Imagine a happier Miss Havisham.
My Arts and Crafts bungalow got built in 1900; its North Carolina village remains a village. Some bachelors save cats. I collect… collections. This house has slowly become an orphan-asylum for things beautiful, inanimate, under-loved. I do have many shelves, six mantels. The cleaning lady comes twice a month; she, a nurse practitioner, dusts eighteen hundred things.
The crowdedness scares certain guests. Jehovah’s Witnesses, seeing behind me a life-sized 18th century Saint Ursula, drop leaflets, run. They take me for a Satanist. No, but I believe certain inert matter trails a spirit residue. (I grow more pagan as I age.)
I still own all my childhood toys. That’s not creepy, it’s sane! You begin with one of something. Find the second, you’ve got a pair. Only the third can launch your collection. I presently sit in an apple-green Gothic chair I bought—two payments, lawn-cutting money—at age eleven.
Some writers keep impersonal offices elsewhere. I work right where I live. Every surface seems my next novel’s table of contents. Being a visual glutton, I want to love everything I see. And this form of happiness is manageable. True, at times I wish I were more Zen, lean, new.
But History is both my subject and aesthetic. The foyer’s fifty Federal mirrors reflect each other, plus some underwriting William Morris paper. 1810s-looking glasses have gained liver-spots and lost concentration. But each flaw offers its own in-depth tale.
My tin toys’ wind-up antics offer daily object lessons. I only buy what was once loved. You can always tell.
Frank Hunter first fetched up at my house to help with the Halloween pageant. He asked if he could return to document my place. “Only if I need not dust first. Only when I’m out of town,” I gave Frank his own key. Months later, these images arrived. They leave me feeling shaken because portrayed. They feel like images of me sleeping.
Hunter’s pictures showing my litter as loot, they flash me forward to my posthumous life. To simply find certain objects he’d depicted, I had to use Hunter’s image as my GPS helper: “Where the hell is that?” His work gives me glimpses of a texture I guess I’ve been weaving all these years around myself. It is a blessed silk carapace, almost a guardian exo-skeleton.
I live amid art nouveau Memento Mori. Minstrel toys, intended as racially satirical, have become, through time and a slow justice, radical, humane.
Hunter’s work, in its depth and framing, tells me my soul is actually The Lost and Found Department. He reveals my obsession with History’s wicked subtractions offset by unexpected rebates. In his digitized circus-hues, I again unlatch the paint-box of my narrative values.
I pass one upstairs mantel. Now I stop before it, seeing it as he might. And here, among an Our Gang choir of twenty disparate objects—toys, clocks, faces, battered saints, great-aunts—I find another mirror: the fallen opulence of everyday.
Allan Gurganus is the author of White People, The Practical Heart (both Vintage), and other works of fiction. He is at work on a new novel, The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.
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