Monday, 25 February 2013

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects - Review

I stumbled across this little book by accident and was drawn initially by its title and then of how it was a memoir set in 1990s Paris - a city I was fixated with during my own late teens. And it seems the author Stephanie Lacava shared some of my own fixations with characters such as the Marchesa Casati and the clothes of Paul Poiret (the subject of my university thesis), which combined with ruminations on the music of Nirvana and cabinets of curiosities made me instantly like her.

It's a gentle little book whose atmosphere I found comforting, which is interesting in itself seeing that it chronicles a teenage breakdown. But to dwell on that seems to miss the essence of this book somehow. For me it was essentially hopeful - that yes we can sometimes lose it a bit, but rather than a grand solution it is often in the everyday that we find the things that help us - in the case of Stephanie Lacava, the objects she collected.

Starting with a collecting impulse that started as a child, she says "Collecting information and talismans is a way of exercising magical control," and whilst indeed control and order can be helpful when going through something, for me the key word here is "magical". Control is a word that sounds clinical and cold, whereas the power of objects is the opposite of this - they can transform the clinical into the magical - they can help us escape the ordinariness of our lives for dreams of a more exciting one, echoed in this book by how she always felt an outsider but could picture herself hanging out with Lee Miller or Francoise Sagan. Objects can transport you to another place -whether it is a fantasy one or into the past where one feels how you are as a person would make more sense. I could really sympathise with that growing up as a bit of an outsider - as a child I was convinced I should have been born around 1890 in fictional Prince Edward Island (Anne of Green Gables) where flowing dresses and quirky but feisty poetic rural adventures were more in fashion than Bros and pixie boots, I collected accordingly, and this like with Lacava, changed into the same date but Paris, when I wanted a bit more eccentric decadent distraction than was on offer in Somerset.

I guess this isn't turning into a book review as much as a selection of thoughts based on what Lacava says, but for me that was one of the powers of this book - that it really got me thinking about deeper things when its own dealings with this were quite subtle - as a book it encourages one to think deeply and gently rather than shoving ideas in your face, and I loved that about it. It was quirky and feminine rather than shouting look at me I'm so clever I can think all this deep stuff and have illustrations just to prove that I am a boutique book. Yes there are illustrations (and let me qualify after the previous sentence that I am definitely not anti-illustrations - I love them!), but what is interesting here is that whilst they were beautiful little drawings that added to the atmosphere of the book and I would certainly have included them, it was more the footnotes describing the history of certain objects that acted as illustrations of the wider text for me. The drawings were a lovely incidental.

Often I get very annoyed with footnotes in non-academic texts - I find them affected and contrived and a distraction from the main narrative. But in this book Lacava uses them in a way that avoids all this. If we see them as illustrations as well as factual asides, they function as to bring her narrative to life. On its own her narrative is an interesting thoughtful read about finding your place as an awkward  teenager in a foreign country, but despite the personal subject matter I felt that it was in her choice of objects that we really got to know the teenage her. Why do we pick out the details and objects to fixate on that we do? I get so frustrated with people seeing caring about physical stuff as shallow, and it is something that museeme is seeking to address, when it tells us so much and represents so much, and has its own multilayered historical personal narrative. We are what we find interesting, and objects arguably curate people who are interested in them in a collection of narratives.

Going back to the beginning of the book she talks of how children latch on to the security of objects. In her case there is a lovely anecdote about how she bought an acre of rainforest through an environmental scheme (something I also did when I was 11!) and then dreamed of escaping there, in the meantime filling her room with collections of frogs and turning her room into this imagined space through her collections. I think this ties in with what I was saying in a previous post about how as a child collections can aid our imaginations by encouraging dreamworlds, and that rather than unhealthily aiding introspectiveness, they enable an escapism that can be a positive thing - that I would argue is essential to developing into a creative adult. She touches on the danger of being too obsessed with objects to the point where there loss is a catalyst to a downward spiral - I can sympathise with this having most of my stuff in storage and how sometimes I almost physically miss its comfort - but I still don't think this negates the positive. Yes she talks of how she was lonely but at the same time surely it would have been lonelier without the worlds of objects and dream worlds to escape to? Rather than a cautionary tale (not what I think Lacava intended anyway) I see this book as a gentle celebration of stuff - of memory and personal history and hidden stories. Of how we curate our lives and places and memory through objects. This is endlessly fascinating to me.

There is so much that one thinks when reading a book that is inevitably lost by the time one comes to write about it. A book can function like an object in itself - hold forgotten stories and personal thought interactions - take on a new life of its own as each reader brings their own life to its interpretation. Therefore a review of such a book is maybe a false task. Rather I left the reading of this book simply thinking that I would recommend others read it and if nothing else I had found, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, a kindred spirit.

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects by Stephanie Lacava can be bought here
You can check out her website at

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