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.

Cover: March 2010

March 2010

From the front page

Bring Assange Home: MPs

The US extradition case against the Australian journalist sets a dangerous precedent

Image of Steve Kilbey

The Church frontman Steve Kilbey

The prolific singer-songwriter reflects on four decades and counting in music

Illustration

Bait and switch

Lumping dingoes in with “wild dogs” means the native animals are being deliberately culled

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”


In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Good Neighbours

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

600 Million Rabbits & Myxomatosis

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Close at hand

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Ghost writers


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Jia Tolentino

Radical ambiguity: Jia Tolentino, Rachel Cusk and Leslie Jamison

The essay collections ‘Trick Mirror’, ‘Coventry’ and ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’ offer doubt and paradoxical thinking in the face of algorithmic perfectionism

Image of Archie Roach

A way home: Archie Roach

The writer of ‘Took the Children Away’ delivers a memoir of his Stolen Generations childhood and an album of formative songs

Image from ‘The Irishman’

Late style: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

Reuniting with De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, the acclaimed director has delivered less of a Mob film than a morality play

Still from Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre


More in Noted

Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

Cover of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’

‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ by Deborah Levy

The British author experiments with a narrative structure that collapses past and present

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age


Read on

Image of Steve Kilbey

The Church frontman Steve Kilbey

The prolific singer-songwriter reflects on four decades and counting in music

Image from ‘The Report’

Interrogating the interrogators: ‘The Report’

This tale of the investigation into CIA torture during the War on Terror places too much faith in government procedure

Image of police station in Alice Springs with red handprints on wall

What really happened at Yuendumu?

The promised inquiries must answer the biggest questions raised by the police shooting of an Aboriginal man

You could drive a person crazy: Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are at their career best in this bittersweet tale of divorce


×
×