All My Life for Sale , by John D. Freyer. Bloomsbury, 224 pages, $19.95.
Two years ago, John Freyer auctioned off his birthday. More specifically, he let eBay’s highest bidder, a stranger named Brian, pay $1.25 to assume his identity at a Manhattan bar where a group of Mr. Freyer’s friends had gathered to fête him. Brian ended up dating one of Mr. Freyer’s ex-girlfriends and, as he confessed in a follow-up e-mail, “met people who’ve become some of the best friends I’ve ever known.”
Brian’s indirect purchase of Mr. Freyer’s friends is only one of the many odd transactions chronicled in All My Life for Sale , the record of a year in which Mr. Freyer also sold online his shaved-off sideburns, his salt shakers and his college thesis.
Clever premise: An Iowa grad student sells all his worldly possessions over the Internet and traces a “genealogy of objects”-the past and future life of his goods. The book is laid out like a catalog, each tagged-and-sold item listed in turn. The endless detail (descriptions of a favorite bowling shirt, a vintage pink ashtray and so on) obscures the narrative, which has more to do with the author’s own transformations than with the fate of his belongings. But readers patient enough to slog through a glut of item descriptions will uncover an interesting story, with lessons familiar to anyone who tracked the dot-com era’s millennial boom and bust.
In August 2000, after spending a summer in New York, Mr. Freyer returned reluctantly to Iowa City, realizing he would have stayed East if not for a houseful of furniture. Determined to pare down, he decided to sell his extra stuff on eBay and move permanently to New York. A search for a domain name he could use to showcase his wares turned up Allmylifeforsale.com-the more obvious Garagesale.com and Yardsale.com were already taken. The available name seemed to demand more than just a casual divestiture, and so Mr. Freyer, whose friends in New York were all copywriting and coding the glorified online catalogs that comprised what was supposed to have been the dot-com “revolution,” decided to build his own clearinghouse for the load of Iowa City detritus he’d accumulated over the years.
After an inventory party-friends tagged everything from his mouthwash to his rolls of undeveloped film-Mr. Freyer had more than 600 items up for sale. The toaster sold first, so he stopped eating toast; he wondered how his objects would color the lives of their new owners. As highest bidders continued to whittle away at his household, Mr. Freyer started corresponding with his customers, intensely curious about the fate of his stuff.
Soon he was getting in the car and visiting his buyers. After the first few awkward encounters, Mr. Freyer got comfortable shacking up with strangers: “By the end of the trip, I would help myself to food in the high bidder’s refrigerator without a second thought.” Mr. Freyer makes butternut squash for an Austin soup party with Molly Ivins during his stay with Melanie and Rick, who bought a framed Polaroid of a McDonald’s; he tours postwar commercial architecture in L.A. with John and Ginny, purchasers of a Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Book ; he goes bowling in Chester Springs, Pa., with Ashley, who owns his favorite old empty box.
All My Life for Sale is most interesting when Mr. Freyer veers off-course. The World Trade Center attack occurs on the morning of a drive from New York to Boston, and forces him to cancel a visit to a high bidder’s house: “[T]here was no way I could stop and talk to him about my former matchbook collection.”
Back on the road, Mr. Freyer’s journey takes on a new cast. Instead of posing his former possessions for the perfect photograph, he tries to get to know the buyers: The man obsessed with objects (his obsession tempered, of course, with irony) is now the man earnestly attempting to make real connections. And lo! he falls in love-long-distance-with an Iowa City woman named Sasha, who slips into the narrative when she buys his kitchen table for $61. “A year later,” the item description reads, “the table now sits in the little house that I share with Sasha.” In the introduction, he explains that after his travels, “I wanted to return to Iowa City and continue the life I’d started there … I wanted to stop starting over.” Paradoxically, the project designed to sever Mr. Freyer’s ties to the Midwest ends up grounding him there.
The arc of All My Life for Sale mirrors the experiences of the Internet rank and file, who saw 1999′s fever dreams of wealth and fame broken by the chill wake-up call of 9/11 and the Nasdaq’s downward spiral. Mr. Freyer’s original project-sweeping, grandiosely completist-is consummately “dot-com,” and it comes of age, as the author matures, in much the same way that the original dot-commers did: You run out of cash (Mr. Freyer finally decided to head back to Iowa when his emergency funds dried up), get a real job and tell yourself that the daily grind isn’t so bad after all.
So you’ve sold all your bowling shirts in an online community experiment; what happens when the online community itself loses its shirt? An Internet artist who never got sucked into the big-money myth, Mr. Freyer is uniquely positioned to comment on a giddy moment when “value” became a kind of shell game, measured in stock options and sham revenue. But he’s too busy telling us how he made that killer 80′s mix tape, or scored the vintage silver flask from his brother’s wedding. For a project that purports to explore the relationships between people and their belongings, the directory-like format of All My Life for Sale makes reading it dishearteningly similar to flipping through a Spiegel catalog.
Is the relentless focus on objects, the stuff and nonsense of daily life, a rebuke to dot-com hubris, or a testament to our need for comforting stability? Perhaps a bit of both: After all, Web sites vanish into cyberspace (visited Dotcomguy.com lately?), but Mr. Freyer’s refrigerator magnets and false teeth aren’t going anywhere-and neither is his newfound sense of self. Reunited with his kitchen table-auctions over, travels done-John Freyer has learned to stay put. His waffle iron may be making breakfast in Enterprise, Fla., and his Star Wars sheets adorning a bed in Kalamazoo, Mich., but his heart, having found its highest bidder, belongs in Iowa City.
Darby Saxbe has written for The Village Voice and Publishers Weekly .
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