I apologize for not getting the book club up on Friday — I was traveling all weekend, and have juuust finally landed — I’ll try to finish Chasm City today and get something up tomorrow. I suspect that a number of you are having the same reaction that I did to the novel, and feeling not particularly compelled by it. In my case, I got distracted by Patti Smith’s Just Kids.
It’s an interesting book, and I think Ann Friedman’s analysis of it as a story about how women recognize and embrace their talents, and how the men around them react to those talents, is largely correct. But in certain ways, it’s also a strangely emotionally muted book, one that seems to me to obscure as many things as it reveals.
Most of that mutedness surrounds her main other half in the book, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. There’s no denying a certain fairy-tale quality to their story, at least the early bits. He really did just sort of show up and rescue her from a bad date and then adopt her, though it’s clear that a lot of that had to do with the fact that he was spectacularly high at the time, and I’m sure more than usually open to the universe as a result. Their collective aesthetic sensibility is compelling, all lacquered necklaces and silver skulls and religious iconography drawn from trash and treasure.
But just because it’s charming doesn’t mean it’s not also spectacularly complicated. Maybe Smith really is just the most tolerant soul alive, and doesn’t particularly mind that her boyfriend started sleeping with men, that he gave her a sexually transmitted disease (as she recounts it in the book, her reaction to the fact she needs treatment is stronger than her reaction to the fact that Mapplethorpe got her sick), that he appeared to enjoy turning tricks along with feeling that he needed to do it to pay their rent. I’m not saying she doesn’t feel that way, and it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong for her to feel that way. But she must have felt things along the way in that process, and I would have been interested to see her work through more of those emotions.
She also never really interrogates the shifts in Mapplethorpe’s artistic sensibilities. Smith talks some about his gravitation to higher society, a place where she feels socially uncomfortable, but she doesn’t really discuss the class meaning of his shift, or the fact that he kept dragging her into situations where she felt uncomfortable. I don’t think there’s a single mention of race in Mapplethorpe’s work, which is sort of odd given that it’s one of the major angles of criticism of his art. They exhibited together, but there’s not much discussion of how her written work interacted with his photographs, or what she thought people would get from the juxtaposition.
And there’s an intriguing question lingering in the air: is Patti Smith a better, more impactful artist than her fellow babe in the woods? Sure, Mapplethorpe died long before Smith, but that doesn’t preclude a discussion about whether Horses, or anything else she did, will last longer than his flower prints, or his more sexually-charged art.
The reason some of this is left unanswered is certainly that Smith truncates the narrative before her career reaches its apex, skips her marriage to Fred Sonic Smith, and comes back to the narrative and to Mapplethorpe as he’s dying. It’s a somewhat odd decision, and I gather Smith is writing a sequel to Just Kids, which I hope will fill in some of those missing year.
Similarly, her narration of her affair with Sam Shepard is so placid as to feel a little off. There is something kind of odd about a guy courting you under an assumed identity, and she must have felt something about his return to his wife. But mostly, they’re cool, or so she makes it sound.
I realize there’s something problematic about turning to someone who is telling you their life story and saying “you’re doing it wrong!” And I know it sounds like I’m criticizing her memoir for not being more about auxiliary characters, who are men. Just Kids is a beautiful, compelling book about the artistic process, and about a moment in New York. And if this is how Patti Smith wants to remember her life with New York and with Robert Mapplethorpe, and the rest of us want to bask in a honey-colored glow along with her, I guess that’s fine. The light is nice. But it’s interesting to see Smith manage her own narrative, turning it into a fairy tale, with all the simplistic surface and rich, turbulent symbolism underneath for us to explore, and to wonder about.