My mother used to tell a story she heard in the Peace Corps in the 1970s. An American couple somewhere in the South Pacific decided to swim across a narrow but deep channel where tiger sharks had been spotted. The man, about twenty yards ahead, was almost at the other side when he heard a cry and looked back to see his wife disappearing under the water. All they ever found of her were her flippers.
‘Scenes of marital love seem to set up shark attacks particularly well,’ Leanne Shapton writes in Swimming Studies, her memoir from 2012. Earlier in the book, she relates a similar scene from her own life. On New Year’s Eve 2009, newly engaged, she and her partner, James, were with a group of friends in a yacht anchored off St Barts. The afternoon sun hung ‘low, hot, egg-yolk yellow’ in the sky and they decided to swim to the shore. For Shapton, a former competitive swimmer who had taken part in Canada’s Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992, the distance posed no challenge. But the ocean makes her nervous. Her instinct was to get in and out as quickly as possible. But James, the group’s weakest swimmer, struggled to keep up. The swim to the beach took almost three-quarters of an hour, and by the time they headed back to the boat, the sun was setting. As her fiancé fell further behind, Shapton swam ahead then circled back, set off again and returned, thinking guiltily of the engagement ring she had prudently removed before entering the water. In the end, they made it back safely. Shapton never had to find out whether she would have left her future husband alone in the water and saved herself. But the possibility, once raised, was hard to dismiss.
Shapton joined the aquatic club in her Toronto suburb aged 12. During her ‘brief, intense years as an athlete’, she trained ‘five or six hours a day, six days a week, eating and sleeping as much as possible in-between’, waking at 4.30 a.m. to get to practice and putting in more hours after school. Her clothes – fake leather penny loafers and acrylic cable-knit sweaters from Dixie Value Mall – and her mother’s faint Filipino accent marked her out as different from her wealthier classmates. Swimming offered a form of belonging. What drew her to the pool wasn’t fame – she knew early on she would never be a star – but the quieter pleasure of competence, the ‘unwavering details of technical precision’, the team sweatshirts that made her ‘look like something recognisable’, the sugar-glazed doughnuts her coach handed out on Saturdays.
The clean lines and primary colours of an Olympic-size swimming pool held a similar appeal. ‘An outdoor fifty-metre expanse of water shimmers with the same kind of American dream that football fields and baseball diamonds do.’ There is pleasure in the training drills, the knowledge that there is ‘perfection to trace and retrace’ in every stroke. Shapton’s goal was to swim the 100 metre breaststroke in one minute and 11 seconds. At night she lay in bed, stopwatch in hand, ‘doing her race’, visualising each stroke, each kick, each breath, imagining ‘the push, the ripping sound of entry, the silence, the gauging of depth and the repetitive, urging noises when my head broke the surface of the water’.
When her times stopped getting better, her swimming career was over, and Shapton transferred her talents to another medium. She apprenticed herself to the illustrator James McMullan. Drawing – the swift, confident lines, the mechanical precision – reminded her of swimming laps and she filled sketchbook after sketchbook with ‘repetitive studies, happy only when the last page is finished’. The same obsessive focus was brought to bear on her everyday life, which Swimming Studies recounts in great detail. She can turn almost anything into a fetish: the flavour of a piece of cake, the ‘unnaturally sweet’ fragrance of a particular brand of detergent, the precise mauve shade of a pair of trousers she ‘saw but did not buy’ in a market in Berlin. One chapter is devoted to her enviable collection of swimming costumes – training Speedos, china-patterned vintage smocks, elegant black one-pieces – which are photographed like trophies.
Midway through the book a note of unease creeps in. In her first Olympic-sized training pool, a darkened window beneath the surface ran along one wall. The sense of dread she felt with each lap (‘like swimming past the mouth of a cave’) was a problem to which her training offered no solution. Shapton took it as a compliment when a coach told her she had a ‘feel for the water’, but it uncomfortably heightened her sense of closeness to the other bodies there. As an adult, she developed an elaborate system of defences against potential contamination. In the ocean, she avoids swimming near foreign bodies, scans for shapes at the periphery of her vision, or shadows under the surface.
Her husband, who seems to float through life, is immune to such fears. Shapton is fascinated by an 18th-century painting of a cabin boy being eaten by a shark: the boy in the water, ‘naked, throat exposed, back arched’, next to ‘the cold gaping mouth of the shark, teeth glinting’. She identifies with both – the victim’s ecstatic terror, the hunger of the creature. She worries that she is the shark in her marriage, pulling her husband under into her ‘mean, cold dark’.
Swimming Studies is the only book of Shapton’s with anything approaching a conventional narrative structure. Her other works are made up mostly of images assembled according to ingenious formal conceits. Was She Pretty? (2007) is a kind of illustrated bestiary of the exotic or intimidating ex-girlfriends of men in Shapton’s social circle. Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion and Jewellery (2009) tells the story of a stylish New York couple through an auction catalogue of their possessions (his vintage martini shaker, her silver cake slicer). The Native Trees of Canada (2010) reproduces images from a 1917 field guide. Sunday Night Movies (2013), created for the New York Times, is a series of watercolours re-creating single frames from classic films.
