LET’S START WITH my qualifications as a critic of graphic novels: Putting aside an adolescent excursion into a stoner comic strip called the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, I have none. Worse yet, I tend to associate graphic novels with the regressive and haughty wing of hipsterism, the one that favors mope rock and off-brand beers. I guess what I’m getting at here is that I’m a nitwit.
There is no greater evidence of my nitwittedness (currently) than my initial reaction to the new release by the graphic novelist Chris Ware, who I have come to understand is something of a big deal in his field.
I was expecting a book. But Building Stories is a sturdy cardboard rectangle about the size of a Parcheesi box filled with fourteen literary artifacts, ranging from oversized tabloid newspapers to hardbound volumes to tiny pamphlets with microscopic print. There’s even an illustrated game board. The one thing not included is an instruction sheet. You’re supposed to peruse the pieces in whatever order you choose.
Oh Christ, I thought. This is going one of those pretentious reading experiences that makes me feel stupid and cross. I should mention that I have two small children, ages three and six, who have made me even more stupid and cross, and who at once set about dispersing Ware’s wares all over our living room. To summarize: I was not feeling terribly sympathetic toward the project.
I have now spent a week in sloppy communion with Building Stories and am ready to declare it one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced. I also sort of want to kill myself.
Building Stories is, as the title implies, a do-it-yourself graphic narrative about the residents of a Chicago apartment building: an aging landlady, a bickering couple, and a failed art student with a prosthetic leg who emerges as our heroine. The cast members interact only occasionally. For the most part, they remain trapped (as it were) in their own separate boxes.
Traditional comics are designed to dazzle the reader with propulsive action. Ware has adapted the format to suit psychological investigation; individual panels exude an architectural precision, but his aim is anthropological. Panels-within-panels lead us through his characters’ ruminations. When he provides a cut-away cross-section of the building where his characters live, it includes an enumeration of all the significant human events that have transpired there, right down to the number of orgasms.
The result is a remarkable narrative compression. In a few pages, we see the blossoming love of the bickering couple, how the man’s creative dreams have collapsed into a dead-end job, the self-loathing he inflicts on his lover, and her indelible sorrow. It’s a short story in a few dozen panels, and almost too much to bear.
The art student spends a lot of her time alone, battling depression. But we also see her—across various books and pamphlets—grapple with the loss of her lower leg, the death of her parents, her erotic awakening and subsequent abortion, her failure as an artist, her marriage, her move to the suburbs, her ambivalent embrace of motherhood, and the slow rot of her marriage. The depictions of her struggle to adjust to life as an Oak Park mommy could have served as illustrations for a new edition of Revolutionary Road. (They left my wife, for one, wincing in recognition.) Ware exudes such sympathy for his people that even scenes of wordless stasis—as when a domestic prepares the old landlady’s meager lunch—feel charged with pathos.
Ware’s visual style is geometric in its precision, boldly colored, and oddly evocative, like a Hopper canvas with rounder lines. His characters, with their pinprick eyes and tiny mouths, are viewed mostly from behind or in profile, their faces hidden from the world around them. But Ware uses everything at his disposal to capture the enormity of longing and regret beneath their alienation: the physical world they inhabit, their words and gestures, and above all the transgressive thoughts constantly throbbing within them.
Even my irritation at having to piece the story together myself gave way to enchantment. I found it thrilling to shuttle around in time, to discover how earlier events informed later ones. The arrangement struck me as faithful to how consciousness actually operates, the way we build (and rebuild) the story of ourselves by looping through the highlight reel of our lives. What makes Ware’s achievement singular is this ability to immerse the reader so deeply in the consciousness of his characters that we can enter their lives at any point, and feel emotionally involved with them.
And because Ware has constructed this fictional world so meticulously—Building Stories was a decade in the making—the deconstructed format provides continual buzzes of serendipity. The bee the failed art student encounters in one story, for instance, later becomes a character in the bedtime stories she tells to her daughter, and still later the star of his own dramas. This “Branford, the Best Bee in the World” tale is about as close as the action gets to lighthearted. Then again, Branford is a sexually obsessed and self-hating little creature. In Ware’s view of things, even the lower phyla are existentially afflicted. (My six-year-old took an instant shining to Branford, owing to his bright colors; she made it less than two pages before bailing.)
Building Stories is not for everyone. It makes considerable demands of the reader, not just because it’s materially cumbersome, but because it’s unremittingly bleak. A full page, for instance, is given over to a single hour in the art student’s life. We see images of her lying on her bed. The familiar objects of her apartment—a clock, a box of snack cakes—take on an oppressive weight. She’s viewed, finally, staring out her window in dread. That’s it.
Ware is essentially a poet of solitude. He uses language and images to capture the private torments of unfulfilled lives. His characters drift in a sea of self-recrimination and unmet desire (not unlike the rest of us). They rarely find love, or resolution.
This bleak approach does yield a curious dividend, though. The occasional moments of grace explode off the page. At one point, we see his heroine cavorting with her daughter on their front lawn. “I remember Lucy landing on top of me, laughing…with the sun shining behind her suddenly life came into perfect focus,” she muses. “This was what it was all about … this very moment … the joyful reality of my daughter.” The girl’s lovely face, nearly life-size, beams at us from the middle of the page.
Of course, this idyll is shattered by the news that one of her friends has committed suicide. If Ware has one flaw, it’s his obvious discomfort with the notion that people—at least his people—might ever find an enduring happiness.
Much can and will be said about Ware’s decision, along with Pantheon’s, to publish such an inconvenient product, and how it flies in the face of publishing trends, which veer, ever more desperately, toward the convenience of electronic reading. As someone who self-publishes books, and refuses to make them available on devices, I applaud everyone involved—even my children, who eventually left me alone to pore over what they called my “weirdo picture books.”
But what makes Building Stories monumental isn’t its unorthodox format. It’s Ware’s ruthless and tender pursuit of undisguised emotion. His work is brutal in the way all great art is. I can’t wait to experience it again.
Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of the story collection God Bless America.