Leanne Shapton’s Book With a Really Really Long Title That Came Out Awhile Ago

I recently read Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton. It’s a work of fiction. It’s inaccurate to call it a novel.  The book came out over a year ago and only now was I able to get around to reading it. (The book had been on my Amazon Wish List since its release, mainly due to interviews with Shapton like this one at Bookslut.)

The book takes the form of an auction house catalog to tell the story of how two people, Hal and Lenore, fell in and out of love. This literary experiment is a very cool and clever one; the idea of telling (inferring) a story about people through the objects they once owned. We see the items they bought for each other (books), the kinds of things they collected (Lenore’s grandmother’s hats), the kinds of things they bought for themselves even in all their banality (Hal’s sunglasses), and pictures of themselves posing with friends or out and about.

Unfortunately, the limits of such an experiment quickly become quite evident. While we get a clear picture of Hal’s and Lenore’s tastes and desires, it’s difficult to get to know the characters because we are at a greater distance from them than the usual third-person or first person narrative. We are never inside their heads. Nor do we ever see them in action, with the exception of some of the photos.

Here’s the thing: the more I read and looked at the objects, the less I liked Hal and Lenore. You want to like them and are eager to see what other items they held onto until you realize they’re a pair of pretentious fussy New Yorkers.

I think if Shapton had chosen a pair of older characters, who had lived more varied and interesting lives, the book would have been a deeper exploration of people and the things they acquire and hold onto in life. Instead, we get the relationship between a forty-something man who is afraid of committment and a twenty-something “unpredictable” cake columnist for the New York Times. This is the setup for a Hollywood Romatic comedy starring an A-List committment-phobe (John Cusack or Hugh Grant) and an A-List good girl charmer (Renee Zellwegger or Kate Hudson).

I don’t mean to sound so harsh. I’d encourage everyone to read Shapton’s book. Yes, it’s a failed experiment, but it fails on a level much higher than most of what passes for so-called “Literary Fiction” these days.

Shapton says in an interview that she was inspired by an auction of things that the writer Truman Capote had owned which were sold at auction. (She bought “some of his clothing, including three of his raincoats and some scarves, which she gave as gifts.”) This is rarified air. Had Shapton stayed in that rarified air we could have seen how money allows you to indulge your eccentricities and obsessions without limit in a unique way. Or if she had come down closer to earth we could have seen how an ordinary couple with a 40 or 50 year marriage discovers one another, matures, has ups and downs, is affected by life choices and history, and then winds down as death takes one and then the other…so many possibilities for a literary experiment like this. Shapton has given us one tantalizing look at the possibilities of merging words with images to tell a story about two people. Makes me want to read her other book Was She Pretty?

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