Guestbook is divided into 33 numbered chapters combining fragments of text and found images. Nominally a collection of ghost stories, it’s a messier affair than Shapton’s other books: ‘ghosts’ can cover almost anything. The stories are vivid and impressionistic, and seem to have been built around whatever caught Shapton’s eye: old Christmas wrapping paper; hand-tinted photographs of roses and sunsets; watercolour reproductions of the final sequence from Visconti’s Death in Venice; black and white snapshots of blurred figures and leafless trees; a sculpture, in soft white stone, of a woman turned away, as if protecting a secret.
The photographs, some taken from Shapton’s family albums, others found on Etsy or eBay, are mostly snapshots. Their subjects are often surprised by the camera, caught at odd angles or in awkward poses. Eyes closed, faces in shadow or turned away, they seem to look past the viewer at something outside the frame. Shapton has said that the format of Guestbook was inspired by the illustrated volumes compiled by Victorian spirit investigators (she wanted to capture ‘the mix of proof, shock and totally crappy images’) and the photos are alluring because of what they don’t show – including the reason they were taken. The captions seem to insist that something important has happened, lending the fragments the logic of a dream: you are being told something urgent that you can’t quite make sense of. ‘At the Foot of the Bed’, a series of 21 numbered images, is followed by a list of paranormal encounters. ‘She was given a room to stay in. She woke up, and there was a man in a green cardigan at the foot of the bed. He looked surprised to see her. Then he disappeared.’ This set of photographs, many of them reproduced from old advertisements, show empty beds, outmoded furniture, crumpled sheets, daylight streaming through windows. There is no sign of what may have happened the night before.
The ghosts themselves do not at first seem very frightening. Many are identified only by faint physical traces: the scent of violets in the pantry; a pool of water by the window; a small round mark, like a cigarette burn, on the carpet. Others offer protection or bring gifts. In ‘Patricia Lake’, a friend describes a visitation from his long-dead mother, who appears one night in his Upper East Side apartment: ‘It had a platform bed and she was there suddenly, she was impressed and happy that he was living in New York City.’ In ‘Billy Byron’, a tennis prodigy is visited by a spirit he calls Walter, who gives him the ability to anticipate the direction of the ball ‘with unusual accuracy’. Several of the stories begin at swanky dinners or cocktail parties where accounts of ghost sightings are a fashionable diversion. ‘Video’ takes place at a ‘four-course dinner and fashion show’ in a museum garden. As the night wears on, the guests at the narrator’s table, all performers of different kinds, attempt to outdo each other with the best ghost stories. The winner is a film director who describes seeing a dark figure cross the hallway of her friend’s house; she passes her phone around the table to show a video she took as evidence.
Telling ghost stories – and collecting them – might be just another way to impress people at parties. But it’s risky to treat being haunted as a social game. In ‘Christmas Eve’, the narrator, making conversation at a party, asks another guest ‘if he believed in ghosts or had a ghost story to share’. He turns away and she berates herself for the faux pas:
It occurred to her that maybe the subject of ghosts was not cocktail party conversation, and that the stories that could be told over canapés were not the only ones. There were other stories that were harder, impossible, to tell. Later, on the walk home, her friend elaborated: a suicide, an infanticide. Ghosts. Not ghost stories.
The threat implied in this pronouncement is borne out in the collection’s most macabre story, ‘Sirena de Gali’. Shapton re-creates the look of an online dress shop, arranging photographs of old-fashioned women’s clothes beside eBay-style descriptions and prices. The store, Sirena de Gali, is ‘an amazing repository for all that is vintage’ in Venice. The clothes are sumptuous, formal and a bargain. Running underneath the images are scraps of italicised text – interviews? testimonials? – in the voices of women who could be previous wearers or interested customers. ‘She studied the sleeves. Her arms in this should be long, white, even, like stalks of cut tulips. Otherwise it would fit. She’d weave between the tables, past the low benches of the bar, the stained glass, the curtained door. She’d ask for a cigarette, a match. She’d cross her arms over her chest to smoke; she’d shiver.’ Scattered among these stories, like certificates of authenticity, are faded photographs of women posing in clothes that look similar to the ones for sale. One in particular draws the eye, a woman in a black swimming costume who looks a bit like Monica Vitti in L’Avventura. The caption next to the picture reads: ‘A photo taken in 1961 of Susanna Vecchio.’ And then: ‘Vecchio was buried in the Cimitero Carla Bottola in 1975. Her remains were exhumed and stored in the ossuary in 1999.’
This is enough to puncture the reader’s reverie. As desire turns to aversion, details that at first seemed inconsequential take on a menacing significance: one photograph shows a young Italian woman wearing a handmade black velvet dress she bought online – her grandmother swore her own mother was wearing that same dress when she was buried. There are photographs of a number of women who were buried in the Cimitero San Filippo and exhumed years later, all of them interred in the same ossuary. Clothes are listed as having ‘odour’ and ‘staining’, always on the back and shoulders. The handmade white crêpe dress has ‘two long tears at neck’. Where exactly did these dresses and skirts, in such good condition, at such reasonable prices, come from? Another image shows an ostentatiously dressed couple, the woman in a fur hat, her bleached teeth bared in a vulpine smile: the owners of Sirena de Gali, who started the business out of their home in 2001 and have since experienced ‘remarkable success’.
