Thursday, November 5, 2009

leanne shapton, important artifacts...

Surely the award winner for longest fiction title of 2009, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelery, Saturday, 14 February 2009, New York is one of those books that are exactly what it says on the box. It’s a graphic novel, but not really; it’s a novel, but with very few words.

Imagine if you kept everything from when you were a couple; imagine at the end, that you decided to put it all up for auction. What would be the little ridiculous objects that defined your relationship together? (Our house is so full of scraps of nonsense that any auctioneer would come into here and resign immediately from the enormity of the task at hand.) How would it begin?

In my own life, it would probably start with the wrapper for a block of chocolate I’d bought in year eight. I ran around the school yard giving pieces to all of my friends. (I have long held the theory that if you share your junk food then the karma outweighs any ill health.) Sitting next to my friend Ben was a boy called Chris, who said, “Can I have a piece?” I looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t even know you,” then ran off with my chocolate. It was a rocky start, but about five years later, after we graduated high school, we tried a different beginning with slightly less shouting. It was much more successful.

Lenore and Harold’s relationship begins with a creased invitation to a Halloween party, then photographs of the two meeting for the first time, looking at each other under a string of skull lights. Then, a folded napkin with Lenore’s email address written on it. Author Leanne Shapton doesn’t scrimp on detail: dimensions and prices are included, and if you want the napkin for your own, it is 5 x 5 in and will set you back $15—20.

This is life whittled down to its most important parts. Unused movie tickets to see Annie Hall. An appreciative Lenore sends Harold the letters from a Scrabble board spelling THANK YOU, followed by the rest of the game the next day. Theatre playbills with notes scribbled in the margins. Used books, second-hand clothes, sunglasses, tea towels. It seems ridiculous, but you can see the progression of their relationship within these arbitrary items: a Tiffany key ring engraved with an L and holding a copy of Harold’s apartment key; dog salt-and-pepper shakers given to Lenore by Harold’s mother.

Printouts of emails give you deeper glances into their relationship, and that is where you can see the cracks: Harold apologising again for being late for an event, or not turning up; Lenore upset and unable to deal with Harold going away for work all the time. I realised early on—and this is an entirely personal opinion here—that I was on Lenore’s side, that Harold did a lot of the things that would frustrate me to no end. There are of course people who might feel that Lenore was in the wrong, but I always felt for her, and occasionally wanted to buy the set of Beatles thimbles (Ringo for Lenore and John for Harold) just so I could smash the Lennon one for therapeutic ends. Still, the lovely things that Harold leaves for Lenore—an engraved cake server when she receives her food journalism promotion, notes on how to improve his relationship taken during a visit to his psychologist—show that he does care for her.

It is an entirely original way to tell a love story, and a fascinating one. It made me appreciate my hoarder tendencies a bit more (Lot 1190, small saucepan, 6in diameter, some scorch marks. Used mainly by Chris to make popcorn for Fiona when she asks nicely.) It is an amazing accomplishment by Shapton, who must have dedicated an enormous amount of time to finding the right balance between necessary items that push the story and the everyday things to make the story incredibly real. Which reminds me, it’s about time to go on iTunes and download all the songs the couple kept sending to each other as mix tapes, because they sounded pretty cool. I think we could have all been pals.

due December 09

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