March 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry’ by Leanne Shapton

By Michelle de Kretser

In Thomas Hardy’s elegiac poem ‘During Wind and Rain’ there are “Clocks and carpets and chairs / On the lawn all day”. As any trawler of flea markets can attest, a terrible vulnerability attaches to private belongings exposed to public view. The pathos is heightened in Hardy’s poem because the owners of these “brightest things” have “change[d] to a high new house”, which we suspect is not of this world.

Hardy’s lines haunted my reading of Leanne Shapton’s ingenious take on a more mundane tragedy, now being made into a film starring Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman. An art director at the New York Times, Shapton presents the tale of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris through the prism of their “important artifacts and personal property”, which are photographed and captioned as if they were lots in a Manhattan auctioneer’s catalogue. Page after page tracks the bell curve of the Doolan–Morris love affair through an impressive  assortment of things: champagne corks, sexy underwear, Valentine’s Day menus, party invitations, exercise equipment, CD compilations, thrift shop finds, hotel keycards and china poodles are among the debris that remains when romance has soured. “What will survive of us is love” runs Philip Larkin’s famous aphorism. But what survives of love in 21st-century New York is definitely way too much stuff.

Shapton’s heroine is a cookery writer at the Times. Clippings from her column ‘Cakewalk’, interspersed throughout the book, comment obliquely on the state of play between the lovers: “A House of Sponge and Cream” purrs one recipe, while another pleads “Throw Me a Crumb”. Morris is a world-weary photographer with expensive  tastes, who is often away on assignments; his many photos of the couple provide another informal document of their relations.

The faux-catalogue format is a genius stroke on two accounts. First, it is predicated on ellipsis; it is up to the reader to draw narrative conclusions about the pictured lots. Thus, an email address scribbled on a paper napkin marks an incipient attraction, homemade jam suggests domestic nirvana and a telephone number for a therapist signals trouble. The lightness of touch this brings is matched by the deadpan rhetoric of the captions, whose affectless descriptions work on us precisely because they are devoid of sentimentality or melodrama. Take Lot 1287, “Drafts of a letter” by Doolan, in which she turns down a flash job that will separate her from Morris, “in longhand on yellow foolscap. 11 x 8½ in”; only the deadly plural in the first word hints at the letter-writer’s distress.

Several genealogies come to mind for this book. The blogosphere is rich in lives self-chronicled through photos of important artefacts. There is Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton, a novel  referenced here, about the connections between personal property and passion. There is the haunting use of images in WG Sebald’s fiction. There is the vogue for graphic novels. There is the compressed brilliance of Bruce Chatwin, who claimed he learnt to write by composing catalogue entries for Sotheby’s. Yet for all its allusive conjurings, Shapton’s book is entirely her inventive own.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Good Neighbours

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Water Gods

Through a glass brightly

Andrea Arnold’s ‘Fish Tank’ and Tom Ford’s ‘A Single Man’

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The tree people


More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions


More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality