I just finished reading a cool little book entitled An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris. It was a Christmas gift from my son, the one who got a Moleskine Journal from me.
An Extraordinary Theory of Objects is a series of vignettes by Stephanie LaCava about her move to France as a twelve-year-old in 1993, her years there growing up, and then her visits back again after attending college in the States.
On the cover of my copy of the book are romantically filtered and tinted photos of the Eiffel Tower, and on the pages inside, her writing style evokes the same kind of mood. If stories could be sepia-toned, this is how they might sound.
Actually, the filter through which LaCava encounters the world is her attachment to things. First, there are the small, curious relics—a skeleton key, a mushroom, an opal necklace found in the mud—that she gathers and places on her windowsill. Initially they replace her old collection, “everything that represented [her] past life and its predictable ways,” which is on a container ship making its way across the ocean from New York.
And then there are the objects she encounters from day to day, common things that she illuminates in copious footnotes often taking up more than half a page. Cataloging these objects gives her security and makes sense of her life in a new city . . . as she faces depression and what she calls her own “kind of crazy.”
Some might find her footnotes distracting, but they cover just the kind of obscure topics that intrigue me, such as a Japanese smuggler of black-market butterflies, a photo book dedicated to Salvador Dali’s mustache, and the origins of the tea bag. And they are replete with references to a variety of figures, from Pliny the Elder to Kurt Cobain, from Anne Boylen to Kate Moss.
Much of LaCava’s narrative is about time spent with her father, often searching flea markets for items to fulfill their eccentric tastes. At other times, she talks about her classmates at the international school. She says she was “mostly alone” her first year there. Even among these other outsiders, she doesn’t fit in.
I rode the bus to school and listened to my Discman while the girl in the back row threw gum wrappers at my head. The girls at school didn’t like me very much. They had never given me a chance, decided immediately that I didn’t belong, which was funny, as they didn’t either—at least not in France. They made me feel as if I had done something wrong, and they spoke badly about me to each other. Through my own odd rationalization, I decided excommunicating me meant they belonged to something, simply because I did not. . . .
Come the new academic year, the old class would be replaced with another set of students who had just moved overseas. Only a few remained year after year—and still the same insensitivity.
One day, a classmate tells her that she looks like Angela from the TV series My So-Called Life.
“I haven’t seen it,” she replies.
“Everyone’s seen that show,” he says. “Don’t you have friends in the States? They can send it to you.”
In a footnote, LaCava delves into the significance of the series, quoting Matt Zoller Seitz of The New York Times, who writes, “What the series’ narration does best: it shows how teen-agers try to control their chaotic inner lives by naming things, defining them, generalizing about them.”
That’s what LaClava does, as well—controlling the inner chaos of her life in a Paris suburb by naming the objects she encounters. Then, years later, she examines them even more closely and writes about them so that she can share with us her own kind of strange . . . and her own kind of normal.
(Stephanie LaCava, An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris, New York: Harper Perennial, 2013)
[photo: “Eiffel Tower,” by charley1965, used under a Creative Commons license]