Books: When an Auction Catalog Is a Novel

Lenore Doolan met Harold Morris at a Halloween party in 2002. She was dressed as Lizzie Borden in a bloodstained lace blouse, he as Harry Houdini in an evening shirt and handcuffs. They were together for four years. Recently, the detritus of their relationship was sold to the highest bidder by the auction house of Strachan & Quinn. Lots included pictures from the night they met, Scrabble tiles Lenore sent Harold that spelled out THANK YOU, the salt-and-pepper shakers they stole from restaurants and the corks they saved from special bottles of wine. Sorry you missed the auction? Don't be. Strachan & Quinn doesn't really exist. Nor, for that matter, do Lenore and Harold. They are the creation of Leanne Shapton, the writer and artist who created "Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry." The book looks exactly like an auction catalog, with photographs and brief yet detailed descriptions of the 332 lots for sale. Think of it as a love story told by a curator, instead of a narrator.

For nearly as long as people have been writing novels, writers have been bumping up against the limitation of black text against a white page to tell the same basic tales: love, loss, death, etc. Laurence Sterne's 1759 proto-modernist novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," includes reproduced legal documents, sermons and one entirely black page, to convey the narrator's despair over the death of his friend (as well as the blankness of death itself). But critics rarely take kindly to these efforts. The New York Times pronounced Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 "Pale Fire," a mystery in the form of an annotated narrative poem, "a curiosity into which it is agreeable to dip rather than a book which can be read straight through with pleasure." "Whenever you have a high-concept thing, it can be seen as a gimmick," Shapton admits. Novels incorporating visual elements by writers such as David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Safran Foer (just to list a few), have received similar criticism: the devices—maps, photographs, charts, drawings, collages—are too clever for their own good. So the question is: do visual doodads convey something that plain old text can't, or when you open one of these books do you hear the percussive sound of the author tap-dancing like mad to disguise the fact he or she actually has nothing interesting to say?

Often these devices tend to fail not because they're too clever, but because they're not clever enough. Case in point: "Griffin & Sabine," Nick Bantock's epistolary novels told entirely through extravagantly illustrated postcards and letters tucked into envelopes contained in the book. The New Age–inflected romance series spent 100 weeks on the bestseller list and proved "gimmick" books can be financially viable, but feels more like an overwrought coffee-table book than an actual story. In order to truly work, the visual elements must offer a new way of "reading" the text that words alone can't. In that sense, the auction catalog is a sort of anti–"Griffin & Sabine": the lots are merely clues to the mystery of a failed romance. The couple's taste, which leans toward French film, vintage paperbacks, secondhand clothes and '50s-era accessories, makes them recognizable as certain highly educated, liberal, bohemian types, and the relentless just-so-ness of their acquisitions can seem insufferable. But this reaction raises questions about our own esthetic values: would their romance seem as tragic if they made each other Céline Dion CDs and decorated their apartment with posters of kittens? If the objects are cultural signifiers, we're the ones bringing that interpretation to them, and to their owners by association. "I wanted the photographs of the things to be as plain and cold as possible," says Shapton, who found inspiration in eBay auction photos, among other sources. Plot developments are suggested by items' proximity to one another: Lot 1306, for example, a white-noise machine with "irreparable damage to top and sides, as if struck by a hammer," comes after Lot 1305, a note from Lenore informing Hal she might be pregnant. It's followed by Lot 1307, an Hermès watch and note from Hal reading "I did not handle that at all well." In a traditional novel, the writer would either have to spell out this dreary sequence or resort to some sort of coy evasion. Shapton's solution is not only more engaging, it is more eloquent in its ambiguity. "Important Artifacts" is the rare high-concept book that rises above gimmickry and succeeds, not just as a novel, but as a work of art.