Leanne Shapton’s Hyper-Modern Ghost Stories

July 9, 2019   •   By Sharon Steel


Leanne Shapton

OUR CURRENT CULTURAL MILIEU makes it possible to live inside the past — thanks to the reams of data that can be accessed instantly — and to travel as though the future has already arrived, given the speed of communication. Clear borders of life and afterlife, of here and gone, of memory and existence, have become blurred. We are bodies and avatars, caught between two dimensions or in many places simultaneously.

These concerns are exhibited, like a cerebral curiosity cabinet, in Guestbook, which came out in March from Riverhead. In it, writer and artist Leanne Shapton meditates on conflicting definitions of the word “ghost,” both the noun and the verb, and what truly haunts people in our distracted digital age.

The book is composed of 33 mesmerizing vignettes combining found photographs, original paintings, and text. While Guestbook’s subtitle is “Ghost Stories,” the exquisite minimalism that defines Shapton’s style hews much closer to verse than prose. Shapton’s thoughtful layout of text and her use of images sets a deliberate, poetic pace. She invites her readers to slow down, to linger, to let the language percolate. In “I Will Draw a Diagram of Her Movements,” Shapton writes, underneath a stark gray floor plan: “I’m hiding. Very much hiding. She is shameless.” And on the next page: “The creepy creeping. The okayness creeps. I hear from friends.” In another vignette, “Quesadilla,” these lines float alone on a page, opposite an enigmatic photograph of a hunched human sculpture:

Back in New York, at the baggage claim, he stood ten feet in front of her, arms crossed, waiting for their luggage. He could have been by himself. She had a feeling of being deeply ignored. She felt more alone than she had in years. A sadness came over her then, a dawning.

The words appear as prose, without line breaks, but the combination of imagery and the cadence of the passage teases the eye into stopping and starting again. While many of Guestbook’s vignettes take the form of paragraphs, we may also read them as stanzas.

Shapton’s characters are haunted by their possessions, their ex-lovers, their dead family members, and even their former selves. At times, these hauntings occur in reverse, where ghosts are troubled by the mortals infiltrating their territory. It is intentionally unclear who has signed the titular guestbook. As with a traditional ghost story, what’s left out and unseen is purposeful, powerful, and just as important as what’s actually there. And just as ghost stories are passed down and retold, Guestbook encourages us to further develop the narrative ourselves.

One of Guestbook’s chapters, “Public Figure,” consists of lines that look like Instagram comments divorced from their photos (“This is goals,” for example). When combined, these individual pseudo-comments become free verse, a stream-of-consciousness poem. Meanwhile, “Natura Morta” offers the opposite: vintage portraits arranged like modern selfies. Faux numbers of “likes” hover above the pictures. For Shapton, life on and offline has become a kind of unsustainable purgatory. Not so long ago, following an influencer was an innocent form of passive entertainment. Now, it’s easy to feel trapped in a place where someone else’s fantasy diminishes the value of our own reality.

Much like Shapton’s nine previous books, Guestbook explores the ways in which inanimate objects contain multitudes, and how they both haunt their owners and are intrinsically haunted. “Sirena de Gali” records the auction of pieces owned by several worldly women, weaving images of their clothing with commentary about where they wore each piece, and what they hoped would happen to them in each one. “Looking at it, she thought of the morning interview, the smell of coffee as she passed the vendors on the street, a revolving door to the lobby, the elevator to the sixteenth floor,” reads a lyrical ad for a 1950s Italian wool suit. “The receptionist, rude. She would wear red lipstick and tights and brown wedge sandals. These details would be noted. The dress would be immaculately cut; she’d stand straight, taller in the heels. They’d take her seriously. They wouldn’t notice her stutter or know what to think of her.

“I see objects and things as reliquaries that can hold stories. Like little transmitters,” Shapton told The Rumpus in an interview in April. “Who hasn’t thrown something away because it is haunted or reminds us too acutely? And who hasn’t kept something by the same logic?” Shapton has long been interested in the secrets captured inside a wardrobe — in 2014, she collaborated with writers Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits on Women in Clothes (Particular Books), a book about how women get dressed, and the clothes that have marked significant junctures in their lives.

