by Weston Cutter
There’s this great live Big Stardisc (I think it’s actually just called Live) and on it there’s one interview track where the host is talking with Alex Chilton and the host starts things with this quote that goes “Here it is, only January, and we already have the album of the year.” (the disc is worth getting for all sorts of reasons, but one of those reasons’s got to be the interview, which Chilton’s so clearly honest and uncomfortable with it’s just hilarious—after that line, when the host says the thing about album of the year? Chilton goes “Yeah, that’s uh…that’s nice. We’ve had critical acclaim before. Hope it sells.” It’s amazing). I bring all that up just to say that, dorky as it may sound, there’s a good precedent for calling something, even in January, the ____ of the year.
And so let’s just get it out of the way here and now, before things get complicated by other releases: the book of the year for 2009 is Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. Yes, yes, I know: there are great books coming this year (Powers’s got one coming late in the year), but please believe me—no other book will come close to this one. Not even remotely close. (for the record: you’ve seen Shapton’s work as a designer all over the place.)
What the book is is a story of a relationship, about a guy and a woman (named, yes, Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris) meeting and falling in love and moving in and eventually moving away and falling apart and etc. It is, in short, a story we all know and have either read or lived a couple dozen times. What Shapton does to this story, though, is actually, in the most Pound-ian way, Makes It New: Important Artifacts…is an auction catalog, and the various stuff up for sale literally tell Lenore’s and Harold’s story.
Please be appraised that no matter what you believe you’re capable of re: getting excited about a fake auction catalog, I’d submit that you’ll be just knocked over by this book, will be gasping with awe, and here’s why: relationships are typically shit to write about because all the whooshy/abstract stuff gets balanced against the nickel-and-dime stuff. We all love the abstractions, but the guts of love, the real stuff, is about stuff, about how cute our beloved is when she stretches, or how funny he is when he whistles as he’s making eggs, whatever. We all know this (see, for instance, why L. Cohen’s best songs are so resonant: specificity=universality).
Shapton knows this too, and she’s written, basically, a book that’s the rawest (in good and bad ways) record of a relationship possible. Without abstraction, without what most of us would understand as ‘narration,’ we get Lenore’s and Harold’s relationship strictly through stuff (more exactly: pictures of the ‘lots’ of stuff on sale [yes, everything's priced]): the invitation to the party they met at, the napkin Harold first wrote his email address on for Lenore, the Valentine’s Day mix CD. Maybe the greatest accomplishment of the book is that it doesn’t at all feel gimmicky, doesn’t feel like it’s a long-ish thing that began as nothing more than some merely clever idea: for its playfulness and form-breaking (or at least form-expanding) nature, Important Artifacts…is very very much a story and offers all the richness you’d want from a book.
Because there is narrative, though, if not outright narration: the stuff itself speaks to and of the relationship it’s all part of. Time passes, gifts get nicer/pricier. Lenore has a baking column in the NYTimes (called Cakewalk), and clippings of her column are included for sale (though never pictured), and her headlines alone give what are probably the most direct and straightforward chapter headings for Lenore’s and Harold’s romance: there’s “Doughnuts for Mid-Winter’s Evil Spirits,” when things aren’t going too smoothly between the lovers; there’s, heartbreakingly, “A Cake of Bits and Pieces,” which comes toward the end of the book and the relationship.
Because here’s the thing, here’s the real majesty that Shapton’s somehow lassoed: stuff doesn’t lie. We can claim happiness as loudly as we like, but seeing this relationship’s stuff laid out chronologically, it’s impossible not to see things along a scale. You get, without even trying (or maybe even wanting), devastated when gifts wane, or when Harold (he’s not a bad guy, but he’s the less likable of the two in here, at least according to this reader) misses Lenore’s birthday. Toward the end there’s a moment involving an email exchange, and it just about made me cry: something as simple and seemingly benign as exchanging an email can be, we know, a Huge Deal, can be the unsayable harbinger of a relationship’s darkening.
It’s worth pointing out clearly, too, how much this book is a made thing. To talk about it just as a collection of stuff misses out on the story that Shapton’s clearly working mightily to tell: she’s curated this stuff, and the fact of the book’s emotional impact has everything to do with her skill as an organizer, as a story teller. For instance, I could not, before having read this book, have imagined that I’d've been so heartened and touched by a picture of four wooden birds (which of course means I wasn’t just moved by the picture, but by the way those four wooden birds fit into H+L’s relationship). For instance, there are a few items in the auction which have been removed—by whom we don’t know, and what those items were is never clarified—and their absence is just haunting in ways I can’t really articulate.
And of course, because it’s such an amazing book, this review can’t possibly do it any justice at all. Maybe the coolest structural metaphor used in a book in the last decade or so was the house in Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, a house bigger on the inside than the outside. In ways that are not at all surprising once you’ve read it, Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts… feels weirdly thin, as an actual book: you can’t believe, sitting there and holding this slim, 130 page thing, that it can possibly contain the overwhelming hugeness of the story within. Maybe that’s the best, highest praise that can be said of this book: using nothing more than pictures of stuff, Leanne Shapton’s made a book and story of an entire relationship—feelings, (arti)facts, everything. It’s a monumentally great book, and it comes out February 11th from Sarah Crichton Books (who also published Shapton’s Was She Pretty), and it’s release sets the bar for 2009. Buy and read it as soon as you possibly can.