Love always creates a lot of junk. In those first heady days of a relationship, gifts seem to come from everywhere at once: handwritten notes, little stuffed animals, whimsical objects from boutiques and vending machines. And at the end of a relationship, you turn your back on all that now-useless shit as part of the process of recovery and renewal. An essential healing procedure of any painful breakup, after the Ritual Returning of the Stuff, is the stowing (or throwing) away of the tokens of affection. Half of the items in your standard thrift store are probably detritus from failed romantic adventures (the other half are from dead people). The story that any one of those abandoned artifacts has to tell is incomplete, of course, but meaningful nonetheless.
In her new book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, Leanne Shapton has devised a way to tell the story of a relationship solely through the items purchased and employed over the course of that relationship. Ingeniously, the story is told in the form of an auction catalog (for a fictional auction taking place, melodramatically, on Valentine's Day 2009). Each page is primarily taken up by black-and-white photographs, and the text is restricted to an auction-style description of the items. One page, for example, has a large photo of a gray T-shirt that reads "Property of McGill Athletics." Shunted off to the side, almost incidentally, the text reads:
A McGill University Athletics T-shirt
A gray cotton McGill University Athletics T-shirt, emblazoned with varsity logo. Much wear and fading. Label inside reads "Russell Athletics." Size XL.
Included are two photographs. One snapshot of Doolan with her computer in bed, wearing the T-shirt. One snapshot of Morris on a staircase, wearing the T-shirt. Both 6 x 4 in. The couple referred to the T-shirt as "the sex T-shirt," as wearing it indicated a readiness for sex. The shirt originally belonged to Jared Bristow, an ex-boyfriend of Doolan's from high school.
It would take a novelist dozens of pages to set up something so minor and yet so telling as "the sex T-shirt," but Shapton here has done that work in a subscript note to some advertising text. Every page could give birth to a dozen tightly worded literary short stories, but instead, Shapton briskly moves along to the next lot.
Here is some of what we learn about the couple: Doolan writes a column about cakes and baked goods for the New York Times (Shapton is an art director at the NYT). Morris is a photographer who travels the world for his work. Morris is 13 years older than Doolan. He likes to keep his distance. She gets angry—even occasionally throws things—when she feels shut out of his life. They both spend lots of money on antiques and vintage collectibles. She thinks he drinks too much. He thinks she doesn't like traveling enough. They met at a Halloween party; she was Lizzie Borden, he was Harry Houdini. Like every love affair, the ending is stitched ornately in the couple's beginning.
Viewing the relationship through their stuff does have its downside. A reader can easily become disgusted with Doolan and Morris for being spend-happy urbanites: The vintage silver-plated cake server engraved with "Bravo Buttertart" ("Buttertart"—occasionally "Butterbutt"'—is Morris's early nickname for Doolan) is a bit much. But who doesn't occasionally go over the top for the one they love? Other items are completely practical—18 of Doolan's bras are up for auction. And we can easily see ourselves in some of the other items, especially (speaking for myself) the books: Somewhere in the four years that Important Artifacts... spans, Morris reads The Master and Margarita and Doolan reads Lives of Girls and Women.
There's a basic thrill here that is something akin to poking around in someone else's house when they're not home, but the pleasure exceeds simple voyeurism. It's not so much a book that is written as curated: Imagining the work that Shapton must have put into finding, say, the perfect travel alarm clock for her characters is nearly as touching as the fictional search that brought Doolan to the same clock. And like many romantic searches, it turns out to have been done in vain: The listing for the clock reads, "Doolan insisted that the clock remain on New York time. Morris took the clock on two trips, but complained that it was too heavy." The clock's story ends the same way every object's story in Important Artifacts... ends: It winds up in an auction catalog, waiting for someone to find it, and think that it is perfect, and take it home with them, and love it.