Chris Ware's unusual graphic novel is a triumph of imagination and originality.
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As beautiful as these passages are, the characters’ misery can feel overwrought. At times, "Building Stories" lingers too long in human suffering. Ware’s books will not (and should not) ever end happily ever after – even the sprightly-colored booklet about a honeybee’s adventure contains lines like “A smothering blackness, a containment of nothing, yet everything all at once.” However, it would be refreshing to see Ware address joy with the same biting eye he has for angst.Skip to next paragraph
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Criticism aside, "Building Stories" is a triumph of imagination. Amid cheap disposability, Ware’s work painstakingly honors craftsmanship and originality. He is a rare breed, and his work deserves celebration and preservation.
Ware pines for print’s heyday, when information had a pulpy weight to it – a heft and sensation that electrons lack. While others lament the end of books defeatedly, Ware gives us tangible reasons to delay sounding the death knoll for the printed page.
It’s why the experience of "Building Stories" is utterly tactile. This “book” is not just superior in its ink-on-paper form; It literally could not exist as pixels on a screen.
And yet, curiously, "Building Stories" almost resembles an e-reader, had the gadgets been invented a hundred years earlier. A white box contains a multitude of texts that may be entered and exited however and whenever one pleases. But unlike iPads and Kindles, "Building Stories" requires whole hands to crinkle, unfold and flip one’s way through this very analog device. Less an apparatus, "Buildings Stories" is more akin to a box of mementos you find in your grandparents’ attic.
Form follows function here. The documents are a jumble of images and words, arranged in no particular order with little clear throughways – not unlike the lives Ware depicts. The past is a daily occurrence, with memories frequently overtaking the present moment. “The separation between past, present, and future,” Albert Einstein once wrote, “is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” Ware evokes this sentiment with his disjointed narratives and fragmented presentation.
Experiments in form are only as good as the content they support. Fortunately, Ware does not disappoint. Like Jonathan Franzen’s "Freedom" and other turn-of-this-century literature, Building Stories deftly captures the private and public neuroses of a post-9/11, post-economic collapse America. Ware has a Faulknerian eye for bloodlines, pinpointing the strange, dramatic ironies passed unknowingly from generation to generation.
While the book does not offer hope, it is instructive. The reader recoils at these lives contained in people contained in buildings. One leaves "Building Stories" with an exhausted catharsis – a sense that, having been reminded of life’s dissonance, we can better appreciate its harmony.
David Unger is a Monitor contributor.