on October 2, 2012
I have been looking forward to Chris Ware's newest installation for a while--ever since I picked up Jimmy Corrigan years ago. I've followed his Acme Novelty Library series, as well as newspaper/magazine publications when I could catch them. All these bits and pieces of Ware's work only increased my anticipation of his next long book. Building Stories is what I had wanted, and so, so much more. I will attempt to refrain from hyperbole in this review, but if you've seen or read Building Stories, you already know that it's not quite possible.
What originally captivated me about Ware's work were his almost obsessive attention to detail, beautiful and precise artwork that didn't look too 'cartoonish' (whatever that means), and the digressions from the main storyline (frequently in the form of cut-outs and paper dolls, which from what I understand are actually accurate and do function as described--such as the stereoscope and 'library' bookshelf; though, I could never, ever bring myself to cut up a book, let alone one of Ware's). I can't say that I have a great grasp of Ware's work in the context of other graphic novels, as I have never been a particularly avid reader of the genre; however, this attests to the ability of Ware's work to cross these well-established (and often dismissed) boundaries. To simply call Building Stories a graphic novel, a book, a novel, a comic, or really any one genre would be a great injustice that ignores what I believe a currently unparalleled form. A reader does not have to consider him or herself a fan of any of a particular genre to enjoy Building Stories; it is the story of memory, loss, trauma, and how these manifest themselves in everyday life that should draw readers into its pages. I would even say that this stands up to any work of literature, regardless of form or genre.
It's first striking how large the box is. Immediately, it gave me an impression of its heft (both in weight and in accomplishment). Opening it is truly like being granted a secret passage into the minds and memories of the characters, and the non-linear format of the various 'pieces' mimics how both we and the characters access those memories. The first piece I read was a hardcover book that instantly took me back to my childhood, as it's reminiscent of the pressed-cardboard children's books that had a gold spine, and an inside cover with ornate illustrations of the publisher's popular characters with a space to write your name. I can't remember the publisher, but I know I had many books like this. This is exactly what makes Ware and Building Stories so outstanding: their ability to skillfully draw out an emotion from the reader that parallels the storyline. It does not feel like a cheap ploy of meta-fiction, which can be a danger of 'postmodern' fiction, but that the details are all so understated and do not scream, 'hey, look at me! Aren't I so clever?' helps bring a level of sincerity and genuine connection to the whole experience. With something that could easily wander into pretension, it never seems to cross that line (however, I now must admit it seems near impossible to write a review on it without taking on this air of pretension that Ware successfully avoids, haha).
I spent several years living in Chicago, so the building and landscapes are excitingly familiar--I have a special, personal attachment to the building of Building Stories that I relish while reading. But really, it doesn't matter where I've lived; as long as I (or any reader) have lived a life with love, loss, regret, loneliness and varying degrees of human interaction, Building Stories will be a work that resonates in and even echoes the hopes, dreams, fears, and banality of a life at once both extraordinary and mundane.