Tim Walker: 'Leanne Shapton's first novel is a work of meticulous high quirk'
The Couch Surfer: It took me days to recover from reading The Road. Why would I put myself through it all over again?
Monday 11 January 2010
With the help of a Christmas book token, I last week laid my hands on a copy of Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, the first novel by 36-year-old New Yorker Leanne Shapton.
The concept fascinated me, just as it has the thousands of other readers who have made it a word-of-mouth publishing sensation. Presented as the catalogue for a fictional Valentine's Day auction of their effects, Important Artifacts tells the story of Morris and Doolan's doomed relationship via their possessions.
Shapton has created a work of meticulously detailed high quirk in the Wes Anderson/McSweeney's mould. It's an idea of envy-inducing brilliance, and I wouldn't dispute Shapton's skill in its execution. Unfortunately, the pleasure of reading it was sucked dry by the insufferable couple at its heart.
Doolan writes a newspaper column about cake, and becomes incandescent when Morris tires of her endless panpepatos and parkin. He gives her a copy of Couples by John Updike, which he has soiled by writing a Radiohead lyric in the margin of page 79. They buy each other matching tweed suits. They give their friends jars of home-made jam as Christmas gifts, labelled with the words, "Tidings of comfort and jam." You may not share my irritation. This sort of thing is no doubt supposed to be charming, and might be acceptable if you live in a certain New York borough, but it reads to me like the behaviour of a pair of particularly cringe-making 17-year-olds.
Must you like the characters in a novel in order to engage with it? It probably demonstrates a readerly immaturity to require protagonists with whom one can sympathise. Novels aren't necessarily places to make yourself comfortable; sometimes they should keep you ill at ease. The plays and movies of Neil LaBute, say, are populated almost entirely by grotesques. Martin Amis's novels frequently feature casts of uniformly unsavoury characters.
Yet Amis and LaBute are concerned with the darker corners of humanity, whereas Shapton's book is meant to be a brainy, Annie Hall-ish rom-com (Doolan and Morris actually dress up as Woody Allen and Annie Hall at one of their friends' unbearably hip fancy- dress parties). If romance is your genre, then it's surely essential for your readers to feel an affinity for the lovers? Sad to say, I couldn't summon sufficient affection for a couple who take black-and-white pictures of themselves posing as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
On the other hand, perhaps it's a failure of the fabulous concept rather than the characters. Perhaps judging any relationship or the individuals within it by their stuff inevitably makes it seem saccharine, affected and contrived. Perhaps the Doolan and Morris of her imagination really are a delightful pair, and Shapton has unintentionally done them a disservice.
Were I forced to sit down and watch one of the two end-of-the-world movies available to me in cinemas right now, I'd pick 2012 over The Road. Cormac McCarthy's novel about a father and son traipsing in vain through a post-Armageddon America left me almost as desolate as the landscape it describes. It took me a good couple of days to recover from the trauma, and the experience lives with me still. I've already seen 2012 once. I went with the slim expectation that it might replicate the smart fun of director Roland Emmerich's last apocalyptic feature, The Day After Tomorrow. I was wrong; 2012 was two hours and far too many more minutes of deep-fried balls.
Bearing in mind, however, that screen adaptations frequently fail to live up to their literary foundations, and that at least one venerable publication considered McCarthy's novel the greatest book of the (last) decade, one can safely assume – despite the acclaim of various film critics – that John Hillcoat's film of The Road is the lesser of the two versions, before even taking one's seat in the theatre.
Brian De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities, to take one example, was a famously misfiring adaptation of Tom Wolfe's classic satire – but at least after watching that you could get out of bed the next morning. Chances are that Hillcoat's movie, by contrast, will leave its audiences just as bereft of hope, optimism and the will to live as McCarthy's book did. And if it's not going to be as stupendous as the source material, why would I put myself through it all over again?
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