It is a tale as old as time. A man and a woman meet and fall in love, madly, passionately. In the early, rosy days they revel in pet names and promises, private jokes and personal gifts. As time passes, that giddiness transforms, first into doubts and arguments, then into pain and separation. There are a myriad of books on the subject, so how to tell it differently? This is what artist and writer Leanne Shapton has tried to so with the lugubriously titled Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.
In this art book / graphic novel / love story, Shapton chronicles the four-year relationship of Lenore and Harold through the auction catalogue of the artifacts put up for sale following the demise of their relationship, which include romantic notes and ominous letters, diaries and saved cookie fortunes. Each lot is itemised, priced and arranged chronologically, the dry auction descriptions masking the myriad emotions and memories that each item possesses.
Shapton came up with the idea for the book after attending the auction of personal items of Truman Capote and feeling that the auction catalogue was in its own way biographical.
It’s sort of about how reliant we are on our things to define us…But I wanted to balance that with a pretty genuine love of very private meaning…those kinds of things that mean everything to the person who owned them and nothing to anyone else.
Our protagonists are Lenore Doolan, a food columnist for the New York Times and Harold Morris, an older photographer who meet at a Halloween party in 2002 and remain together for the next 4 years. The 325 lots up for auction are what remain of their relationship. From auction staples like jewellery, furniture and fine art through to scrawled Post It notes and worn paperbacks, the detritus of their relationship creates an elliptical plot device which vividly and cleverly tell the story of a failed love affair, whilst giving the reader an enjoyably illicit feeling of rifling through someone else’s drawers.
Philip Larkin famously said ‘what will survive of us is love’ but for Lenore and Harold (Hal) what survives is a stuffed squirrel, photographs of beef jerky and china poodles. Each page of the auction catalogue gives is a glimpse of the curve of the relationship from heady beginnings to bitter finality. Duplicate copies of books are for sale; Lenore would read the same books as Hal when he was travelling. Handmade personalised Christmas gifts from the couple, – jam and candles – remind us of a life lived together. However, the genuine love behind these early gifts of pyjamas, art books and vases (now slightly chipped) gives way as Hal finds himself unable to fully commit and Lenore craves order and stability. The cracks in the relationship appear writ large in the items up for sale – a charred backgammon set (thrown on the fire during a fight), relationship self help books and a collection of painted Easter Eggs.
Handwritten notes on an early theatre programme in 2004 say
‘we have to stay/ U.O. Me/ Ok/ Ok/ I love you’ as compared to more scribbled in 2006, ‘why go through my email? /…You should trust me. / can’t trust you.
The love story of Lenore and Hal, with all its tenderness and pain emerges from the items left behind and the catalogue lays it all out for us to appraise and judge.
With this book, Shapton appears to be inviting us to examine and contemplate what is truly valuable in our own lives and to look at the stuff we hoard and why we hoard it – the art we make of our lives with the items we own. Our relics and memorabilia are our treasure, what tells our story. These things survive us because we want them to.
What makes the book interesting is that by filling in the gaps between the items and the handmade birthday cards of Lenore and Hal the reader makes their own judgements on the pair. There is a particular kind of discernment to the items on display and it’s not for nothing that the couple read WG Sebald and Cindy Sherman and pose for self portraits, echoing the idea of lives being carefully stage managed for public consumption. The effect for the reader is a kind of satisfactory nosiness, looking for trouble in their artfully crafted and privileged lives of inscribed first editions, hipster mix CDs and designer clothes. Reading the book tells us as much about ourselves as it does the couple. They define themselves by what they own and we judge them on the same terms.
Is it tricksy? In places, undoubtedly. This is one where you really have to suspend your disbelief. Would anyone pay $10 for a print out of an email? What auction house would put ten copies of the same Chinese restaurant menu up for sale? Why have Lenore and Hal not kept so many of these personal items? But the format works for the narrative and if you don’t ask too many questions, this is an entertaining and unexpectedly satisfying read that will ask questions of you.
Who knew that knitted fruit could be so poignant?
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