With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold on to. Thus within this colorful keepsake box the purchaser will find a fully-apportioned variety of reading material ready to address virtually any imaginable artistic or poetic taste, from the corrosive sarcasm of youth to the sickening earnestness of maturity—while discovering a protagonist wondering if she’ll ever move from the rented close quarters of lonely young adulthood to the mortgaged expanse of love and marriage. Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public (and which can return to them in somewhat damaged form during REM sleep).
A pictographic listing of all 14 items (260 pages total) appears on the back, with suggestions made as to appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents within the walls of an average well-appointed home. As seen in the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Building Stories collects a decade’s worth of work, with dozens of “never-before-published” pages (i.e., those deemed too obtuse, filthy or just plain incoherent to offer to a respectable periodical).
Building Stories, by Chris Ware 8.0
I’m a Chris Ware fan. I am. Of the books that I’ve read, only one has left me slightly cold; all the others impressed me in one way or another – if not for their outright technical brilliance, then for his insight into the human heart and mind.
His characters are usually mundane, everyday people, people whom you might cross on the street, sit next to on the bus, meet in the staircase of your apartment block, …etc. They are relatively nondescript with nothing particularly notable about them.
But they feel real. And with this comes all the joy, anger, sorrow, anxiety, melancholy, regret, and hope that comes with human existence. Somehow, Ware manages to reveal these characters’ intricacies so delicately that we come to know them and love them, warts and all.
Because they are, indeed, flawed. Most of the people in his books are neurotic individuals who can’t seem to get their lives together exactly the way that they would like them to be. They are mostly misfits who are getting by, but not really succeeding in the grandest of terms.
Ware’s latest work is brilliantly titled ‘Building Stories’ for two reasons: 1) it revolves around a particular building, a three-story brownstone, 2) his readers are left to put the story together themselves, effectively building the story themselves as they go along. Thankfully, Chris Ware provides all the tools and hardware needed.
‘Building Stories’ is a boxed set of his work, made in conjunction with some of the storylines from his ‘Acme Novelty Library’ series of books. It features volume 18 of the series along with 13 other small books, flyers, newspaper-sized fold-outs, flip-books, cardboard panel and much more. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of Ware’s work.
According to the wiki, this is the culmination of a decade-long project that the auteur has been chipping away at here and there. The pieces all come together to recount the lives of a few key characters, most of whom live -or have lived- in the three-unit apartment complex. All are of differing length, and style, and can be read in any given order.
Here is the random sequence by which I read the story:
1. 52-page cloth-bound hardcover book with no markings: This one is almost the same thing as ‘Acme Novelty Library, vol. 18‘, aside from the cover being plain here.
2. 32-page hardcover Little Golden Book, “September 23rd, 2000”: One of my favourite of the bunch, this book juxtaposes the stories of the four characters in our apartment block and interconnects them in various ways. One of the great touches is telling the building’s story in its own words, as though it were a character too. Very nice. This is more akin to Ware’s Acme books in its construction, except in a different book size and format.
3. 52-page wordless landscape booklet telling the story of the one-legged girl’s pregnancy and the various stages of her daughter’s childhood. It’s quite good, if slightly disjointed, episodic. The structure is extremely simple, linear.
4. 16-page comic book telling the tale of the brownstone’s elderly landlady, who has been interred in that house since her youth. We explore the missed opportunities and regrets of her life, her dashed dreams. It’s an excellent exploration of the character then and now and the various styles that Ware chose to tell her story work beautifully.
5. 24-page comic book, “Branford: The Best Bee in the World” is the story of a neurotic bee, as he deals with being bullied, wanting to bed the Queen and getting lost on his way home, while dealing with various levels of guilt. He’s not an interesting character, and his story is mundane. I had to drag myself through this one. The book is very pleasing to the eye, though.
6. 16-page comic book recounting the back-story of the couple on the second floor, as well as a deeper probe of their current state. It’s a depressing story, as both are unhappy and are seemingly unable to make things better… or let go. There’s this little moment at the end, taking place in the future, that I found a bit awkward, ill-suited, but otherwise this was quite interesting, well done.
7. 20-page comic book, “Disconnect” is an exploration of the one-legged girl’s life after she’s moved away from the third floor of the brownstone, now married and a mom. We deal with her relationship troubles, her many anxieties and the dynamics with her mom, who has grown bitter and sad. There’s a certain emotional heaviness to this one due to all the discontentment and worries that are on the page.
8 Double-sided accordion foldout of the one-legged girl: Depressed with her life, she wanders about in the falling snow. This one is a bit grim and feels rushed. I wasn’t sure which side to read first, either – not that it makes a major difference either way.
9. Double-sided accordion foldout of the one-legged girl with her daughter: This is just a series of small bits that are tossed together disparately. They provide insight in our character, but it feels like a throwaway on many levels.
10. 4-page broadsheet: This is a series of disconnected vignettes about the one-legged girl’s life, including her dad’s illness, the reason why she lost her leg, and her experiences as a new mom. It fills in a lot of blanks, but it feels rushed: the art isn’t as good as usual and it’s structured in a more simplistic way. It’s alright though.
11. Single poster, folded in half is a series of vignettes featuring our lead character, the one-legged girl. It’s composed of various moments in her life, and some of her thoughts, mostly about an ex who has suddenly reappeared in her life.
12. Fold-out newspaper, “The Daily Bee” is a compilation of the further adventures of Branford the bee. It’s a rather attractive piece and some of the stories tie in to the other Branford book. Thankfully, it’s more enjoyable to read – likely because it’s in such small doses.
13. 20-page broadsheet focuses strictly on the one-legged girl as she deals with the death of her best friend, someone she hasn’t been in touch with for over a month, and the fallout from that. It’s anxiety-ridden, delving deeply into her psyche, and it remarkably realistic. The art isn’t that interesting as it reads like a more traditional comic in many ways.
14. Four-panel accordion-folded board: At first it made me think of a board game, but it is indeed a component of our story. This one is an exploration of our four main characters, each on their own panel. It’s wordless and incredibly well-designed, intricate, more akin to Ware’s Acme books.
And then there are the few strips on the sides of the box!
It’s a whopper of a set and it’s a gas to read. It was like reading journal entries, or peering into moments in the lives of these people, except that the format in which it is presented made it such a pleasant discovery; every time I got a new piece I had no idea what to expect. Basically, it was a little bit like Christmas morning. So the process of choosing and unveiling the set’s mysteries was worth the not-inconsiderable price.
I just wished that some of it didn’t feel so rushed. While Ware is brilliant when at his best, there were a few of the segments (usual the shorter stuff) that felt like throwaways – plot-wise, but also structurally and artistically. Sometimes the artwork seemed slightly incomplete, not as polished as his greatest works, and they were put together simplistically, in a linear fashion discrepant with his overall oeuvre.
If not for this impression, I would be more generous in my rating. It’s still a remarkable achievement, and a genius concept successfully given life to. I just wish it had been fleshed out more evenly, is all. I would highly recommend ‘Building Stories’ to any amateur of graphic novels, dramatic fiction and/or introspective literature. Ware’s masterwork needs -and deserves- to be savoured. It’s a story that is worth building.