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

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today.

Having us on

What job is the Morrison government getting on with, exactly?

Image showing Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar

Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Image from Rebecca, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the nuance and ambiguity of the novel

Listening to Roberta Flack

‘First Take’, released 50 years ago, still echoes through the present


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

Listening to Roberta Flack

‘First Take’, released 50 years ago, still echoes through the present

Body politic: ‘Boys State’

American democracy is documented in all its gangly, acne-mottled glory

In our nature: ‘Vesper Flights’

Helen Macdonald explores how the study of animals reveals unknown aspects of ourselves

Image of OneFour rapper J Emz

The trenches of Mount Druitt: OneFour

Australia’s most infamous hip-hop act is an all-Pasifika group born of Western Sydney’s violent postcode wars


More in Noted

‘The Time of Our Lives’ by Robert Dessaix

The memoirist’s latest, surprisingly unsettling instalment

‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante

The Neapolitan author returns to characters driven by compulsions and tensions of class

Cover of ‘What Are You Going Through’

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez

The late-life author of ‘The Friend’ delivers a chastening and discursive novel of mourning

Cover of ‘Little Eyes’

‘Little Eyes’ by Samanta Schweblin (trans. Megan McDowell)

Intimacy and privacy blur as people adopt cybernetic pets inhabited remotely by others, in this disturbing speculative fiction


Read on

Image showing Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar

Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Image from Rebecca, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the nuance and ambiguity of the novel

Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull with a screenshot of Turnbull’s confirmation of signing the petition

The Corp’s bride

Despite a widely supported petition, the government is too scared to take on the Murdoch empire

Image of Yanis Varoufakis’s ‘Another Now’

Now, then: Yanis Varoufakis’s ‘Another Now’

The economist and author’s alternative future asks clarifying questions about the present


×
×