I haven’t met many friends or relatives who are not attached to things. For as long as I lived I remember myself as a hoarder. Every piece of letter, paper, ticket receipts, scribbling, I kept them and I still have them in my parents’ house. Now that I have a smaller living space, I tend to hoard a lot less and threw a lot of things away. Yet if I had the chance to stumble across a note or a pencil that I still have with me since I was 6 (I’m at my middle ages now!), it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling and I go all nostalgic about the beautiful memories in my past.
Things and possessions are intimate and they tell you about the kind of person the owner is. I walk into a person’s living space, I look into his or her bookshelf (or the lack of it!) and I know what kind of person he or she is. And that’s exactly how I feel when I saw the photos of “things” in this book. Mostly, stuff survives only because we want it to; we hoard our belongings, like treasure, for private reasons. Taken in their entirety, you could say that they tell our story.
The book has a very long title. Lets just say this is a catalogue of things that belong to Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris. Leanne Shapton’s unorthodox novel tells a story of a relationship in the form of an auction catalogue with a series of black-and- white photographs of 331 staged auction lots, with accompanying captions and auction price (eg “LOT 1135 A menu. A paper menu from the Oyster Bar restaurant, folded into a fortune teller game. $15-20”). This book is being called a novel. But really it is more of collection of pictures rather than a written novel.
Smitten by the Shapton’s latest book that I have read, Swimming Studies, I was eager to read this. The photographs are arranged in chronological order, Leanne Shapton has cleverly chosen the pieces that staged the scene tell the story of the four-year relationship between Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris.
Lenore is 26, a Canadian columnist who writes about food and recipes, while Harold, British, about 13 years older, is a photographer who travels around the globe. Both live in Manhattan where, in 2002, they met at a Halloween party, Lenore dressed as Lizzie Borden and Harold dressed as Harry Houdini. It is not possible for the pictures and captions to paint a detail picture of what is going on in this couple’s lives. A lot of time, as a reader, I have to fill in the gaps myself but I quickly glean that Harold has a commitment issue and possibly thinks his work is better than Lenore’s cooking and food column (Lot 1216, a handwritten note from Lenore to Harold, begins: “I just couldn’t believe you said you were f***ing sick of cake”). There are many instances I have to make my own conclusions.
I like that Lenore always read the same book when Harold is away so there were picture of the same book title with different editions (Lot 1204). A book titled “Kinds of Love” with words added on and alphabet cross out into “I kind of love you” (Lot 1049, page 21). I like the toast rack of 7 dwarfs with Morris’ late father’s teeth (Lot 1166) and a two-page spread of Lenore’s bras (Lot 1284). I must admit I love the notes best and the pictures of Lenore and Harold. I think these things add depth to the story so much more. Most of the time I have an illicit feeling that I am peering into someone else’s private lives, rummaging through their cupboards and travel bags.
(Click for larger image)
The relationship begins with many love notes and quirky intimate things that couples in love do together. I sense some rift in the relationship when Lot 1247 picture appeared after the backgammon set. A double-sided handwritten note from Morris to Doolan that reads: “I want this to work, but there are sides to you I just can’t handle sometimes. When you raise your voice and throw things, I shut down and go cold. I know it makes it worse, but I can’t help it. Chucking the backgammon board into the fire was the last straw….” To which Doolan’s reply was “There are some things I need to feel loved and secure. There are some things I need to build trust, to feel safe. One of those things is being able to talk through disagreements and have the feeling that we want to come out the other end together, not that one of us has to prove the other person wrong….”
I won’t tell you how the story ends but it is one ending that will stick to your mind. I just think this book is amazingly original. Very different from other books that I have ever come across. It is startling succinct, intimate, pictures that tell you so much more about the relationship than words can do. Try it.
The inspiration for the book:
In an interview in the New York Times, where Leanne Shapton also works as the designer of the op-ed page, Shapton revealed that it came to her that such a narrative trick was possible when she read the catalogue of a 2006 sale of Truman Capote’s personal effects; it was, she said, like reading an autobiography, albeit an elliptical one. The movie rights was snapped up the first year it was published and it promises to have Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman both star in the big screen adaptation. The project will be developed as a romantic comedy scheduled to be screened in 2015.
I’ll leave you with a video of Leanne Shapton’s introduction to the book:
Paperback. Publisher: Bloomsbury 2009; Length: 129 pages; Setting: Manhattan, New York USA. Source: Reading Library. Finished reading on the 26th August 2012.