Guestbook segues seamlessly from the inanimate to the animate, providing a platform for imaginary friends, aimless spirits, and animals. In “Billy Byron,” we learn about a famous tennis prodigy who credits all of his wins to the mysterious Walter, an imaginary friend who eventually causes more harm than good. Another particularly gripping entry, “Alcatraz,” recounts a woman’s visit to the prison, where a spirit attaches itself to her and follows her around as she tours the Bay Area:

They had reservations for dinner in Berkeley that night, and she said that as the car had crossed the bridge she’d looked at the dark rock of Alcatraz in the middle of the water, and violent thoughts, bloody, ferocious thoughts, had filled her mind. She shook her head.

That night she woke, unable to move. The space in the bed beside her was empty, and there was a man sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room. Both of his hands were placed along the rests, and his legs were stretched out on the ottoman. He was still.

Elsewhere, “Who Is This Who Is Coming” is made up of a set of eerie photographs with a disembodied shroud floating across each page.

But not all of Guestbook’s ghosts are dead. Some are the ghosts of the living. The loss detailed in “Eidolon” recalls the grief of heartbreak that can feel as painful as a death. “At the dinner the man ran into a woman by whom he once was loved but whom he didn’t love. He wanted to love her, but now he loves the woman with whom he ran through the rain,” Shapton writes. The text appears below painted stills based on screen grabs from Death in Venice. “Now he waits for her and her daughter. Now the other woman has a son. It is getting dark, and a woman waits on the post office steps for a car to arrive to take her and her daughter home.”

Must a haunting be a supernatural event, a story whispered in the dark, a movie that makes you gasp, a book that grips you in delicious agony? Or is it much more mundane and ever-present than that? Is it something that is happening right now, to all of us? We’re told that ghosts are spirits visiting from another realm. It is possible that we are highly functioning ghosts, spiritual tourists of our own lives?

Shapton’s work has an interactive, intimate quality, and her books make you want to glance over your shoulder to see what, or who, might be coming too close. The structure of Guestbook mirrors how ghost stories are often told: secondhand, or by someone with a story who is reluctant to share it. “These pieces were my nod to that set-up, a story served from a slight remove,” Shapton said in The Rumpus. “We think we can trust what we are shown, but it’s only half the story. It’s devastating to be misled, but it happens so easily.” When truth is warped by memory, an implicit trust in memories leads us even further astray. Shapton convinces us of what happened to her characters, while simultaneously causing us to question our willingness to believe. In Guestbook, it is important that we consider the perspective of the invisible.

The ghostly absence of an ex-girlfriend is the focus of Shapton’s Was She Pretty? (Particular Books). Released in 2006, it features austere black-and-white line drawings and snippets of text that describe obsession and jealousy through the prism of failed relationships. The concept was inspired by Shapton’s time with a boyfriend who still had pictures of his ex all over his apartment. Opposite a drawing of a crowded kitchen counter: “June’s ex-boyfriend Wade kept his love letters in a kitchen drawer. June was always tempted, but never opened the drawer. She would stare at it while she cooked.”

Three years later, Shapton published Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009). The book is a fascinating account of a fictional couple’s relationship, from courtship to collapse, structured as an auction catalog. Formal photographs of banal objects like oven mitts, salt and pepper shakers, and newspaper clippings take on a tragic significance when paired with captions detailing the circumstances under which each thing was acquired, given, or received.

Through the immersive, wholly original reading experience of Guestbook, Shapton has bested herself yet again, masterfully elevating the ghost story form to new heights. Here, poetry is arranged as prose, and poems challenge our perception. They require looking as much as they do reading, and morph back and forth into titles, headlines, annotations, captions, or fragments pulled from a diary. The book is also a vehicle by which Shapton destabilizes timeless symbols of death and ghosts, creating an exhilarating visual and poetic performance, a commentary on the many ingenious techniques people invent to pose, peacock, quit, deactivate, and delude.

There is one thing almost everyone can agree on when they talk about ghosts: they frighten and fascinate because they are eternally restless, unable to find peace. In Shapton’s world, the one we live in now, we have as much in common with ghosts as we do with each other.


Sharon Steel is a writer living and working in New York City. She has written about books and culture for The New Yorker, the Boston GlobeNew York, The Millions, and other places. Her website is sharoncsteel.com.