Leanne Shapton - Important Artifacts …
Photographing some of her own belongings allowed ghost story fan Leanne Shapton to bring a dead relationship to life. Brian Donaldson hears about her innovative new novel
In this empty literary age of celebrity autobiographies written by someone else, increasingly desperate misery memoirs and Dan Brown, the notion of an original novel making its way onto our shelves seems a crazy one. Yet, just when you thought there were no fresh angles to be pursued, out comes Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. This pair’s tale would most likely come under the sub-genre of ‘relationship drama’, but here New York-based illustrator and author Leanne Shapton has created the story of a couple’s fledgling passion which flattens out before ultimately disintegrating, through the little-utilised literary tool of the auction catalogue.
On Valentine’s Day of this year, Lenore and Hal’s joint possessions were ‘sold off’ at Strachan & Quinn Auctioneers, with the trajectory of their life together told in the often starch commentary beside each lot as well as hand-written letters and notes which accompany many of the items. To give an added flavour of realism, Lenore and Hal are made flesh by novelist Sheila Heti and designer Paul Sahre who were photographed by Shapton for stills through the book. For Shapton, the pair were close to the Lenore and Hal that she had pictured in her head, but figuring out why this relationship would falter required more thinking, especially given that it becomes apparent that he is increasingly not that into her.
‘Hal is at a point in his life where he comes first, especially in this romantic relationship,’ Shapton admits. ‘Lenore is impressed and charmed by him, and is looking for confirmation of her own artistic values through him. We tolerate all sorts of humiliations when all we see is what we want to see. Inasmuch as Lenore looks to Hal for approval, I suppose it’s fair to say there is some sort of father-figure role being played out.’ Having worked out the motivations and beliefs of her central pair, comics lover and ghost story fan Shapton then needed to ensure that the objects within the book had to manifest their personalities and hint at their crumbling partnership: the unused tickets to see Annie Hall and the shot of a bored Hal as Lenore chats to friends at a leaving do are just two examples of the intricate detail Shapton has woven into Important Artifacts … .
Though the idea is a wholly original literary one, it’s based on Shapton’s recollection of reading a Truman Capote catalogue which contextualised his final years in Hollywood and an exhibition catalogue on the correspondence between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. But read what you will into the fact that over half of Lenore and Hal’s ‘personal property’ have come from Shapton’s own quarters. ‘It was surprisingly easy to create new histories for my objects,’ she says. ‘I found the dogs that wound up on the cover at a flea market, waiting for my aunt who was attending church. I didn’t know then they’d be the “cover dogs”, but I was busy collecting random junky things at that point of the process, and working them into the story.’ Any regrettable purchases? ‘I spent far too much on the heart-shaped toast rack.’
Important Artifacts … is out now published by Bloomsbury.