Much-honored rock goddess and writer Smith (M Train, 2015, etc.) returns with a hurried meditation on miscellaneous deep things, including the title topic.
Where Just Kids (2010) was alive with bohemian exuberance and M Train was one long product-placement vehicle, the latest seems like a knocked-off magazine piece for some vaguely spiritual enterprise. At the core of this slender volume, part of the publisher’s Why I Write series, is a love story, of sorts, concerning an Estonian skater who bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Horses-era Smith: “She was small with porcelain skin and thick dark hair with severely cut fringe.” Every idea she has of herself is in complete relation and devotion to skating; “I excelled in school,” she intones, “yet nothing before skating gave me the tools to express the inexpressible.” Naturally, the unflinching Eugenia had to make a tough choice, and guess what she stopped doing? In memoir-ish vignettes bracketing this story, Smith writes of the French martyr Simone Weil, to whom she directs a poem with a rather awful couplet about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (surely Weil deserves better); of visiting Albert Camus’ home and being given time alone with the manuscript of The First Man, with its “unflinching unity with his subject”; of surrealists and anarchists and travels here and there. Sometimes Smith catches a poetic wave and rides it capably, as when she writes, “it occurs to me that the young look beautiful as they sleep and the old, such as myself, look dead.” It’s not the profoundest thought she’s ever expressed, but it’s nicely rendered all the same. Not so many other passages, though—e.g., can a monotone be lilting?
Not Smith’s best work—fine for devotees but pretty thin gruel for the uninitiated.