Guestbook: Ghost Stories
(Riverhead Books, 2019)
Guestbooks intentionally collect the remnants of people who’ve since moved on, a fitting theme for writer Leanne Shapton, whose visual-verbal books have long engaged with the stories objects tell. One of her earliest books, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (2009), is written in the style of an auction catalogue and tells the story of a dissolving romantic relationship through an archive of their shared and gifted possessions. Alone these items are commonplace: Lot 1046: “One Ringo Starr thimble and one John Lennon thimble” and Lot 1143: “McGill University Athletics T-shirt, size XL.” But the small print added to each entry reveals their personal pasts: below the thimbles, “Ringo was Doolan’s favorite Beatle; John was Morris’s” and below the shirt, photographs of each ex-partner wearing it and a note that reads,“the couple referred to the T-shirt as ‘the sex T-shirt,’ as wearing it indicated a readiness for sex.” Shapton captures the ways in which objects hold the histories of our lives, and are left with the indices of past owners. Published 10 years later, Guestbook picks up where Important Artifacts leaves off, with a collection of ghost stories told through her characteristically nuanced visual-verbal play and strong design sensibility.
The opening story, “S AS IN SAM, H, A, P AS IN PETER, T AS IN TOM, O, N AS IN NANCY,” consists of grainy black-and-white photos of figures accompanied by a few lines of prose describing them. “Peter is tall for a Filipino,” begins one that ends with, “He can be heard as the murmur of company in the living room.” These captions allude to the fuzzy figures in the images as amicable, lingering ghosts. In the story of Billy Byron, Shapton combines photographs of tennis players with children’s drawings and illustrations to tell the deeply troubling story of the mental and physical crumbling of a fictional athlete, and Walter—a ghost of sorts—who aided his game play, at great cost. “Billy developed a relationship with an imaginary friend he named Walter,” explains Shapton. “He would draw Walter and insisted on having two tennis rackets with him at all times.”
Trained as an art director, each of Shapton’s books are carefully constructed objects. Whereas Important Artifacts is a thin floppy paperback in the vein of auction catalogues, Guestbook is a solid hardcover filled with cheap pulpy paper that enhances the grainy, illegible quality of the photographs within, making the images themselves ghostly and hard to decipher. Sometimes we aren’t quite sure what we are looking at, a shadow or merely poorly developed film? The text alongside the images plays with this uncertainty, sometimes written like narrative captions, other times preceding the images to color our reading, or following them to show us something we otherwise might not see. “AT THE FOOT OF THE BED” is a series of black-and-white stock photos of bedrooms shot from the foot of the bed. Following the pictures is a numbered list of brief ghost stories: “She was given a room to stay in. She woke up, and there was a man in a green cardigan at the foot of the bed. He looked surprised to see her. Then he disappeared.”
These stories fall into the category of more traditional ghost stories, where a poltergeist haunts a place it once lived—or died—in. But what rings most true and fits within the context of Shapton’s larger work (Important Artifacts particularly) are the ghosts not of people but of things. Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts, but after my father died, we were left to sort through his belongings. Stacks of his notepads full of semi-legible writings, boxes of saved movie ticket stubs and clipped newspaper articles, and photographs—piles and books of photographs. This is where I found ghosts—not an apparition of my father, but a haunting manifested from remembrances both my own and solely his, now in my care to preserve or leave behind. Shapton’s stories create wells of meaning from the shadows cast by items left behind; these hauntings, full of memories and longings, are visceral.
“SIRENA DE GALI” reads like a prologue to Important Artifacts. It opens with a series of women’s clothes up for auction, their descriptions listing factual details (“Vintage woman’s suit in black”) followed by descriptions of the article’s personal history (“Looking at it, she thought of the morning interview, the smell of coffee as she passed the vendors on the street”). These memories are ghosts too—attached to items and passed down with them. At the end of the story, through a vintage seller, a great-granddaughter acquires the dress of her great-grandmother. Vintage shopping is trendy and thrifty, but there is also something conspiratorial about owning items with so much unknown history to them: who knows where they have been worn, what events they have witnessed, how they wound up in the thrift store in the first place.
Shapton’s ghost stories are certainly haunted by death, but like Important Artifacts, they are also stories of people lost from our lives in other ways. Under one dress in “SIRENA DE GALI,” Shapton writes of a woman learning of her partner’s affair; under another, the story of a man and woman’s first interactions which, “Two decades later, in hospital, she tells her daughter about.” People fade from our lives in different ways, and when we come across their memories lingering in old places and clinging to old things, we mourn their absence. Guestbook is a melancholy ode to people lost and a celebration of what they leave behind.