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Building Stories (Pantheon Graphic Novels) Hardcover – October 2, 2012
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*Starred Review* Ware has been consistently pushing the boundaries for what the comics format can look like and accomplish as a storytelling medium. Here he does away with the book format—a thing between two covers that has a story that begins and ends—entirely in favor of a huge box containing 14 differently sized, formatted, and bound pieces: books, pamphlets, broadsheets, scraps, and even a unfoldable board that would be at home in a Monopoly box. The pieces, some previously published in various places and others new for this set, swarm around a Chicago three-flat occupied by an elderly landlady, a spiteful married couple, and a lonely amputee (there’s also a bee bumbling around in a rare display of levity). The emotional tenor remains as soul-crushing and painfully insightful as any of Ware’s work, but it’s really insufficient to talk about what happens in anything he does. It’s all about the grind and folly of everyday life but presented in an exhilarating fashion, each composition an obsessively perfect alignment of line, shape, color, and perspective. More than anything, though, this graphic novel (if it can even be called that) mimics the kaleidoscopic nature of memory itself—fleeting, contradictory, anchored to a few significant moments, and a heavier burden by the day. In terms of pure artistic innovation, Ware is in a stratosphere all his own. --Ian Chipman
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Step One. Before unwrapping, turn the box over and read the text carefully. Think about it.
Step Two. Open the box, remove the fourteen items that make up its contents, place each one on the floor -- most tables are not big enough -- as shown in pictograph.Then...
Step 3. Read below.
Chris Ware's new graphic novel "Building Stories" is made to order for game players with a literary bent. Call the game "Follow the Story Line - If you Can!" The author provides a pictograph on the bottom of this box full of treasureWare with, he says "suggestions as to [where] appropriately [to] set down, forget, or completely lose" its contents. Accepting the challenge, I cleared a space in my study and set about putting the pieces down as shown in the pictograph. In the process I discovered that Mr. Ware had pulled a couple of fast ones. It requires duplicates of four of the pieces to match all the images in the pictograph. Moreover, in my set, one of the pieces has no exact mate.
The story follows the protagonist from "wondering if she will ever move from the rented close quarters of lonely young adulthood to the mortgaged expanse of love and marriage". I'll call her "Chris" -- after the author because he gives her no name. So the trick is to match the pieces of Chris' life to its trajectory from young Chicago art student to Oak Park soccer Mom. It took a bit of doing to come up with the right order for placing the fourteen pieces in the trajectory. If you try it, leave a comment. It will be fun to see if we agree. As Ware suggests, the place to start is the book shown top left in the pictograph and the place to end is the piece titled "Disconnect" at the lower right. Among the rewards for your effort, a nice surprise as you come to the end.
What about the novel as story? Is it as good as the graphic art that has gone into it? It starts with a nice touch. The initial point of view is that of the one hundred-year-old three-story Chicago apartment building where Chris lives on the top floor. The building ticks off one interesting fact after another from its 100 year history: "301 tenants, 178 trysts, 469 feelings of being watched, 29 broken hearts" (including, one assumes, Chris's.), 104 writers, 4 criminals" and the list goes on.
Then each of the building's occupants has a say starting with the land lady (first floor), the unhappily married couple on the second floor and then Chris. Ware does this neatly, going from one floor's occupants to the next as the day, September 23, 2000, goes by, clock hour by clock hour. Then, he returns to the building as narrator: "Better to take each day as it comes," I tell myself, "and revel in the remaining time of my old woman, my married couple and my girl." The last page fast forwards to 3.p.m. April 20th, 2006, to reveal Chris driving by with her baby daughter in the car. She notices a for sale sign in the building's window and thinks back to her days there: "God I was so wretched and miserable when I lived there." There are five vignettes on the back cover, the central one showing a wrecking ball taking the first bite out of the old building.
This is the way Ware tells his story. You have to stay alert, no fast flipping through the pages or you'll miss a key fact. The novel hides its secrets in this way. Part of the reader's pleasure comes in discovering them, in keeping track of the convoluted story line. So there's a start. I'll let you take it from there.
In his introductory note on the back of the box Ware writes, "the 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." So, to answer my question, judged by the goal Ware set for himself, the novel as story is as good as the art.
End note. Book arts, the graphic design elements that add texture and delight to the printed page, are in vogue. Chris Ware is in good part responsible for this development. His 2002 break-out book, "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth" (Pantheon), embellished by one of the decade's most wondrous book jackets, helped bring about the new regard for the arts of the book. The jacket unfolds to reveal, on the inside, a short graphic history of Chicago. The endpapers are equally ingenious. Another of my favorites is "Diary of an Amateur Photographer A Mystery" by Graham Rawle (1998, Penguin). Both books are still available on the Internet.