GUESTBOOK by Leanne Shapton


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This multimedia collection of ghost stories uses found photographs, architectural plans, social media comments, and illustrations to create artifacts of grief and loss.

In her essay about the persistence of ghost stories in American literature, critic Parul Sehgal suggests the form survives because it allows writers to offer "social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs." Yet, in her latest collection, Shapton (Swimming Studies, 2012, etc.) uses ephemera not to catalog our social ills but to collect evidence of well-heeled lives at risk of being forgotten or brushed aside. The effect is diffuse and eerie, more often mood than assertion or plot. In one story, a professional tennis player listens to the advice of his invisible friend, Walter, in order to win matches. Eventually he's driven mad by the ghost's demands. In another piece, Shapton catalogs social media comments for an unseen photograph. The comments are stripped of most punctuation and almost all context; the chorus of approval dances around a body the reader will never see. Occasionally a first-person narrator encounters others at cocktail parties, where she learns of still more ghosts haunting her acquaintances. Shapton's vignettes are at their strongest when she imagines the hidden lives of inanimate objects, as in "Sirena de Gali," which pairs vintage clothing descriptions with brief scenes from the lives of their former owners. There's often a playfulness to her texts, too, as when she juxtaposes historical photographs of the iceberg that downed the Titanic with scribbled notes from a restaurant manager trying to appease her rich but ill-mannered clientele. When Shapton doesn't gravitate toward gothic photos of dark houses and empty beds, she is invested in trying to capture the feeling of bodies that have just left a room, whether living or dead, real or imagined. "Living without what the photo does not give back," reads one cryptic caption. "What you don't see. What you don't get to see." We may not always get to see the lives of others, Shapton seems to say, but still they were here.

A strange and haunting art project.

Pub Date: March 26th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-399-15818-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2019


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