Thursday 4 October 2012

Building Stories - Chris Ware

'in pictures revealed'

The space above the first line of my reviews is for the cover image of whatever book it happens to be. A review of a graphic novel will often be accompanied by a few other pictures of the work itself to give you an idea of the artwork and design. Both of those features seem somewhat inadequate when writing a post on Chris Ware's latest, an opus that he has been working on for years. Building Stories is a collation of strips previously published in the Nest Magazine, The New Yorker, Kramer's Ergot, and the Sunday New York Times Magazine. These diverse strips may have been finally brought together but this is a graphic novel with no clear beginning or end. Published as 14 separate books, booklets, newspapers and something that resembles a game board this is a cornucopia for Ware enthusiasts. It is a vast and beautifully produced collection of work, boxed with great attention to detail. This is just what you might expect if you have read Ware before or if McSweeney's has ever popped through your letterbox. In fact this book reminded me very much of a combination of McSweeney's issue 13 (a collection of comic strips curated by Ware) and 17 ("Made To Look Like It Came In Your Mailbox") and it's important from the off not to let the presentation of this work blind us to whether it is actually any good or not. This kind of thing has been done before and we should ask whether the box of goodies adds anything to the reading experience, becomes an inherent part of it, or whether it possibly detracts from its impact.

I'm being a bit unfair there. Not to Ware, but to you because I'm making it sound like I might start criticising this amazing work when in fact I love it. I loved it when it arrived via courier and I removed it from the world's largest jiffy bag. I actually hugged it to my chest once I had it in my hands. I then spent several weeks working my way through it at a leisurely pace, rationing myself to make sure that I didn't rush through it and find myself bereft too soon. I won't say it was a joy to read, anyone who has read any Ware before will now that joy isn't an emotion that appears to easily, but it was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to read it before anyone else's opinion appeared, savouring each section and allowing the work to come together in my own mind in the way I had happened to assemble it through the choices I made in which booklet to read next. This is the most remarkable thing about it. It has no set beginning or end and it is up to the reader to decide which order they read things in. If it is true that we impose a narrative on our own lives then the really revolutionary thing about this graphic work is that we the reader impose the structure of the narrative onto the lives of its three main characters. How we read about them and the order in which we do so cannot help but alter the way in which we experience their stories and so each reader is going to experience the book in a different way, something that would be true of any book of course but even more so with this one that doesn't determine the way in which the reader might read it. But the fact that there is no set order doesn't mean that there isn't an order. Reading against the strict chronology can throw up some interesting conflicts. It would for example be interesting enough to read about a woman who desperately wants a child and who finally achieves it but it's even more interesting to read about a woman struggling with the realities of motherhood and then to see how much she desired it in the past.

Building Stories focuses on a three-storey building in Chicago. It has three main tenants beginning with the old lady who owns it on the ground floor, a couple breaking apart on the first floor and woman who longs to be a mother on the top floor. Ware doesn't stop there, he also gives us two comics dedicated to 'Branford, the Best Bee in the World', a worker bee who tries to be a good husband even whilst he fantasises desperately about having it off with the queen. He also allows the building itself to become a character, not in the usual literary sense that reviewers are fond of noting to show how well written a location or locale might be but in a very real sense; the building is given a voice, it narrates the odd panel, intrigued by its inhabitants having seen so many come and go.

I don't really want to say to much about the trajectories of the main characters but for those unfamiliar with Ware's work it might be worth mentioning some of his preoccupations. The spinster on the ground floor spends much of her time thinking about the past of course, providing a link with the building's own beginnings and a different era in Chicago. She isn't the only though. The woman on the first floor who has such an abusive relationship with her boyfriend naturally thinks back to when they were happier and she felt more attractive. Even the woman on the top floor, who eventually comes to dominate the piece as the main protagonist, who seems to be so forward thinking with her wishes for the future cannot help but look back on her past relationships and family life even at the very moment that she begins to achieve some of what she has always longed for. She will eventually move out to the suburbs with her partner and daughter but this only brings a new set of anxieties and troubles

This is not a book to be reading if you're at a low ebb. Let us be very clear about that. Ware's world view makes for pretty depressing reading. A friend of mine picked up a small booklet when I first unwrapped the bundle at work and started to read it. It is a narrow letterbox of a booklet that details in small panel after small panel nothing less than the spiritual vexation of motherhood. It is a tough thing read even though it contains very little to actually 'read', leaving you exhausted and heavy by the end and like you need a lie down. My friend handed it back almost shaking her head, very unsure of what it was she had just experienced (she is a mother herself) but certain I think that she wouldn't be rushing back for more. It isn't just the format of this book that requires time of the reader but the content of it too. It isn't the kind of book that you're going to want to rush through, it takes time to absorb the detail of each page, the aesthetic of each section, the assimilation of the whole and even after you've finished the work in its  it's going to take some time to process. Once you've done that though I think you're actually going to want to read it again. How does he do that?!