Barthes described photographs as a physical extension of their subjects, an ‘umbilical cord’ linking the body of the photographed person to the body of the viewer. Many of the images in Guestbook seem intended to emphasise the visceral horror of this connection. Shapton has saved the oldest photographs, the ones everyone knows are haunted, for the latter half of the book. Italian matrons and unsmiling Victorians stare at you from the page, their expressions flattened into unreadability. The photographs themselves are discoloured and stained, dotted with black specks, saturated with death.
The stories that follow ‘Sirena de Gali’ suggest a preoccupation with decay and its containment. ‘Equalussuaq’ is a natural history of the Greenland shark, a deep water carrion-eater whose muscle fibres continue to twitch even after death. Blurred underwater images of the shark are paired with an exacting menu for a week-long cruise in the Caribbean: fruit, salade niçoise, charcuterie, mineral water, vodka, gin, fresh orange and pineapple juices, two cases of Provençal rosé. The threatened mingling of things that are meant to be kept separate makes the menu’s strenuous simplicity seem like a defensive gesture. A similar sorting mechanism is employed in ‘Natura Morta’, a series of black and white snapshots given varying numbers of ‘likes’, as if to mimic an Instagram feed. Most of them show a woman who seems to be a model or a beauty queen dressed in clothes that suggest the 1950s and 1960s: she poses on a catwalk or sits for the camera, head cocked to one side. In general, outdoor settings receive more ‘likes’ than indoor ones; spontaneity, or the appearance of it, is rewarded. Visible cleavage or midriff isn’t popular. The photographs with the fewest ‘likes’ (at 99 and 104) are a close-up of a female pelvis and a picture of a woman who seems to be Shapton herself, stripped down to skirt and tights, photographing her reflection in the mirror of a darkened living room, one hand across her bare chest, the other holding the phone.
‘The Iceberg as Viewed by Eyewitnesses’ expands the list of contaminated objects to include undesirable people. The story takes the form of service notes from an exclusive hotel bar that has to deal with unwanted customers who pretend they have friends inside. ‘Carolyn Lethe and Taylor Tune showed up at 1 a.m. with five guests. Very drunk and a little difficult at the gate.’ The silly names give the story an air of whimsy, but there is something chilling about the calm certainty with which the gatekeepers justify their expulsion of the wrong sort of people. Running through the book is a question about hospitality: how do you treat uninvited guests? Several stories express a fear of mirrors, doubles, photographs – all the hungry ghosts that try to sneak in. In ‘Middle Distance’, a divorced man comes home to his ‘bright, warm’ apartment. The only sign of another presence is the single sheet of paper towel his cleaner has left on the glass coffee table. ‘I’m at my best at middle distance,’ he tells his therapist. Others seem written from the perspective of the ghosts themselves, cold, lonely, waiting in the dark for someone to notice them. In ‘New Jersey Transit’, a woman unexpectedly sees her ex-husband on the street outside her apartment. Watching him from behind a tree as he gets into a black car, she feels herself ‘fade out’, becoming a stranger in her own life.
The most frequently heard voices belong to an estranged couple, or series of couples: ‘She’ or ‘the woman’; ‘he’, ‘the man’, ‘her husband’, ‘her ex-husband’, ‘her boyfriend, who would become her husband, and then her ex-husband’. They seem to be having an argument about the balance of power in a marriage. Whose bed is it? Whose house? Who gets to eat the last quesadilla? Who is the host and who the guest? There had been a system for distributing these roles but it has broken down, or was never what they thought it was. ‘No matter what they did. No matter how many parties and stories. Something was off,’ Shapton writes in ‘The Couple’. The story is illustrated with pictures from Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Gift Book, a 1908 volume of photographs taken by Alexandra, wife of Edward VII, in all their mouldering pomp: steamships, flags, military parades, men in naval uniforms, a woman in a long black dress and hat standing on the shore looking out over the ocean. On the last page, there is a small tear in the mount – the trace of the outside that can’t be covered up.
The book’s final photographs are almost entirely devoid of light. Shot in enclosed spaces, they show nothing but a ceiling, a light bulb, the outlines of a door: ‘The cellar’, ‘the icehouse, where bodies were kept until the ground thawed’. In Swimming Studies, Shapton wrote that when she and her brother were children their father punished them by making them sit in their basement in the dark, leaving her unable to sleep without a light on. The dark in these photographs has a similarly punitive quality. At the very end, Shapton turns from photography to watercolours, simple, pretty paintings of chrysanthemums, carnations, anemones – flowers ambivalently associated with mourning and renewal. But her last words seem intended not as comfort, or threat, but as statement of fact: ‘It is there in the dark. It was there. It is still there.’