Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Leanne Shapton, Important Artifacts (and all the rest of a very long title)

A Book So Innovative, It Had to Wait for a New Administration

Not literally. It was coincidence that Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) arrived in my mailbox on January 21, 2009.

And Shapton has defied convention before often enough, in her own work and as co-founder of J&L Books, with its bias towards the experimental. But this is the first time I can recall a novel presented as an auction catalogue.

Christian Boltanski has presented catalogues of all the personal possessions of an average individual before, and plenty of pop photonovellas have told stories through posed photography. But no one I can think of has presented the tale of the breakup of a relationship by way of the photographs and accompanying description of personal objects that the couple has put up for auction. ("Strachan & Quinn Auctioneers, Saturday, 14 February 2009, New York")

It is up to the reader to piece together the biographies of Doolan and Morris, with ample quantities of family data via heirlooms, the evolution of the relationship via an array of tchotchkes and cards and letters, and everything from stolen salt and pepper shakers to bras and T-shirts.

I should perhaps emphasize again the innovative qualities of this book, which actually stands in the lineage of books with narrative supplemented by photographs first made familiar in the English-reading world through translations of the novels of W. G. Sebald, and continued by the translation of Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

But those novels don’t depend on the intimate blend of words and visuals to the extent that this one does, much less require the assembly of the story (which, truth be told, is an all too familiar one) from the available evidence.

There are textual parallels to this book in the French nouvelle roman of half a century ago, and in some hypertext image-laden fictions of a decade or so back.

But Shapton has done something genuinely new (as far as I know) with the format, and something that is simultaneously innovative and thematically appropriate. The story involves the trajectory of a relationship between a columnist for the New York Times and a photographer, and includes the books each of them has chosen to acquire…so print and the visuality associated with print are part of the tale. Although the format could be posted online, the implicit narrative involves the world of print-media professionals and their deeper discontents. There is a vintage typewriter (self-consciously retro) in the auction, but laptops, like cameras, must have been among the items withdrawn from the sale.

For the sake of the story, enough personal items have to be included to convey character as well as event. Some of the items do seem improbable (that is one source of the book's subtle but abundant humor); but then the auction is meant to represent all the things that are gotten rid of at the end of a painful relationship, and both parties will later regret having deaccessioned some of them so rashly.

Hence the inclusion in Shapton’s auction items of a good many small heirlooms and substantial library items along with the love notes and conversational exchanges written on theatre programs. If her fictional Doolan and Morris had been archivally inclined or pack rats, there would have been no story. (If Shapton herself weren’t so knowing in the ways of material culture, there wouldn’t have been a story, either.)

The regular dispersion of personal and family possessions constitutes a problem for the new academic discipline of material-culture studies: between the mobility of global society (whether from war or economic migration) and the rise of eBay, the material is always getting sold or abandoned.

All this hopelessly lost stuff is precisely the pile of debris that the Angel of History contemplates with such dismay in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (or in Laurie Anderson’s spoken-word recycling of same on Strange Angels). Only in moments of our own catastrophe do we perceive the human and physical wreckage we have left behind in the relentless march of what, according to Benjamin, we are pleased to call “progress.”

Auctions, thrift shops, and eBay complete the process by finding new owners for the detritus, covering the tracks of the crime by removing the evidence and finding a new use for what has become refuse, if not emotional toxic waste.

It is the function formerly performed by the ragpickers of Charles Baudelaire’s famous poem, a poetic analogy that Walter Benjamin recycled as productively as he did the frantic winged creature of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus..

So Shapton has given us underlying issues to think about as well as a story to piece together.

And it’s a lovely read, and an engaging, convincing look. If there weren’t a photograph of Shapton herself in the back to let us know that she cannot possibly be the protagonist, we would be tempted to read this as a roman à clef in spite of the incorporation of an adroit reference to Duane Michals’ “This Photograph Is My Proof” to remind us that, as Michals said, “Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be."

The many among us who have been involved in creating photographic and textual fictions for our own entertainment will be overjoyed to see this happy marriage of verbal and visual fictions (a happier relationship than the one experienced by the protagonists…not exactly a spoiler, since the book’s accompanying blurbs tell you that already).

Many of the photographs are by Shapton’s partner in L&J Books, Jason Fulford, whose work is well-known to many of the readers of this weblog, as are the books that both of them produce.

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