Reviews — From the May 2009 issue

Love for Sale

Appraising the relics of a relationship

( 2 of 4 )

Told more traditionally, this story—New York hipsters meet and fall in love, set up housekeeping, and ultimately drift apart in the first decade of the twenty-first century—might wring a weary sigh from the long-suffering creative-writing instructor. But what Important Artifacts demonstrates—and what, in my opinion, can never be demonstrated often enough—is how much less the tale matters than the way in which it is told. Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is, after all, a story about a relationship.

A prefatory note from the fictive auction house, Strachan and Quinn, introduces Important Artifacts with a postcard “written in 2008 by Harold Morris, whose items are being auctioned here, along with those of Lenore Doolan, and objects given to the couple by friends and family.” On the card, which is addressed to Doolan, Morris (the catalogue generally refers to the pair by their last names) informs her that he will be in town soon, on assignment, and that it would be good to see her. He recalls an accidental meeting at the Oyster Bar a year before, at the end of which Lenore asked if there was ever a relationship he regretted ending. “I didn’t say anything, but I wish I had said, Yes, you. That would be my answer.”

The card concludes,

I don’t know what your situation is now. Jaclyn and I are taking a break. Alone again!

Your
Hal

Already we are given the situation—a lover or perhaps two lovers nostalgic over the end of an affair—and the tone of that situation: heady, intense, couched in the private language that a couple learns to speak. In addition there is just enough cultural information (in town “on assignment,” the Oyster Bar) to enable us to make certain assumptions about Doolan and Morris, most of which will prove to be true.

By the time he sends the postcard, “Your Hal” clearly has moved to another city. And given that the auction is slated for a date (Valentine’s Day, 2009) after that of Hal’s card, we can conclude that his longing for another meeting failed to bring about a lasting rapprochement. In any event, during the period that Important Artifacts documents, Morris and Doolan were both New Yorkers (he’s British, she’s from Canada), leading the lives that certain young people dream of living in Manhattan or, more likely, in Brooklyn.

Lenore is twenty-six, Hal thirteen years older, when they meet in 2002, at a Halloween party that Hal attends dressed as Houdini (shackles, loosened bow tie) and Lenore as Lizzie Borden (axe, bloodstained shirt). That’s how they appear in a snapshot listed as Lot 10005, “first known photograph of the couple together” (friends of Shapton’s stand in as models for the imaginary duo). In a contiguous auction lot is a cocktail napkin on which Lenore has scrawled her email address. Soon after, we read, in a note from Lenore’s sister Ann, lines that will come to seem prescient: “Should we be alarmed he was Harry Houdini? Perhaps he’ll always come back to you OR he’s a master of escape . . .”

Doolan writes for the New York Times a regular column entitled Cakewalk, wry meditations on cakes and baking, featuring recipes that she tries out in her kitchen and tests on Hal. He is a photographer who goes on shoots for magazines and has fantasies of doing something more artistic, though samples of his art—static portraits of beef jerky and hotel ceilings—may partly explain why these hopes go unfulfilled.

Attraction and affection slowly overcome the lovers’ doubts, fears of commitment, and bruising romantic histories, and the course of true love is temporarily smoothed by homemade valentines and carefully assembled mix CDs, by humorous gifts and pet names. Harold travels a great deal for work, and at the start of the affair each journey occasions frequent, tender missives to his “Buttertart” at home. When Lenore is promoted and given her Cakewalk column, Harold presents her with a vintage silver cake-server. An early snapshot shows Lenore sitting on Harold’s lap, both of them laughing. In each of a matched pair of photos, Doolan and Morris stand, waving happily and looking up, on the sidewalk in front of the other’s apartment.

The couple has money for foreign trips (Venice, Turkey) and for renting a summer house in upstate New York. There’s a studied stylishness in their designer vintage clothes; they’re playful and self-conscious, at once endearing and pretentious. At Christmas, they give their friends homemade jam, with hand-lettered labels: “Have a Berry Christmas, Love from Hal and Lenore.” Both are collectors, with a predilection for kitsch. They write postcards and Post-Its, scrawl messages to themselves in the margins of books. Hal finds personal significance in, and transcribes, the lyrics of Paul Simon songs. Both save from fortune cookies the fortunes that seem to speak with eerie pointedness to the mood and fears of the person who has cracked open the cookie.

Hal and Lenore go to the theater and pass notes they scribble on their playbills when their attention wanders. Serious readers, they give each other first editions and have impeccable literary taste, a fondness for authors ranging from M.F.K. Fisher to Henry James, from Bulgakov and Auden to Joy Williams and Jo Ann Beard. On the auction block is Doolan’s copy of Jane Bowles’s brilliant “cult” novel Two Serious Ladies—in French, no less!—inlaid with photos of Doolan’s previous lovers. Early in the romance, during one of Hal’s absences, he and Lenore simultaneously read paperback copies of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Hal is in therapy, on which he takes notes (“July 26 ’03: afraid of her reality?/bad temper/expresses in the way she is able/try to be interested”) that make one fear for the couple’s future. And even at the earliest stages of erotic enchantment with Lenore, Morris gets a letter from his friend Jason (for sale here, inlaid in a copy of Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur) that hearkens back to the postcard from “Your Hal” with which the book begins: “Can’t wait to meet her. Forget about Juliet!—Come on! You always do this, you start something new and then start missing your ex.”

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

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