Friday Reads: Important Artifacts… by Leanne Shapton

This is a story about a relationship coming together and then falling apart. It’s a very unusual book by Leanne Shapton, with a very long title: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.

The story is told through the format of an auction catalog, and items are presented in the order they would have mattered in the relationship—a pair of vintage salt and pepper shakers given as a gift, a pair of snowshoes worn on a winter vacation, leftover jars of homemade jam that the couple gave out as holiday presents. Often the items are accompanied by pictures of Lenore or Harold wearing or using the item. Some ephemera, such as opera programs or wedding invitations, bear scribbled conversations between the couple, and these are very telling. Also illuminating are the inscriptions inside the books given to each other as gifts.

Our characters have tastes refined enough to pass judgment on, without having to feel mean about it.  These are the sort of things people buy selectively when they have more taste than money—shoes from Prada and Louboutin, toiletries from Chanel and Kiehl’s, clothes from Sonia Rykiel and John Galliano. Even the second-hand items are of good provenance—an Elsa Schiaparelli coat from a shop in Greece that someone may have said once belonged to the famous Maria Callas (someone else may have believed it—I’m reminded of the scene in Desperately Seeking Susan where the vintage shop owner tells Roberta that Susan’s jacket once belonged to Jimi Hendrix).

Each object could be expounded upon, so I’ll go for those porcelain poodles on the cover, given to Lenore by Harold. It’s been made clear in the book, previous to arrival of these dogs on page 68, that Lenore wants a dog—and that Harold doesn’t. Who thinks it’s cute to buy someone little dog figurines, as a gift, when that person really wants a real live dog, and might be thinking they’re actually going to get a dog for a present instead? Someone in touch with the recipient’s tastes but not their desires. Yes, a dog is horrible gift, and yes, Lenore had no reason to expect a dog was a possible gift. But I know how dog owners think, and it occurred to her that she was going to get a puppy as a present, and she would have taken that puppy as a good sign about their relationship. This is a good example, then, of what was wrong with this relationship: a couple that likes the same things (objects) but doesn’t love the same things (experiences, pursuits, achievements).

This is a very unique way to tell a story, especially a love story. It’s a comment on commercialism, on aspirational consumerism, on the expression of identity through objects. But beyond that, it’s engaging—we really do get a sense of these people, and we care about them, just based on photos and descriptions of their possessions.

Shapton, Leanne. Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009. Print.
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