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.
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