16 April 2009

Objects Imbued

I feel like there are two types of genius. There's the kind that produces outstanding insights and innovations that are so far beyond what the ordinary person could grasp that you sort of just step back and say, "Damn, that's pretty fucking crazy." Then there's the kind that results from shrewd observation, resourcefulness, and creative application. In these cases, you sort of slap your head in astonishment and cry, "Why the fuck didn't I think of that?" (Think of Warhol's soup cans, or I Remember by Joe Brainard.) Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris falls definitively into the second category.

When I first came across the "auction guide," I began flipping through it, trying to figure out why someone would attend an auction for two no-names like Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris. (In all honesty, I was hoping to glean who these people were, thereby making myself seem a bit more knowledgeable of the going-ons of the literati.) I was surprised to find the guide filled with average, even worthless paraphernalia: Polaroids of scant artistic value, unremarkable articles of clothing, salt and pepper shakers. Confused, I examined the back cover. It included quotes from Dave Eggers and Amy Sedaris. Wait, what? Then it dawned on me: This is a novel. Well, maybe not a novel in the traditional sense, but there's a fucking story being told through these auctioned sunglasses and hotel key cards and scarves. How very...novel.

The real danger in working with such a idea is it turning into a gimmick. It isn't enough to shout out, "HEY, LOOK AT THIS WEIRD IDEA I HAD! ISN'T IT COOL? AREN'T I SMART?" Rather, you have to prove its worth. You have to say, "Look what I can do with this." And author Leanne Shapton does indeed do something. Over 129 pages, Shapton uses photographs of the items being auctioned (sometimes photographs themselves) and short, mechanical descriptions of them to tell the story of Doolan, a young journalist at The New York Times, and Mooris, an older free-lance photographer. And Shapton's entertaining creativity is present through and through. We glean through the descriptions explaining each lot, that Doolan had given Mooris Scrabble letters spelling out "Thank You" after he had given her a shirt. In an unfinished correspondence to a friend, which is also being auctioned, Mooris explains that when he initially received the Scrabble letters, he couldn't figure out the message, arriving at "okay hunt," "a hunk toy," and "yank thou" before finally getting it right.

Although you are sometimes left wondering how realistic it would be to auction some of the items (after all, who wants a used razor?), Shapton's desired effect still comes through. Examining Doolan and Mooris' correspondences, photographs and gifts to one another, you follow the story of their relationship. Their chance encounter at a mutual friend's Halloween party, the honeymoon period of near obsessive infatuation, the specter of lovers past, the strains of an often long-distance relationship, the crushing weight of their professional careers on their personal lives--it all comes through in vivid detail.

Every minuet detail presented by Shapton allows you to read pages into the story. Because the story cannot straightforwardly be told, you're forced to play detective, trying to put the pieces together to figure out what's really going on. You quickly get caught up in the evidence: "Okay, that umbrella belongs Hugh. Flip a few pages back. Okay, Hugh is Doolan's ex-boyfriend. Flip forward. The description says he left it at her house. Wait, does that mean they slept together? Oh man, and Mooris is using the same umbrella in that photo!" It is nothing short of engrossing.

Shapton even manages to thoroughly develop her character's personalities via the guide. Doolan's travel bag containing Wellbutrin and her obsessive notes on the day's meals and events, which are often scrawled on the inside of her reading material, paint the portrait of a troubled, yet dedicated woman. Mooris' planner, which includes his appointments with a relationship counselor and lyrics to the song he was listening to at the time, indicates a man incapable of commitment, growing older yet remaining childish and becoming increasingly unsure of what he wants from life.

Although the relationship depicted in Important Artifacts isn't very compelling (it follows a sort of typical plotline, which may be more of a universal theme than a commonplace relationship, but that's for you to decide), Shapton's ingenuity keeps you hooked. Inspecting and trying to understand people from their possessions isn't something many people outside of anthropologists often do, but it's a fascinating endevour. After reading Shapton's "guide" you walk away with the feeling that mere objects are more than just that, that they are the artifacts and currency of a relationship and even when that relationship dies, the objects remain, imbued with a type of power still observable.


  1. The concept of this book is old news. I used the same technique years ago to tell the story of one of my past relationships in a two page 'book' that I made to hand out to subway patrons.

    On page one there was a picture of a used condom and on page two a photo of my ex's drivers license (complete with address).

    I felt as though it accurately captured the essence of our relationship. And I didn't even need captions! (Take that Shapton!).

    Anyway, I agree with the above comment. Great review. I will be reading this blog more often.

  2. Hey... Fool? (It feels strange using that word in a benign way.) If you still have a copy of that book, I'd love to see it. Also, thanks for the kind words.

  3. You need to let me borrow this when I come back down.