Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Bits and Bobs of a Life: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston

I never really understood the scrapbook craze of the early 2000s—you know, the factory-produced, mass-marketed “hobby” characterized by rubber stamps, paper stencils and tubes of glitter.   My wife and I have been “scrapbooking” since we first started dating.  If you go to our upstairs guest bedroom and pull down a large book with swollen pages, you'll find a pair of movie theater ticket stubs for Flashdance and a small bouquet of dried violets.  It's the artifact from a particular night of young, heady romance.

That’s why I could never wrap my brain around the new era of scrapbooking.  It’s a mystery why otherwise-perfectly-sane women would want to collect scraps of made-in-China crap and paste them in large albums, each of them looking nearly identical to the ones made by a thousand other scrapbookers with glitter-sparkles caught in their hair.  These aren’t true scrapbooks, they’re merely excuses for (primarily) women to gather, gossip and glue.

(Lest you think I’m spouting male chauvinism and petty disdain for all things frilly, please bear in mind that this is coming from a man who went through a serious cross-stitching phase, circa 1987-1995, and who would still be needling long into the night if it weren’t for my failing eyesight and ever-dwindling hours for “hobbies.”   So, yes, I’ve been a frequent Jo-Ann’s shopper.)

This modern pre-fab scrapbooking is nothing like the scrapbook of Jazz Age ingenue Frankie Pratt.  In a self-same-titled novel by Caroline Preston, Frankie’s pages burst into life with postcards, sheet music, wine labels, playing cards, charm bracelets, gum wrappers, swatches of fabric, photographs and ads for freckle cream.  The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is subtitled “A Novel in Pictures,” but it really should be called “A Novel of Ephemera.”

When we first meet her in 1920, the titular heroine is a spunky high school senior with worldly ambitions.  The first page of her scrapbook is headed with the paper label “The Girl Who Wants to Write.”  On the next page is a picture of her father’s old portable Corona typewriter (“Mice had chewed the case but it still works!”).  And from there, we’re off on a whirlwind tour of Frankie’s life as a blossoming woman, all of it told completely through items in her scrapbook and the occasional typed comments.

Preston, whose previous novel was Gatsby's Girl, does a remarkable job breathing life into Frankie through the material objects she collects.  We follow her as she heads off to Vassar, tries the bohemian life in Greenwich Village after graduation, finds work writing for True Story, travels to Paris aboard the S.S. Mauritania where she meets some Russian princes and a “spinster adventuress,” and eventually rents a room above the famed Shakespeare & Company bookstore run by Sylvia Beach.  Along the way, she falls in love twice, has her heart broken an equal number of times, and comes to learn what true love really is by the last page of the book.  It’s less Fitzgerald and more Faith Baldwin, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from falling deeply in love with this book.

It’s impossible for me to describe in words just how well The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt really works, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.  Here are a couple of random two-page spreads from the novel:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

I should also note that this is a book to be bought in hardcover and not in e-book.  It would be nearly impossible for electrons to reproduce the dazzling effects of these full-color paper-and-ink pages.

Leafing through The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is like opening a 90-year-old time capsule from a cornerstone of Jazz Age culture.  For example, Frankie types:
The most congenial spot for the unemployed is the Automat in Times Square. Search the want ads, read a novel, scribble on a story without any dirty looks from a waitress. Sit undisturbed from 8 until 6—like going to an office. All that’s required is spending a nickel every few hours on a bowl of oatmeal, an egg salad sandwich, a slice of pie (lemon meringue highly recommended), and yet another cup of coffee.

As we turn the pages of Frankie's scrapbook, the artifacts accumulate:  The Charleston.  Vogue patterns.  Marcel-waved hair.  Lillian Gish in Way Down East.  A Radiola (“It runs on batteries & is totally portable. It only weighs 39 pounds.”).  Cigarette holder (“to brandish like a rapier”).  Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergere.  Lucky Lindy in the sky.

Through this dizzying, dazzling array of bits and bobs of 1920s pop culture, Preston not only takes us on an authentic Time Machine odyssey, she so completely immerses us in one character’s life that in all honesty, I’d have to say Frankie Pratt was the most vivid and memorable of all the fictional population I encountered this year.  Preston does this with a minimal amount of words and almost entirely through magazine ads, movie tickets and matchbooks.

And isn't this true of all of us?  In the end, aren’t we merely the sum total of our possessions?  We may not be able to judge a person by the color of their skin, but surely we can know them through the contents of their scrapbook.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really looking forward to reading this one. I also kept one of the ephemera scrapbooks you talked about for long stretches of my life. I love the idea of those types of things recalling specific moments. I can't wait to read it!