Don't judge a book by its cover, but is it cool to judge a book by its imprint? The first and most fascinating fact of Morrissey's Autobiography is its inaugural publisher: Penguin Classics, the de facto library of the Western canon, inclusion in which is typically an honor earned over a book's lifetime, signifying century-spanning significance. Notable Penguin Classics include Plato's Republic, Homer's The Odyssey, Darwin's The Origin of Species, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and hundreds more, including, now, in the first straight-to-classic printing in the imprint's history, Morrissey's Autobiography.
Defenders of the canon have blasted the UK branch of Penguin Classics for defiling a noble imprint with a stunt, while defenders of Morrissey (this one, at least) hail the stunt as one of the best of the man's career. As a prolific artist and eloquent art-lover, Morrissey has long championed the power of transgressive art to upend power structures and rewrite rules, and his finagling of his seemingly unedited life story onto a shelf with the life's work of Homer and Plato feels like the richest "fuck you"—simultaneously self-aggrandizing and status-quo-annihilating, as ever—of his life. (After the UK edition became the fastest-selling Penguin Classic in history, Morrissey's Autobiography found its American publisher: Putnam Adult, a move that takes the book—in the United States, at least—out of the canon and onto the cart alongside Amy Tan and Nora Roberts.)
Whatever the publisher, a serious, if not exactly instantly classic, book written by Morrissey has long seemed plausible. Hitting the British music scene in 1983, leading the legendary rock band the Smiths, Morrissey presented himself as a distinctly literary creature—posing with Oscar Wilde volumes and bookworm spectacles in promo shots, name-checking Keats and Yeats, and fitting Smiths songs with writerly lyrics: "Why pamper life's complexity when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?" he mused in the Smiths' second single, "This Charming Man," a sexual coming-of-age anthem that opens with eloquent scene-setting: "Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate/Will nature make a man of me yet?"
As the Smiths progressed, Morrissey turned away from the Lou Reed ideal of lyrics as poetry and became an ace pop sloganeer, showcasing his wit, self-deprecating sense of humor, and facility with words in small, self-conscious nuggets. Since 1988, Morrissey has been a solo act, releasing a dozen-plus albums packed with wordy-if-not-revelatory lyrics that secured his reputation as one of the most literate pop stars—like Bob Dylan and Patti Smith—who might very well have made his name in literature, if he hadn't been seduced by music.
Anyone expecting a work on par with Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One or Smith's Just Kids will be disappointed by Morrissey's Autobiography. Where those works are carefully conceived, expertly wrought works of literature, Morrissey's Autobiography is a chapterless ramble that announces its limited literary ambition in its first pages. There's no way around it: Morrissey is, by and large, a whiny jerk, whose eyes seek out things to abhor like plants seek sunlight. In the world of pop music, Morrissey's glass-half-empty-with-fetid-water worldview played as mordant comedy. On paper, with no melodic guitar jangle to contextualize the moans, Morrissey comes off as intractably, revoltingly dour.
In the world of Morrissey, there are no smells, only stenches; when he looks at a newborn, he sees a future corpse. Even childhood trips to the candy store are cause for lament, with Morrissey recalling "crumbling and cluttered corner shops wheezing their last goodbyes to an indifferent world, their elderly and bluntly rude shopkeepers plagued and tormented by the lengthy time it takes my sister and I to methodically choose our sweets." The bleak perspective is relentless, and hobbles the whole experience: How much value can we place on the impressions of a writer this monochromatic and myopic?
Still, scattered among Autobiography's ocean of unilluminated grievances are islands of delight. He's at his best holding forth on the art he loves: the New York Dolls, whose riotous erotic aggression made "everyone else suddenly seem like a traveling salesman"; Nico ("Her singing voice is the sound of a body falling downstairs"); and Lypsinka, the drag star who inspires Morrissey to a chapter-length rapture: "The erotic sensitivity of a Lypsinka show tests every paradox; the stage moves are Flamingo show dancer of 1958, the steps are Cyd Charisse perfect, the recall is genius."
For many fans, Morrissey's greatest achievement remains his work with the Smiths, an opinion for which he offers generous and eloquent support, describing his experience hearing the band's earliest demos: "The Smiths sound rockets with meteoric progression; bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative bass-lines, and over it all I am as free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish. It is a gift from Jesus." Elsewhere, Morrissey recounts zanier professional doings, such as his afternoon spent accompanying Elaine Stritch to a taping of Third Rock from the Sun. He also confirms his participation in a human sexual relationship, with a man named Jake, who one day "steps inside [Morrissey's home] and stays for two years." (Apparently, Morrissey's account of this time has been edited down in the US version, suggesting tantalizing tidbits withdrawn by a wary author. But aside from that initial step inside and a photo shoot in which Morrissey somewhat controversially rests his head on Jake's bare stomach, the "full unedited version" is almost totally elliptical, and the hoopla over the cuts feels like a promotional stunt.) The book's nadir: an endless account of the lawsuit brought by Smiths drummer Mike Joyce against Morrissey for unpaid royalties, all told in Morrissey's unreliable overstatement. You get the sense he'd have been just as happy to release a 700-page book called Mike Joyce Is a Treasonous Viper Whose Heart Pumps Garbage.
More than anything, Autobiography solidifies the cartoonish Morrissey persona, the repugnance of which is not lost on its creator and beneficiary. "I knew [when the Smiths started performing] that a lot of people found me hard to take, and for the most part I understood why," writes Morrissey. "Although a passably human creature on the outside, the swirling soul within seemed to speak up for the most awkward people on the planet. Somewhere deep within, my only pleasure was to out-endure people's patience."