The Short Version: An auction catalog from 2009, featuring the personal effects of a couple from roughly the beginning of their courtship to the end of their relationship over the span of roughly five years, reveals the truth of two people through nothing more than their everyday objects.
The Review: What a fascinating book. It is designed, down nearly to the letter and excepting really only the spine and back cover (and a few early/late pages, I guess) to look like a real auction catalog – and it does. It feels like the sort of thing I imagine you’d pick up at Sotheby’s: a nice cover, giving it some heft, with finely textured paper inside featuring black and white photos describing each lot in turn. The experience of reading this novel (which, yes, I believe we can and must call it) begins before you’ve even picked it up off the shelf, because the reader has already begun to process both the distance and the deception of the conceit: this is not an auction catalog, it is a novel… but it strikes one as an auction catalog and so intrigues the unsuspecting reader. What could this possibly be?
The answer is, frankly, one of the more bewitching literary artifacts I’ve ever encountered. The conceit is simple, to the point that it feels like something I should’ve already seen: the story of a relationship, told via the objects and ephemera of the couple. What surprised me is just how deeply I was pulled into the actual story of this relationship – the struggles, the successes, the moments of love and of unhappiness – almost without expecting to be. It would’ve been not only understandable but honestly rather expected to feel like the story held the reader at arm’s length because of the conceit, but in fact it pulls you close almost right off the bat.
How else to explain the way that Lot 1213 (“Easter eggs; A collection of eleven hand-dyed Easter eggs, decorated by the couple. Some cracked, some fading. $10-20.”) made me put down the book and stare out the window lost in though for a good ten minutes? What to make of the gasp I let out at the suddenness of the ending or the delight I found in the way notes from the couple found their way into the various books, photos, etc – snapshots of a moment in time, a moment of life, that take on greater resonance after the moment has passed? I was bewitched by every single thing here, from the micro (individual lots) to the macro (the novel as a whole).
I suppose some of this might have to do with elements of my own life supporting the reading experience: I very recently moved into a new apartment, one I’m sharing with my girlfriend, and so I’m even more conscious of objects than I normally am. I’m a big believer in giving books as gifts and making sure they’re inscribed – but what about the memory of this corkscrew I think I stole from some party? What does it mean to hang this picture vs. that painting, here vs. there? How about this chair I’m sitting in, which was once in my uncle’s apartment in the East Village (where I first lived when I came to New York) and that has traveled with me through now three apartments – becoming arguably more my chair than his, even as I still think of it as “the chair from 208”? As we make a home together, I’m conscious of the way we are not only creating new memories but the way that our Important Artifacts and the memories they carry with them define and influence not only our space but our selves. And isn’t that what Shapton was getting at, with this book?
Look at the way little things recur throughout: Lenore’s “Cakewalk” column in the New York Times (excerpts never included here, sadly), a gift from Agent Provocateur, even something as simple as yearly invitations to a Halloween party thrown by friends who go from couple to married in the course of Doolan & Morris’ relationship. It should be impossible to compress five years into the span of 130 pages – hell, it should be impossible to compress five years into anything less than five actual years; that’s just physics – but Shapton is able to evoke life and all its many complexities in ways that other novelists spend entire careers attempting to achieve.
And the whole thing is constructed, which blew my mind. There’s a great piece from the Times about Shapton and this book, from February 2009, that reveals some of her tricks – including the fact that the couple are not only not a real couple but that every photo of them is staged and crafted. Lenore Doolan is played by Shelia Heti (real-life author) and Harold Morris is played by Paul Sahre (graphic designer extraordinaire) – and even if you aren’t familiar with the two, they look familiar-enough that you spend the whole time reading and thinking “where do I know them from?” or “haven’t I seen them at a party?” They just feel real and it’s startling to realize that it’s all just for show.
This is not to say that the whole book holds up to scrutiny – the Playbills, for example, are all actually the same single Playbill (from The Homecoming, when it was on Broadway in 2007 – I obviously had to figure that out) and it becomes slightly suspicious that none of Lenore’s columns are illustrated in the catalog… and there is, of course, the question about why these things are being auctioned off, together, on Valentine’s Day – but you suspend your disbelief for these little things. They are things that my design-focused mind picked up on even while my story-focused mind was completely engaged and enthralled and I’ll take the latter’s happiness any day.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. An artifact in and of itself, this book takes a conceit that could come off as twee or overly constructed and makes it into something vital, vibrant, and delightful. I’ve never had a reading experience quite like this, even with books that are more overly designed (S., Building Stories, etc), and I don’t know that I ever will again. It’s so rare that you find a truly unique book and you only get to experience it once. That having been said, I do think I’ll come back to this often – there’s something magical and compelling about its simplicity and elegance.