The Secret History of Objects

I have long felt there is no such thing as an inanimate object. In our homes, for instance, we surround ourselves with things, and those things are there for a reason: some quality about them has caused us to choose them. A piece of driftwood, placed on a shelf, may have been collected during a memorable day by the shore, and so now that simple twist of wood is animated—the mere sight of it can bring back a significant moment in time.

On the other hand, the shape of a vase and its color might please us in ways that can’t quite be articulated, and yet we choose that vase over others in a store and then feature it on a table in the living room. An artist, of course, shaped this, and something of his or her aesthetic vision has echoed inside us. By choosing that vase we have entered into a relationship with it and, by extension, the artist who sculpted it.

In The Meaning of Things, authors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton speak of these relationships: “To understand what people are and what they might become, one must understand what goes on between people and things. What things are cherished, and why, should become part of our knowledge of human beings . . . Things also tell us who we are, not in words, but by embodying our intentions.”

From the beginning, my fiction has been entranced by and attracted to what things might tell us about ourselves. My 1979 short story, “Light Bulbs” (collected in The Art of the Knock: Stories), chronicled how an “empty nest” couple slowly developed relationships with the light bulbs in their home, as a substitute for their departed children:

“Father finds himself attracted to the sound of the bulbs as they go out—some with a kind of smoky burst, some with a faint, regretful pop. It’s as if they all had their own secret reasons for leaving. He also can’t avoid noticing the way the old bulbs fit into the palm of his hand like the warm head of an infant. Father keeps this to himself. He has begun to spend more of his time at night watching the lights and less with Mother at the bay window.”

You can read the entire story here (if you have a digital subscription to The New Yorker)

In 1997, while in preparation for a book tour for the paperback edition of my novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, I was interviewed by Richard Shea for the Princeton Packet’s Time Off magazine, and our conversation eventually wandered over to the subject of objects in my fiction:

Graham: “I’ve always believed that objects are part of our personalities. And in a lot of my stories objects are used as an element of characterization; what we most love, what we surround ourselves with are really projections of internal states.”

Shea: “Which is ironic, seeing that we live in a country where, often, too much value is placed on material things. But you seem to be talking about the other side of the coin.”

Graham: “I think that placing too much value on objects as mere objects is a dead end, yes. But if we take a look sometimes at the fact that those objects actually echo our inner states . . . “materialism” is almost a false issue. I’m in my study right now, and I’m looking around the room, and everything I’m looking at is human-generated. What that means is everything around me was initially thought of by somebody else, and then made into an object, which means, in some sense, that what we’re looking at is the physical representation of neuro-synaptic connections. We’re, like, in a mind; we’re inside a collective human mind of creation and invention. And that’s what we live in as human beings.”

In this interview I was ripping off, and rather inarticulately, one of my fictional characters: Josephine, the narrator of the title story of my collection Interior Design. Josephine is on a mission, as an interior designer, to expiate the sins of her father, a house developer who filled his model homes with ¾ sized furniture in order to fool his customers into thinking the rooms of the home they considered buying were much larger than they actually were. By contrast, Josephine works with her clients’ dreams, in order to design a more personalized home:

“It was those private designs that led me to the secret history of objects: they’re all the products of desire. The first chair didn’t just appear like some mushroom rising out of the floor. Instead, long ago, someone, somewhere, thought, “I’m tired,” and only then was a chair built, its wooden existence fitting the need. In the same way, the thought, “I’m cold,” conceived walls and a roof. We actually turn ourselves inside out, and find comfort in what we’ve imagined. If the guitar, the violin, the piano are extensions of us, created to give voice to our longings, then furniture is no less musical.”

In my novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, the narrator, Michael Kirby, falls in love in college with Kate, a young woman who is an aspiring artist. Yet Kate can only—will only—draw objects, never people. They seem alive to her, and Michael comes to realize that her drawings are a coded form of her hidden inner life. Frustrated by Kate’s emotional restraint, Michael manages to find a space where he can reach her, by asking her to draw his hand as if it—as if he—were an object.

I loved to sit beside Kate and watch her draw. Her fingers barely held the pencil—a light touch for such clarity—and her careful movements became a form of floating, a sign language somehow caught on paper. One evening, as Kate was about to begin another illustration, I placed my hand next to her notepad.

“Draw my hand?”

“Michael. You know . . . “

“It’s not a person,” I said, “it’s a hand. Quite an interesting piece of machinery, actually. C’mon, give it a try.”

Kate closed her eyes, sighed, and then looked down at my patient hand. Slowly, she began sketching the whorls of my knuckles, as if they were separate little whirlpools pulling her in. Next she drew those long-ridged bones that fanned from my wrist, and slowly the individual parts took hold of each other and grew fingers, took on the contours and shadows of flesh.

Finally she set down her pencil. My hand lay twinned before us. I gave her no time to choose between them: I turned mine over, palm up. “Draw it again?” I asked.

She did, first extending the particular curves and intersections of the lines of my palm, though no palm yet existed on the page. She continued that seemingly chaotic crosshatching until they led to my fingerprints, where she stopped. After a long pause, she drew the outline of my hand, then gave dimension to all the rounded slopes that circled the center of my palm. Again she hesitated, staring at those five fingers and their empty faces. Meticulously she gave expression to the delicate, echoing curves of my prints, adding slight shadows that hinted of sadness and anger, subdued joy, the possibility of laughter.

When she was done I stared at my hand and its image: indeed, both seemed filled with conflicting emotions.

“Now touch it?” I whispered. Kate hesitated, then laughed quietly with a hint of resignation. She slid one long-nailed finger along the lines of my palm, just lightly touching my skin: now we were pencil and page. But before she could finish tracing me, my fingers reached up and held her hand. Neither of us moved. I pulled her gently toward me. Her eyes narrowed with pleasure, then closed as we settled and twisted on the carpet, and I let her imagine a private sketch of what we did together.

*

With two nonfiction projects recently completed and published, I am returning to fiction, to two novels long in progress (though I’m also chipping away at a new nonfiction project–I tend to write several books at one time), and for me that also means a return to objects, and to the invisible threads that connect them to us, and us to them. They are the outposts of our imagination, physical clues to the shape of our interior lives, each one a hard fact echoing a fluid, fleeting feeling.

Other craft posts of interest: “The Threads That Tie Us to Objects,” and “Oh You Doll.”

The Art of the Knock, How to Read an Unwritten Language and Interior Design are now available in the Dzanc Books contemporary fiction e-book reprint series.

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