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.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!
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.”Soon enough, major fault lines reveal themselves—buried, as it were, in the fine print. Included among the items to be auctioned off is an email message from Hugh Nash, an old flame of Lenore’s, a printout on which she has scribbled the time and place (Café Loup, 8:00 p.m., Friday) where the former lovers have arranged to meet when Harold is out of town. In the next lot is a pair of men’s pajamas, and—following an exchange of apologies between Hal and Lenore after a long-distance argument—a photocopied flyer from a club in Williamsburg. “Verso reads: ‘Thanks again for letting me crash, H. xo.’” A clipping of Lenore’s Cakewalk column, written after her date with Hugh, provides one of the book’s many pastry-encoded clues to her state of mind: “The fading light, a certain restlessness, an in-between feeling—when 4 o’clock rolls around, nostalgia seeps into the kitchen and thoughts turn to what might have been . . .” In another photo we see Harold carrying an umbrella that, we are told, was “left by Hugh Nash at Doolan’s apartment.”
Within a few pages, we find ourselves studying the photos and reading the captions with the close attention we might give to a densely illustrated, heavily condensed and abbreviated short story. And the intensity of our scrutiny pays off, as Shapton’s portrait of the couple is sharpened by each sale item. Nothing seems accidental or uncomplicated; we feel that each object is invested with the layers of meaning it held for Lenore and Hal. How much it tells us about them—individually and as a pair—that, for their third Christmas together, Lenore gives her photographer boyfriend a photography book (Duane Michaels) and Hal gives Lenore . . . a photography book, Cindy Sherman’s Complete Untitled Film Stills, inscribed, “She reminds me of you.”
The lovers argue, respond (or don’t respond) to each other’s social, familial, and professional obligations, argue some more, make up, move in together. We can track the highs and lows of their sex life through lingerie purchased, hotel rooms rented, erotic books consulted, and the T-shirt (property of mcgill athletics) that Hal and Lenore put on to communicate their readiness for love-making. Hal fails to respond with sufficient enthusiasm to one of Lenore’s cakes; other failures follow. He neglects to show up on a birthday and New Year’s Eve. He bails early—work calls!—during a trip to see Lenore’s ailing father in Canada. From time to time, Lenore makes lists of her boyfriend’s good and bad qualities, tallies in which the balance shifts so sharply from positive to negative that eventually she has trouble finding one thing to say in his favor. We know from these lists that Hal’s drinking is a source of concern to Lenore, but when the couple finally decides to live together, she signals her game acceptance of this flaw, and perhaps others, by presenting him with a set of vintage martini glasses and a cocktail recipe book from 1933, in which she has written a double-edged dedication, “For my hard-drinkin’ Hal, with love from your new roomie.”
Hal’s absences grow more frequent and more casually extended, his avowals of missing Lenore cooler and more formulaic. Relatively early, there’s an adoring letter to “Hally” from a woman named Allison, and, later, a snapshot of him talking to an “unidentified” woman at a party. The name “Erich” begins to turn up among Lenore’s jottings. A selection of self-help and relationship-advice manuals appears, ominously, on the couple’s bookshelf. Another set of notes scribbled in a playbill—this one exchanged during a performance of Abigail’s Party—include a rapid-fire disagreement about Morris having read a “creepy” email to Doolan from another man and a subsequent volley of comments about trust and suspicion.
A slightly charred backgammon set, a souvenir of a summer the lovers spend in the country, precedes a handwritten message from Hal: “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 this makes it worse, but I can’t help it. Chucking the backgammon board into the fire was the last straw . . .” The phone number of a couples therapist appears on the back of a business card, and we realize that the crisis has escalated when we see a photo of Morris’s white-noise machine, which appears to have been smashed by a hammer. Letters inlaid in magazines (a Gourmet supplement) and books (William James) convey Hal’s wish that they can remain friends, followed by Lenore’s response: “The sound of your voice stirs up a volcano of emotion I’m trying very hard to control. Please respect my silence. You remain extremely special to me, but let’s keep our distance.”
Ultimately, the death of the relationship is made official by the modern, urban, unmarried couple’s equivalent of the divorce decree: “Real estate listings for one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan; options circled in Sharpie. Real estate listings for one-bedroom apartments in Los Angeles; options circled in pencil.”Just as the concept of Important Artifacts is amusing in itself, so is its central conceit: Although the bidding estimates assigned to the lots fall well within the range that a provident auction house might term “sensibly” or “reasonably” priced, the fact is that a large percentage of what is being auctioned off is basically crap that no sensible person would want, even for free. The seriousness beneath the joke is that these scraps of paper, used clothes, and borderline garbage were formerly objects of incalculable worth; indeed, they once meant everything to this fictional couple. Important Artifacts can inspire an intriguing reconsideration of the vast gap—the chasm—between intrinsic and assigned or sentimental value.
What makes this sly book so original and appealing is that its form, the auction catalogue, allows Shapton to talk about several things at once: modern love, city life, a time and a place, a social class, a milieu, and a relationship to objects that both reflects and transcends the specificities of all of the above. The experience of reading the book—amused and detached at first, we find ourselves avidly rooting out diagnostic clues to the health of the affair, intrigued enough to look for hints that track the waxing and waning of the couple’s fragile bliss—nearly reproduces (though without the guilt) the supremely guilty frisson of going through the belongings of a stranger in whose house we happen to be staying.
Meanwhile, percolating up through the humor and high spirits is something deeper than the gentle mournfulness of stories about love affairs gone bad, in this case tinged with the added melancholy of the forlorn garage sale. Shapton’s book may generate a daunting awareness of how much our knickknacks know about us, how stripped bare and naked we become in their collective presence. The items we assemble to populate the lovingly curated museums of our lives are repositories of our most intimate secrets. In their power to reveal and expose us, our possessions are testaments not only to our good taste, creativity, wit, and charm but also to our vanity, our self-deceptions, our inadequacies and betrayals.
Reading the final pages of Important Artifacts, I found myself reflecting that the cartoonists whose work I so loved as a child might have been right about the potentially subversive or maniacal ways that objects would behave, if only they could. It may not be true that the furious teapot is plotting to grab a soup spoon and chase us around the house, but it seems inarguable that the deceptively innocent tea cozy could say far more than we would ever want strangers—or anyone, really—to know about who we are, what we did, what was done to us, and how we felt when it happened.