I said at the beginning that we should be careful not to just say 'Ooh, pretty' and proclaim this as a work of genius before looking a little deeper at the content. If you will accept from me that there is plenty of content to be getting stuck into then we can now go back and praise this book for how damn good-looking it is too. Yes, it has been beautifully produced; yes, you are going to want to handle all of it an awful lot; yes, you are going to spend every minute required to read the painfully small text on some pages and follow some of the equally small panels on their waltz around the page. The construction of some pages, the eye for detail and symmetry, the architecture of the comic itself is breathtaking at times. There are several large double-page spreads which will take a good reading session to take in and at the end of it I found myself actually sighing with contentment, even at the same time as I might be wincing with regret and pain at what I had just read. The sheer number of hours that must have gone into making this book are perfectly reflected in the hours of enjoyment that you will receive in reading it. That is a rare occurrence in the graphic medium, where all too often the long stretch of an artist's endeavours can be flicked through in a matter of minutes so that even if we really enjoy them it is hard to really savour them.

I also questioned in my review of The Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone where we might find the graphic work that utilised modern technology in its production. Ware's work isn't using any boundary breaking technology in its execution but it does engage with the modern world and its use of technology. Mobile phones, text messages, laptops, e-readers and tablets all make an appearance but so too does the loneliness and isolation that accompanies them. He shows the absurdity of couple sat opposite each other, each focused on their own screen, their faces illuminated by the glow that emanates from them. He shows the impossibility of reading tone in text communication and the huge frustration that often lies disguised behind it. There is a heartbreaking section in which our heroine stands naked before her partner, the awkwardness of her nakedness and the fact that this is something of a pre-arranged assignation based on the daily timetable of a pair of parents with a short gap in their responsibilities made even more acute by the fact that her partner (himself lying naked on the bed with his penis lying flaccidly on his thigh) is so wrapped up in the cool glow of his iPad that he hasn't noticed her standing there at all.

If you've read Ware before then this is probably on your Christmas list already but if it isn't or if you're reading this with an interest in his work or in graphic novels in general then do yourself a favour and get it on there. You can buy it from today for less than twenty pounds. That is bonkers, frankly. It's a beautifully made thing that would be worth the money even if the content wasn't as good as it is, but the fact that Ware shows once again that he's an innovator of the form, able to direct the eye around the page quite unlike anyone else, and that he puts so much of the decision making power into the reader's hands is probably the biggest gift of all. Treat yourself, or someone else. It even comes ready-boxed.


Tom Cunliffe 5 October 2012 at 11:44  

How amazingly interesting. I have seldom read such a thorough blog post and although I have never heard of him before I am now considering how I can set about acquiring this!

William Rycroft 5 October 2012 at 20:09  

Great to hear Tom! Ware is a fabulous artist and it was his book, Jimmy Corrigan, that opened my eyes to the potential of the graphic form. I wrote a little post about that book here. I'd love to know what you make of this or the other if you do take the plunge, you being a very thorough blogger yourself!

William Rycroft 5 October 2012 at 20:10  

That link again in case it doesn't work:


Unknown 8 October 2012 at 17:41  

Yup...a brilliant book:-)


Jacqui (@jacquiwine),  9 October 2012 at 08:53  

This sounds amazing! Did you hear Chris Ware's interview on Front Row? Really interesting - there's a link to it here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00z6fny

William Rycroft 9 October 2012 at 14:13  

I didn't, no. Thanks for the link, Jacqui.

Lee Monks,  13 December 2012 at 11:51  

What to say, really? It's a masterwork. My friend, who is Mr Poindexter when it comes to graphic novels, had a similar reaction to yours: he refused to read through it too quickly. And when it arrived, he tells me he similarly clutched the box to his chest and said aloud, 'He's done it!' - this without checking the contents. Which soon enough proved his immediate response correct. There was some kind of delight at play here that Ware had reached some kind of artistic apex. I think he has: it really is the greatest example of its type, and Building Stories really has set a new benchmark.

William Rycroft 13 December 2012 at 12:17  

I recently moved house Lee and was understandably concerned about the transit of my copy of Building Stories and so wrapped it up all safe and snug in the linen box for its journey. When I unpacked the van at the other end one of the first things I did was to make sure that the box was still safe and sound in its cocoon and satisfied that it was I set about unpacking the rest. Then of course we entered the period of living amongst boxes, unpacking books onto any old shelf and setting about the thousand and one jobs that needed doing. About a week later I opened up the linen chest to see that things had been moved about and that my baby was nowhere to be seen. I didn't want to panic, it must be within the four walls somewhere, but I kept mentioning to my wife that I couldn't find my rather precious box of graphic genius and maybe she could remember where she'd put it when unpacking the chest. Almost a month went by before I finally cracked and betrayed with the desperation in my voice that I REALLY needed to find the box. That evening it was there on the bed and I hugged it to my chest once again. A masterwork, as you say.

Lee Monks,  14 December 2012 at 21:08  

Marvellous! I am similarly protective of mine...and interesting to note that Ware, speaking on the NY Times book podcast, came up with Building Stories whilst he was working on something else...we can only hope. He can't top his summation of the form? Can he?!?

Anonymous,  29 December 2012 at 12:28  

I am so jealous that you have this! I have been wanting to get my mitts on it since the wonderful Marieke Hardy took hers on The First Tuesday Book Club and raved about it. It just sounds so innovative. I might have to treat myself to this as my post Xmas Xmas present to myself.

William Rycroft 1 January 2013 at 12:36  

You absolutely must treat yourself to it Simon, it's a delight. The only trouble is finding a copy. There are definitely some indie bookshops with copies, Twitter might be a good place to make an appeal. Enjoy!

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