Yesterday I started and finished Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton. The novel tells the story of a four year failed relationship between the eponymous Lenore (a epicurean columnist specialising in cakes) and Harold (a photographer whose work has him constantly travelling the globe), rendered in the form of an auction catalogue with photographs of almost all the items up for sale accompanied by brief notations. If you want to get an idea of the format, Amazon has a “look inside” gallery on the book’s product page.
I saw this in a art/design shop and immediately snapped it up. I’m a sucker for strange books, for experiments in style and different ways of storytelling, for the daring and the innovative and, yes, the sometimes-too-clever. Besides, the story-by-artifact concept touched near to some ideas of my own which I’ve been carrying about for a couple of years now. I’m not sure if anything will ever comes of those, but we’ll see. Whatever happens, it will be quite different to what’s been done here.
According to this New York Times review, Shapton decided to create the book “because she noticed how the lot descriptions in some estate catalogs added up to elliptical plots about the lives of the former possessors”. It’s a neat idea: if all those things we acquire and accumulate throughout our lives can tell others about us and those lives we’ve lead, why not let them speak for themselves? And, for the most part, this is what Important Artifacts does. Some additional background and exposition is provided by the auctioneer’s notes — Lot 1172, for instance, is a small travel clock with its original box. The notes inform us that the clock was “given to Morris by Doolan” and, furthermore, that “Doolan insisted that the clock remain on New York time [where the couple lived]. Morris took the clock on two trips, but complained it was too heavy”.
The items presented for auction varies from the extrinsically if marginally valuable — furniture, vintage homeware, designer clothing — to the utterly trivial but significantly personal — photographs, shopping lists, party invitations. Together they give a coherent picture of the couple’s relationship as well as their individual personalities and quirks, ambitions and fears. It’s a book I really should have loved. I’m fascinated with personal ephemera and found objects. I adore inscriptions in second hand books and snapshots of strangers. But, unfortunately, I didn’t love Important Artifacts. The last half was a tad boring and I felt disappointed by the time I closed the back cover.
I think the problem lies with story. The book is clever and beautifully put together, the objects are well chosen — perhaps a little too well chosen at times; the couple seems to have exceedingly good taste in everything — and the notations manage to tread the line between poignancy and sentimentality rather well, and provide a far amount of humour to boot. But the story, oh the story. That thing that pulls you along once you’ve worn out the novelty/curiosity factor of the presentation, that thing barely limps across the finish line. It’s a simple, ordinary and predictable story: two people meet, fall in love and try to make things work for a few years before finally realising that they’re just not meant to be. Now there’s nothing wrong with simple and straightforward, but when you know the ending before you start and there are no real surprises or revelations along the way, then something else really needs to grab you. And all that’s left is character, the people about whom the story speaks.
Maybe that’s where Important Artifacts falls down. I simply didn’t feel engaged with either of the characters, and didn’t really care whether they broke up or stayed together. (Harold was irritating, but only mildly, not even enough to engage me on a negative level.) This might be an inevitable effect of the format of this novel, and perhaps you can never really feel close to people when all you’re given is a selected list of their possessions. However, I suspect if greater weight had been given to the really personal stuff, to all the embarrassing and unflattering things no one wants other people to see, it would have been different. Sure, that kind of stuff would hardly be sold off at auction but then the conceit of this is stretched thin anyway — there’s all sort of things that wouldn’t be auctioned unless the former owners were very famous, so let’s not quibble.
In short, Important Artifacts doesn’t seem to know what it is. It reads a little like a puzzle or cipher, except there’s no real mystery to unravel. It’s trying to tell a love story, but the intimacy this requires is missing, and sorely missed. And this is a shame, because the idea of the book is fantastic and — as far as I know — unique. Food for thought, most definitely.
It also brought to mind House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski — not that there is anything similar between the two in terms of plot, character or approach. It’s a book I read reluctantly, on the recommendation of a friend, and I didn’t expect to think much of it. (Funnily enough, I’ve mentioned House of Leaves before, also in oblique comparison to another book. ) Danielewski’s debut novel is a haunted house story, a haunted human story. It’s big and convoluted and typeset to hell and back. And it’s quite brilliant. Deliberately frustrating and opaque as it can be sometimes, the non-standard format works to support the story and enhance the reading experience. Danielewski knew what he was doing here, folks.
It could have easily gone the other way. It could have been a pretentious and inaccessible quagmire. But it’s not, and the reason it’s not comes down to story once again. House of Leaves is a labyrinthine, Russian doll of a novel. It’s a story — of a photojournalist living in a surreal house — within a story — of a reclusive blind academic — within a story — of the young man who puts it all together. Footnotes, extracts, film transcripts, photographs and other “artifacts” form part of the narrative. There are appendices and an index. Like Important Artifacts, the book is a puzzle and a cipher; the difference is that there is a mystery at the heart of it. There is, in short, story.
Let’s pause a moment for clarification. By story, I do not mean plot. Story is shorthand for the way we see the world and talk about what we’ve seen. It includes — but does not necessary need — any or all of the following elements: plot, character, setting, motivation, action, resolution. [Side note: action does not just mean car chases, fisticuffs or blowing things to smithereens; resolution does not simply equate to solving mysteries, providing explanations, or tying things up with a neat and happy bow.]
In the narrative arts, story is queen. D’oh, right? But it’s amazing how many people seem to forget that. You might be the most brilliant wordsmith and stylist, or you might have a unique and extremely clever idea for how to render/present/format a book — hell, I’ll probably buy and read your work without thinking twice! — but it won’t matter if there is no real story. We human beings are storytellers, and storylisteners, from way back. It’s probably somewhere in our genes. Whatever else you do, don’t mess with that.