In her first novel, Was She Pretty? (2006), Leanne Shapton broke stylistic ground when she chose to build her story through line drawings of each of her characters, mostly former lovers of the protagonists, accompanied with very brief textual descriptions. Her second novel, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry is even more innovative. In this novel, Shapton draws on her talents as an illustrator, designer, photographer, and writer to create a very realistic, but wholly fictional auction catalog that details the remnants of a love affair gone wrong.
The book is more easily read than described. Each page presents numbered photographs and lot descriptions of important artifacts in the lives of the two main characters, Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris. The premise of the novel is that these items are to be auctioned off by the fictional auction house Strachan & Quinn on February 14, 2009, at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. A reader’s task is to examine the photos, read the lot descriptions, and glean the story of the couple’s four-year romance through the cryptic text and images.
The lots are organized chronologically, so it is possible to trace the arc of the romance from beginning to end. For example, the opening page contains a photograph of Doolan as Lot 1001; the catalog description of the photo reveals that Doolan is twenty-six years old and works for The New York Times. The photo also shows Doolan as a waiflike, very thin, and very young-looking woman. Likewise, on the same page, listed as Lot 1002, is a passport photo of Morris. The text relates that he is thirty-nine years old and a photographer who has assignments worldwide. The photos illustrate the age difference between the pair far more starkly than the text is able to. Moreover, the fact that the photograph of Morris is from his passport suggests that Morris is not someone who stays in any one place very long. These two key detailsthe respective ages and careers of the coupleplay mightily in both the initial attraction and the eventual breakup of the couple.
The first several pages also present photographs of the couple at their first meeting, a Halloween party given by friends. Doolan is dressed as an ax-wielding, bloody Lizzie Borden, and Morris appears as Harry Houdini. On first reading, these photos graphically display the electric attraction between the pair. By the end of the book, however, it is possible to return to these pictures and view them ironically. Doolan, as the lot numbers move chronologically forward, reveals herself to be prone to fits of temper: She breaks Morris’s favorite coffee mug (Lot 1232), she screams and yells at Morris (documented by a note from Morris in Lot 1246), and during a fight she throws a backgammon game in the fire (also illustrated by Lot 1246). Morris, on the other hand, becomes, like Houdini, an escape artist, using his job to put both emotional and physical space between himself and Doolan.
Indeed, it becomes clear early in the book that the relationship is in trouble. By Lot 1060, Doolan is already receiving an e-mail from an old boyfriend, and in Lot 1063, the couple is apologizing for a fight. Lots 1070 through 1085 include artifacts from the couple’s first trip abroad together, including postcards, notes, photographs, the contents of their traveling cases, “Beware of Dog” signs in Italian, novels, and Italian phrase books. There is also embedded in these sections a note from Doolan to her sister describing a fight with Morris, as well as notes about how much Morris is drinking.
The lots containing artifacts of the trip to Italy reveal many of the essential qualities of each character. Doolan seems uncomfortable with travel and inflexible in many ways. She appears uneasy when she is unable to control circumstances. Morris, on the other hand, is used to traveling alone. He fits easily into other cultures and does not seem at all bothered by petty or small inconveniences. He does, however, display impatience with Doolan’s need for control. Given Morris’s career and his need to travel constantly, the couple’s inability to travel well together seems...
(The entire section is 1762 words.)