of producer and longtime friend Sandy Pearlman, and meditates on the failing health of the playwright Sam Shepard. In the last third of the book, Smith makes an effort to say something about the bad president and to draw some conclusions about life in the twilight of living, which more and more seems to her to be largely an effort to "speak the truth" and "to keep up as Hermes races before us with his chiseled ankles."

Listen, Patti Smith is a legend, her album Horses rules, and the writing here is good and full of a genuine curiosity about the world. But the book elicited two major responses from me: the occasional sagacious nod, and eye rolls that hit with concussive force.

Like William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, or Simone Weil, Smith is a visionary. She imagines waking dreams that allow her to see into the future and to uncover from the past hidden clues about life's great mysteries. But a visionary is only as good as the quality of her visions, and the visions in this book are, um, pretty idiosyncratic. Or else clichéd word-streams punctuated by coyotes.

The frame of this memoir involves Smith developing a cheeky (but is it really?) relationship with the sign for the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz. She occasionally carries on mental conversations with this sign as she hitchhikes around California, talks to random people in cafes about Roberto Bolaño's 2666, considers a trip to a red rock formation in Australia, expresses her deep admiration for the Grateful Dead, and initiates but then ultimately abandons an investigation into a mystery involving strange candy wrappers.

For Smith, the world's serendipitous events and strange associations seem to be little clues to the great detective story that is life, but they're also just errant equations that prove the inherent chaos of the world. The tension, then—charged with the grab-bag spirituality that characterizes so much boomer bullshit—is this: Will Smith find some sense of personal narrative closure in her life or will she eventually die feeling uncomfortable with the unknown?

While that's a perfectly valid metaphysical concern, one that holds for everyone, Smith's conversations with the Dream Inn sign don't reveal much about what's beyond the veil.

According to, 2020 will be the Year of the Metal Rat, which will usher in a "year of new beginnings." Sounds good for Smith. The rest of us—the ones who can't afford rent, health care, or trips to Australia—will have to try to create that reality by knocking on doors in rural Wisconsin.