A Catalog — Literally — Of Broken Dreams
For decades, fiction teachers have assailed their students with the admonition to "Show, don't tell." Now, that charge has reached its ultimate expression in the dazzling Important Artifacts, the second work by New York Times op-ed page art director Leanne Shapton.
Foregoing narrative entirely, Shapton tells the story of a couple's relationship in the form of a staggeringly precise ersatz auction catalog that annotates the common detritus of a love affair — notes, CD mixes, e-mails, photos, books-- and places the objects up for sale.
The couple in question, as we learn from their exhibited objects, comprises one Lenore Doolan, who writes the fictional Times recipe column "Cakewalk," and Harold Morris, a photographer whose work often takes him to exotic locales. Members of the common-variety, urban-dwelling, intellectual-cum-sensualist set, Lenore and Harold curate their own lives as lovingly as does Shapton's fictional auction house. They're more likely to gift one another vintage T-shirts and Cindy Sherman collections than Gap cards or iPod docks. But such stabs at individuality aren't affectations. Like their creator, the two believe strongly in the power of objects to transmit messages both explicit (a handmade Valentine) and coded (ex-girlfriend's sunglasses).
In choosing the conceit of an auction catalog, Shapton reminds us that the story of love can be told through the things we leave behind, but also by the condition in which we leave them. Although we glean many important details from the catalog's featured letters and e-mails — Harold drinks, Lenore hurls things at him during fights — the revelations imparted obliquely are what fascinate.
Book descriptions carefully note the song lyrics Harold has scribbled into each flyleaf, verses that reveal his state of mind more aptly to us than he can to Lenore. The first line of Lenore's columns, clippings of which are on offer, is often an uncanny comment on how things are going with Harold. One of her old shopping lists veers into an index of names we suddenly understand to be all of the men Lenore has ever slept with — in order. And, most poignantly, a majority of the photos for sale bear notations that indicate pinpricks or tape residue, suggestions that they were tacked above a desk or bed in better days.
It's a detailed spectacle of a relationship's demise, one in which a photo of a broken favorite mug with a note attached promising to fix it is easily worth more than a thousand words.
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