Haunting Puzzles: Leanne Shapton’s Guestbook

What are we to make of the line illustration on the cover Leanne Shapton’s Guestbook: Ghost Stories? You’re unlikely to guess the subject, as the image is an uneven blob somewhat resembling an unmarked and upended Texas, or perhaps an untalented child’s first attempt to trace their hand. In fact, the image is a drawing of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic, made by George Rheims, a survivor of the disaster. Paradoxical though it may be, sometimes an old cliché is the best way to describe something new. Icebergs are proverbially ninety percent underwater; ninety percent of what makes this new collection so remarkable is what occurs off the page, in the blank places between its sparse text and its abundant images.

I began this review with a cliché; it’s another cliché to call a book, especially a book by a woman, “intensely personal,” but Guestbook encourages its readers to infer personal significance. Take the collection’s first story, which pairs cryptic black-and-white photos—cropped snapshots, studio portraits—with descriptions of the past lives of their ghostly subjects and their present oblique apparitions in the life of an unnamed “her”: Peter, for one, “can be heard as the murmur of company in the living room,” while Tom “is seen in the reflection of the porch door.” The story is called “S as in Sam, H, A, P as in Peter, T as in Tom, O, N as in Nancy.” S-H-A-P-T-O-N. Are we supposed to assume some biographical significance to this story? Or is this merely the author signing her name? Shapton won a National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir of competitive swimming. Might we read “Billy Byron,” about the rise, fall, and final disappearance of a haunted tennis player, as a veiled memoir, with Shapton’s gender swapped and red clay tennis courts substituted for swimming pools? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I care: These stories are irreducible and insoluble, and that’s their glory.

Art critics love the tension between sign and symbol, between image and artist—think of Magritte’s non-pipe—but photographs and drawings in fiction, like their close cousins, maps, usually serve to provide spurious documentation and counterfeit authenticity: W.G. Sebald’s falsely annotated photographs, Mark Z. Danielweski’s video stills taken inside the House of Leaves, the vintage California snaps of Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse The Long Take, or the war pictures that the protagonist of William Boyd’s Sweet Caress didn’t take. Photographic “proof” augments literary truth at the expense of fact. Shapton’s novel-as-auction-catalogue, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, does something similar; she uses a divorcing couple’s estate to relate their story. Some of Guestbook’s stories approximate this method: that tennis story, for example, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, in that order.

In other stories in Guestbook, Shapton works in a different mode; she revels in The Treachery of Images. The pictures she selects are almost anti-illustrations: they upend the text, contradict the captions, and unsettle the reader. Or, if you want to look at it from the other side—something Shapton surely encourages—the slippery words undermine the static images, and vice versa. “At the Foot of the Bed” contrasts found photos of bedrooms in every state, from meticulous order to rumpled chaos, and in every style, from suffocating four-poster Victorian to stainless hotel anonymous, with eighteen terse accounts of apparitions. Several of the photos come from catalogs or advertisements; ad copy (“Siena in Natural Oak,” “For Some Sleep Is”) adheres to the bottom of a few images. Shapton wants us to know that these pictures may not always represent real rooms; this denial of reality makes the story more unsettling than it would be had Shapton attempted verisimilitude.

In other stories, the connection between text and image deteriorates further, the idea of “haunting” grows ever more abstract and tenuous: “The Iceberg as Viewed by Eyewitnesses” marries images of the Titanic’s iceberg to memos and incident reports relating to a contemporary restaurant/bar. Some stories, no longer than a page, lack images; others have no text beyond their title. Most stories are in black-and-white, but several stories are printed in color. (My advance copy was B&W throughout, but I knew the final book would have some color inserts. That the stories I predicted would be in color were not is yet another testament to this book’s wonderful inscrutability.)

Guestbook may bear the subtitle “Ghost Stories,” but the ghosts are often metaphorical and the stories implied. These stories unsettle, but they’ll make no one jump in fright; Shapton elicits shivers of unease, not shudders of disgust. I was reminded of Jason Schwartz’s abstruse commentaries on obscure events, of Robert Aickman’s sardonic perplexities, of David Lynch’s uneasy Americana, of conceptual artists’ wry game-playing, and of unnamed feelings I have in dreams. Like most dreams, Guestbook eludes description. Unlike most dreams, it doesn’t vanish on waking: Some guests are hard to evict.

For her epigraph, Shapton chooses some lines from her late friend, the writer Adam Gilders: “A geist / A gust / A ghost / Aghast / I guess / A guest.” In eleven words and six lines, it captures the slipperiness and ambiguity that characterize this fine collection. A story midway through the book, “A Geist,” comprises dozens of photos of one Edward Mintz, life of the party with blue velvet blazer, crisp white shirt, and slicked-back hair, at dozens of society parties, gallery viewings, film premieres, charitable fêtes, dance parties, and book launches. That all these celebrations took place on the same day, but in different cities and on different continents, doesn’t seem to have bothered Mr. Mintz, spirit—geist—of well-to-do cultured society. His is a particular niche, moneyed and sophisticated, but the photos show he’s always a welcome guest where he deigns to appear. Perhaps he’s a little like Guestbook itself: Not for everyone, but essential for some.

Guestbook: Ghost Stories is available from Riverhead Books.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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