Reviews — From the May 2009 issue

Love for Sale

Appraising the relics of a relationship

Discussed in this essay:

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, by Leanne Shapton. Sarah Crichton Books. 129 pages. $18.

We all start out as animists, as toddlers vaguely uncertain about whether our beloved doll or pull-toy puppy might be a living being. When I was a child, my favorite cartoons were those that played to that confusion, films in which toasters or teapots or slippers sprouted legs and faces and revealed their true natures as menacing agents of mayhem and chaos.

In time, we learn to distinguish the creature from the object, and, later, consumer society conditions us to detach ourselves from our stuff so effectively that we can dedicate ourselves to the perpetual quest for nicer stuff and embrace the necessity of regularly exchanging older models for newer ones. But some vestige of the child remains, evidenced by the tenacious hold material things have over us, as objects of desire and, more mysteriously, as personal mementos and totems—as clues to our secret selves, and as signposts along the circuitous route that has taken us from the past into the present. I’ve come to think that the first cartoonist who sketched a threatening kitchen appliance or rebellious shoe might have experienced a recent confrontation with a desk drawer crammed with old letters, business cards, canceled checks, and unlabeled keys defiantly daring their owner to discard them. Objects survive because we need them, or because we are convinced that we need them. The unreconstructed animist will see a Darwinian triumph in the rapidity with which a crumpled boarding pass evolves into an all-important and indispensable detail in the narrative of some meaningful chapter in our lives.

One such chapter is the subject of Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. A series of captioned photographs, Leanne Shapton’s ingenious book does a deadpan imitation of the auction catalogues that often accompany the sale of an estate or private collection, catalogues that constitute a peculiar genre in themselves. Typically, the detritus of dead movie stars and the obsessions of rich eccentrics crowd the pages of these paperbound volumes designed to persuade potential bidders that the auction is a purely professional, emotionally neutral transaction, and not, as one might suspect, a thinly disguised memento mori, an indication that something has ended—a life, someone’s fiscal solvency, or, in the best case, an acquisitive passion. My own favorite auction catalogue, which has itself outlasted numerous moves and dislocations, heralds the 1977 sale of the spectacular assemblage of actual memento mori—skulls cast from precious metals, Old Master paintings, and drawings of skeletons—accumulated by the celebrity jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane.

Shapton presents and describes the artifacts that once belonged to a couple, now broken up. Someone (one or both of the lovers) is jettisoning everything (or almost everything; some lots have been removed from the sale, for unspecified reasons) that the pair possessed or acquired over a relationship that lasted four years, more or less. The page design of Important Artifacts perfectly captures the look of an auction catalogue, paradoxically elegant and cheesy: thin paper covered with functional, low-tech, black-and-white photographs, somewhat haphazardly laid out, numbered and accompanied by dates, estimated prices, and brief explanations of an object’s provenance, vintage, and purpose. Offered in the Doolan–Morris sale is a wide array of garage-sale items and ceramic dogs, as well as Trivial Pursuit cards, sunglasses, bras, oven mitts, magazines, aprons, offered singly and in lots. There are cake stands, blankets, sports equipment, snapshots, T-shirts, clippings, hand-lettered menus from celebratory dinners for two, unopened bottles of wine—and many of these humble items will turn out to signal a plot turn in the history of a romance.

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Francine Prose is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author, most recently, of Goldengrove.

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