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14 November 2004
I found a lone copy of Paul Griner's novel Collectors at one of those itinerant book sales that briefly take over abandoned big-box stores. I picked it up because, well, I'm a collector. I'm glad I did; it's an edgy, engrossing story about the curious combination of passion and detachment involved in collecting objects (and people).
The story is told from the perspective of Jean, a woman long-estranged from her cousin Claudia. Invited out of the blue to Claudia's wedding, Jean meets a man named Steven there. The two begin a cautious fencing toward a relationship. They are propelled by the fact that both are collectors. Jean collects old pens; she has studied them for years, knowing all the signs that distinguish dross from value. Steven, for his part, collects binoculars. And photographs taken through telescopic lenses. Photos of women he's never met but might like to meet. Women who suffer gruesome accidents.
One thinks immediately of John Fowles's Collector, the archetypal man-collects-women novel. But where Fowles is garrulous and explanatory, Griner is terse, minimalist. Jean is no victim; she is capable of destruction (as we only slowly and partially learn). In her career in advertising, she trades on cruelty and humiliation to sell luxury goods. She desires her own destruction, in some way, and it's unclear how far her old partner Claudia has helped her along.
The best-realized scenes in Collectors are ones where the minutiae of collecting are laid out in detail: the characteristics of fountain pens, the optical qualities of binoculars. By contrast, the rest of the novel – setting, supporting characters – is barely realized, just stylized background touches that place us in a New England largely left to our imaginations. The ending, too, is left to our imaginations. And appropriately – because what is collecting but an imaginary imposition of order upon a chaotic, striving world?
Griner, Paul. Collectors. New York: Random House, 1999.