The day began with a shock. Pascale Petit, the poet, sent me a series of angry tweets about the review I wrote of What The Water Gave Me (Poems After Frida Kahlo) a few days ago (See it here). I also managed to get sunburnt on my beautiful, beautiful, face. Terrified of pissing any more writers off, feeling extra vulnerable because of my ravaged cheeks, I knew that there was no way that I was going to be able to write a bad review of whatever I read next. Fearful of having to lie, I picked something I hoped would excite me to wax positive raptures to right the wrongs I accidentally committed over the weekend. Luckily, I don’t have to lie, I don’t have to exaggerate, because Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property From The Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry is a beautiful, unique, heartbreaking success of a genre-busting contemporary novel. Boom.
This 2009 book is, if one must simplify, a postmodern graphic novel. It tells the story of a relationship from inception to break up, using objects (including clothes, gifts, books, letters, postcards, emails, photographs, invitations, CDs, DVDs and much more than I can think of off the top of my head), presented in the style of an auction catalogue. Thus detached images of important objects, neatly transcribed excerpts of emotionally-wrought communiques, and short descriptions of the most significant of things combine to create a strong, moving and incredibly dense picture of a couple’s life over the course of several years.
This stylised piece is incredibly literary, and culturally astute – there are references throughout to high and pop culture, the lovers being (her) a columnist for the New York Times, and (him) an international photographer, thirteen years her senior. In terms of plot, there is nothing new (he travels for work too much, is neglectful, she declines an excellent job offer at one point, they fall in love, they make mix tapes, they go on holiday, things decline, etc etc etc, not in that order) but that doesn’t matter – because the characters are strong, the narrative is believable, and the way it is presented is fresh, charming and deeply engaging. Through photography the reader becomes intimate with the couple, sharing in their most important moments, through notes the reader sees the way they speak to each other, through letters to other people the reader sees their lies, through the gifts they buy the reader sees how much thought, effort, has been put into their relationship at that point… Through objects, detritus, receipts, notes, bills, travel documents, the reader learns who Lenore and Harold are. What they look like, how they behave, how they think, and what and how they feel.
This is a moving, charming, and genuinely original piece (if Shapton ripped this off someone else, please let me know), and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to anyone looking for something experimental, emotionally riveting, and expressive of the excellence of contemporary fiction.
I came across this whilst researching Sheila Heti, whose great How Should A Person Be? I recently read (review here). Shapton and Heti are good friends, and were part of the same Toronto scene in the noughties. If these two examples are anything to go by, contemporary Canadian literature may well be worth getting much more familiar with.