Guestbook makes for an interesting, quick read that stays with the reader far longer than it takes to read each and every story contained therein.
With Guestbook, Canadian artist and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton furthers her exploration of alternative narratives delivered through found photographs, catalog listings and original art. With each, she imagines a life lived in earnest, full of dreams, hopes, disappointments, love, loss and heartbreak. These, in essence, are the “ghost stories” of the subtitle: not so much ghost stories in the literal sense, but rather the more ephemeral nature of the stories we tell ourselves in order to attempt to make sense of that which we may not fully understand or know.
Opening story “S as in Sam, H, A, P as in Peter, T as in Tom, O, N as in Nancy” provides a series of imagined lives and the root of their having chosen to haunt a specific locale. In some instances, the stories are literal interpretations of the photographs in question, while others look well beyond the photograph in much the same manner we often create narratives for those around us in order to either entertain one another, simply kill time or process that which we cannot completely comprehend.
Those looking for actual ghost stories will find scant few, “Billy Byron” and “Patricia Lake” being two of the only stories here that come closest to the tradition notion of a ghost story. “Billy Byron” in particular, about a troubled tennis prodigy and his ghostly coach, could be expanded into a broader narrative and make for compelling reading. Though, to be fair, Shapton does a fine job crafting a full-fledged narrative arc using just photographs and a handful of captions.
Others, like “At the Foot of the Bed,” feature an implied ghost story, the horror existing solely in the mind of the reader as they view each individual photograph of an empty bed. There are few things more terrifying than the thought of waking in the night only to find someone or something lurking at the end of our bed, watching us as we sleep. Shapton uses these photographs initially without explanation, leaving the reader with an open-ended, choose-your-own-adventure-style ghost story. The story ends, however, with a sentence or two describing each photograph, lessening the terror inherent in the unknown and the unexplained. Similarly, “A Haunted House” is a complete misdirect, featuring only an imagined table of contents describing the illustrations used in the non-existent titular story. It’s simultaneously enthralling and frustrating as the reader is left filling in the gaps on their own, using the scant details afforded to create a functional narrative.
But this is Shapton’s gift and one she attempts to share several times throughout Guestbook. Providing us with mere images, sketches, photographs or descriptions of imagined illustrations, Shapton asks the reader to create their own stories with this found information, much in the same way she crafts stories like “Sirena de Gali.” Much like her Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, “Sirena de Gali” builds its narrative through the use of auction catalog items and an accompanying image.
It’s an interesting storytelling device, to be sure, however Shapton tends to favor the abstract to the point of abstruseness. Both “Lago” and “Who Is This Who Is Coming?” stretch Shapton’s creative approach to the point of gimmickry, the former simply a series of photographs of interior locations with a brief description and the latter a progression of images intended to imply the approach of some faceless phantom. Ultimately, Guestbook most resembles this latter story as it offers tantalizing glimpses of what could be rather what is plainly stated. In a world of oversharing, however, Shapton’s approach offers the reader a refreshing reprieve wherein they can craft their own narratives using the bits and pieces she strings together to create her own collection of short stories. Alternately frustrating and fascinating, Guestbook makes for an interesting, quick read that stays with the reader far longer than it takes to read each and every story contained therein.