Important Artifacts..., By Leanne Shapton

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The Independent Culture

The full title would take up half a column, for this innovative and intriguing novel in captioned photographs marches under the wordy banner of Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. It takes the form of a mock-auction catalogue from a Manhattan sales house, and purports to offer a miscellany of lots with explanatory notes – flower petals to claret bottles, knickers to sunglasses, books to menus, postcards to photos. All in some way mark the beginning, flourishing and fall of a New York romance from 2002 to 2006. It's a cute idea – Annie Hall (a sporadic allusion) meets confessional conceptual art – and Leanne Shapton brings it off in style.

Like the heroine, Shapton works on the New York Times. Her Leonore is a cookery writer with a flair for baking, who picks up a column - "Cakewalk" – of her own. "I just couldn't believe you said you were fucking sick of cake," sulks Lot 1216: a scribbled note on a recipe card. For her often-absent lover is an upscale commercial photographer with swanky corporate clients, endless overseas assignments and cutting-edge personal taste in images, books and sounds. We see the playlists of the CDs he burns for her, which at Christmas means Aimee Mann and the Cocteau Twins as well as Peggy Lee. His profession adds verisimiltude by punctuating the catalogue with informal snaps of the pair together.

Across many genres, effective modern art often works by ellipsis. Here the reader fills in the gaps that the objects never quite explain - from the early bliss of a surprise affinity between a globe-trotting avant-garde snapper and a kooky postmodern homebody, to mid-affair spats and separations, down to the ominous signs – the number of a couples therapist, "12 late/ preg. poss" scawled on a Smythson's diary page, an $800 phone bill from Bangalore – that hint at the onset of drama and doom. "Show, don't tell," advised Henry James (whom the lovers read). Shapton's photo-story format takes pure showing about as far as it can go.

Clued-up critics might reel off a list of artistic kin for this love-story via object and image. They might cite the literary games of the Oulipo group (one, Raymond Queneau, appears here); the self-dramatisations of Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin or Cindy Sherman (the latter two feature); enigmatic photos in novels, as deployed by WG Sebald; and, of course, the boom in graphic fiction.

But poets and novelists knew how to load trivia and kitsch with the residue of passion long before the vogue for everyday semiotics. From the pressed flower to the gift CD soaked in an old flame's emotional DNA, the letters of love still haunt us as its spirit departs. Shapton has found a smartly contemporary way to reinvent the oldest, and the saddest, story ever told.

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