Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry- Leanne Shapton
Novel with pictures
Lenore Doolan, a food writer for the New York Times, meets Harold Morris, a photographer, at a halloween party in 2002. He is dressed as Harry Houdini. In Leanne Shapton's marvellously inventive and invented auction catalogue, the 325 lots up for auction are what remain from the relationship between Lenore and Harold (who aren't real people, but might as well be). Through photographs of the couple's personal effects-the usual auction items (jewellery, fine art, and rare furniture) and the seemingly worthless (pyjamas, Post-it notes, worn paperbacks)-the story of a failed love affair vividly and cleverly emerges. From first meeting to final separation, the progress and rituals of intimacy are revealed through the couple's accumulated relics and memorabilia. And a love story, in all its tenderness and struggle, emerges from the evidence that has been left behind, laid out for us to appraise and appreciate.
I get what Shapton was trying to do: illustrate a relationship through the objects they used and shared. It’s cleverly set up as an auction catalog with pictures and impersonal captions. The auction catalog mimicry was brilliant. Holding it in my hands I experienced a flashback to my time as an academic library shelver and the countless Christie’s catalogs it was horrible to have to shelve.
As an archaeologist, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating what our objects and possessions tell us about ourselves. I’m a bit of a materialist; I want the objects left behind to tell us all about dead cultures we can never hope to access. But context is everything. No matter how much we imbue (or don’t imbue) objects with significance they do not have much in of themselves. Objects are about the general picture, not the specifics.
I was hoping Shapton’s catalog would explore this in a new way and unfortunately, most of the story of this couple’s relationship is told through letters and notes that no one actually keeps. I’m a hoarder myself but a lot of these notes and receipts were the sort of things that float around and get stuffed into something completely different from the original context, yet here they all were. It made it feel a bit unrealistic. There were cute ideas built into this relationship and certain lots were particularly clever. I mean, the whole thing is an original idea.
I just wasn’t convinced. I guess I found the characters pretentious and thus there was falsity about the relationship. You could argue that this was an intentional conceit so that these two could have been any relationship but then wouldn’t that belie the premise of the book? Instead, this book convinced me that our personal objects don’t actually add much depth to your understanding of me unless I tell you a story about it. As such most of the clues about the state of the relationship seemed…well, staged and clichéd.
I enjoyed this primarily a tongue-in-cheek poking of fun at the auction world not as a story about a relationship. And trust me, this ‘catalog’ is perfect in that regard down to the unwieldy long title.