California Literary Review

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton


April 6th, 2009 at 9:59 pm

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Important Artifacts and Personal Property
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry
by Leanne Shapton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Two Lives Revealed Through an Auction Catalog

The story is an old one: boy and girl meet, fall in love, break up, and then get back together, only to ultimately decide that it won’t work. Or, perhaps, it’s not old so much as overdone, much like a bowl of macaroni and cheese turns stale and dry after multiple sessions in the microwave. We have read this already in books, seen it in movies, and heard it in countless pop and country songs. But despite its staleness, this story remains one all too familiar in our modern world, one we can relate to as either a participant in or observer of such a relationship. So how does one go about refreshing this tired story?

Leanne Shapton, an illustrator, publisher, and art director for the New York Times, was particularly suited to take on such a project. As co-founder of J&L Books, an art book press, and author and illustrator of Was She Pretty?, Shapton is skilled in the weaving of word and image to “write” a story. For example, a line drawing of a sloppily dressed girl is accompanied by the inscription:

Noah’s ex-girlfriend Clara was exceptionally beautiful but refused to acknowledge it.

Though neither the written sections nor the images in Was She Pretty? say much on their own, together they create an innovative way of investigating the effect of jealousy within a relationship.

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry treads similar emotional territory and employs the same use of visual and written elements in collaboration. For her second book, however, Shapton put down her artist’s brush and picked up a camera, gathering a collection of “relationship artifacts” in order to tell the story of her protagonists, Lenore and Harold. Organized like an auction catalog, the book tells its story, not through traditional narrative, but through pictures of auction items and their corresponding descriptions. For instance, a photo of the book 7 Types of Ambiguity by William Empson, which appears early on in the book, is accompanied by the following:

Written in ballpoint pen on flyleaf in Morris’s script is “H. Morris” and lyrics to the song “Bandit” by Neil Young, reading in part: “Try to get closer but not too close / Try to get through but not be through.

The combination of the two speaks to Morris’s own ambiguity about his burgeoning relationship with Doolan, and hints at its eventual dissolution. In response to this foreshadowing, a picture of a broken mug appears later in the book, accompanied by this description:

Included in lot is a note handwritten by Doolan. Reads: “H I’m so sorry, I know this was your favorite. Will get it fixed, I promise.

Of course, the symbolism is apparent; the relationship by this time has been broken, both by Harold’s disconnection and ambiguity as well as Lenore’s frustration and subsequent anger.

In addition to acting as markers for the status of the relationship, these artifacts reveal much about Lenore and Harold as individuals. We learn that Lenore, aka Buttertart, is a homebody who writes a food column for the New York Times, loves striped clothing, and shares a close relationship with her sister. Harold, or Hal, is a professional photographer with a fear of commitment, a passive-aggressive English mother, and a collection of hotel keycards to accompany his many and long absences. Though we hope that love will conquer in the end, we are all too aware that these two are just not suited for each other, either on paper, or in real life. The fact that, as audience members, we are able to pick up on these things which are never overtly told to us is as thrilling as piecing a puzzle together or discovering the culprit in a mystery.

Adding to that thrill is Shapton’s skillful use of omission. Several lots have been removed from the auction, and we are left wondering what they were and why they were removed. Were these items so important that someone decided to keep them? Were they too revealing, too invasive into that private world that each relationship must necessarily create in order to survive? Shapton herself gives us a clue in this interview with the Boston Phoenix:

I really like the idea of objects being haunted and holding more history than they appear to. I also wanted to talk about how we keep these things. What do you take from one relationship and bring into a new one? What can you not throw away? I was interested in the life and the romance of things, of objects that didn’t have any value but sentimental value.

The missing pieces might just be those things that Lenore and Harold, for various reasons, cannot throw away. This causes the reader to ask herself (or himself), “What am I unable to get rid of?” We, therefore, fill in the blank according to our own experiences. A sexy photo, a love letter, a favorite movie or piece of clothing—the missing item could be any of these. In fact, we see the artifacts of past relationships surface in the relationship between Doolan and Morris. Lenore wears her ex-boyfriend’s t-shirt after lovemaking. Harold gives her a pair of his ex’s sunglasses as a gift. The inclusion of these items hints at, but refrains from delving into, the past loves of these two lovers. We must again guess at the significance of such items, both in past relationships and the current one. But, rather than detract from the experience, the combination of visuals and writing and the use of omission allow the reader to participate in the telling of the story. In effect, the story of Lenore and Harold becomes my story too.

This explains why, while reading, I became so emotionally invested in these doomed lovers. For example, when I came across a collection of take-out menus all from the same restaurant with the description:

Circled in all are Sauteed Mustard Greens, General Zao’s Chicken, Scallion Pancake, Health Special Baby Bok Choy, and Brown Rice.

I thought to myself, “They’re falling into a rut, the excitement of new love is gone.” Similarly, when a lot for Doolan’s day planner included a note for an appointment with a couples therapist, I feared that it was too late, and the damage done to their relationship was irreparable. And when Lenore began to purchase vintage children’s clothing, I felt a sinking in my stomach, knowing that Harold would never be able to settle down and have a family. Was I projecting onto these objects the emotions from my own doomed loves? Of course. But that is where the success of this book lies. After all, we secretly identify with Romeo and Juliet, or Bogey and Bergman. We know the feeling of unrequited or unworkable love. By reawakening the reader’s emotional past and allowing him or her to project it onto the artifacts within these pages, Shapton ensures that her story will be as effective emotionally as it is innovative in form.

The failed relationship is, as I said before, an old story, but no less affecting for its age. We are each Lenore, each Harold, and we understand instinctually the emotional charge that objects can carry. An inscription in a book, a pair of high heels, a postcard, a lock of hair—any of these can hold a hidden history, a hidden love. Shapton’s book allows us to participate in the story of Harold and Lenore, and I celebrate this new, inclusive, and moving approach to storytelling.

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