Saturday, August 11, 2012

Important Artifacts... , by Leanne Shapton

The full title of this quirky little book is Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. I can imagine a 141-character book title giving database admins all over the world ulcers, especially considering that the book contains only 129 pages. It is designed as an auction catalogue, published by the fictional company of Strachlan & Quinn Auctioneers of New York, London and Toronto, for an auction to be held on 14 February 2009 in New York.

To be auctioned in over 300 lots are the artifacts illustrating the relationship of Lenore Doolan and Hal Morris, from its beginning at a Halloween party in 2002 to its end in 2006.

The book opens with an apt epigraph: "We seek the absolute everywhere, and only ever find things."  -- Novalis

Shapton has done a couple of things exceptionally well.  Every teacher of fiction-writing inevitably spouts two adages: "Show, don't tell"  and "Avoid cliches!"  The lot descriptions occasionally include hand-written notes scribbled in the margins of playbills or books, and the odd e-mail printout here or there, but most often the items speak. The items she has chosen are not the typical memorabilia that we stash in boxes and drawers and trunks. They are cleverly chosen tessurae in the mosaic portraits of two bright, creative, professional New Yorkers.

Hal is a professional photographer. Lenore writes a column for the New York Times called Cakewalk -- yes, all about cake.  He gives her an antique cake-cutter, newly engraved. She gives him a vintage 1930s chair. From the bathroom in their apartment comes the box of Trivial Pursuit questions which "the couple read to each other during their morning and evening ablutions."  Lot 1306 is "A white noise machine: A No. 500 Sleep Sound by Invento white noise machine, kept by [Hal] Morris in the bedroom of 11a Sherman Street. Irreparable damage done to top and sides, as if struck by a hammer.  $5-12."

This is a whimsical and wistful book, and one that I'm glad to have in print. I can't quite imagine it working as an e-book.

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