Building Stories

Chris Ware's unusual graphic novel is a triumph of imagination and originality.

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    Building Stories
    By Chris Ware
    Knopf Doubleday
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Chris Ware’s Building Stories is a book only in the loosest sense of the word.

The graphic novelist’s latest work comes in an oversized box and contains multiple “books,” varying in size, shape and format. All are lavishly decorated and arranged in gorgeous story-boarded strips. Together, the collection of books, diagrams and newspapers tells a story of the unnamed inhabitants of a three-story apartment building in Chicago.

Ware, whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker, offers us insight into the lives of each of the building’s residents, but the narrative centers on a 20-something who occupies the third and top floor. The dour protagonist is an art school graduate, amputated from the left knee down after a water -skiing accident. She works at a nearby flower shop but spends most of her time alone with her cat, frustrated by her nonexistent love life and her art-school degree’s irrelevance.

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When the woman does eventually marry and settle down in Oak Park, Ill., she worries her way through suburban motherhood, regretting the paths not taken and compulsively combing the Internet for signs of apocalyptic doom.

It should be readily apparent by now that "Building Stories" is not a happy read. As was the case with Ware’s previous book – 2000’s enchanting "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" – the characters are lonely, even when they are not alone.

Most of the time, they keep up appearances, but the characters expose their dark interior lives. One memorable passage has the protagonist and her daughter dress shopping:

“Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world...” reads the text around the images of the two perusing princess-pink dresses. This sour admission – clearly the mother’s interior monologue – juxtaposes the following, pedestrian line of dialogue from the cashier: “All right … your total today is $79.21.”

“My, what a pretty outfit you found!” the cashier adds, smiling down at the daughter.

The interior/exterior tension continues throughout the day as mother and daughter go swimming, cook dinner and read a bedtime story, all suffused with the mother’s fearful visions of gas shortages, nuclear war and “dark figures roaming the streets.”

The book is at its most sublime in its wordless passages. If the documents are read in the order they are packaged, "Building Stories" opens with a brilliant, silent fugue that tells a story in images alone. The 52-page, long, skinny booklet at once covers a day in the life of the female protagonist while also tracking her child’s development.

The mother grows more pregnant as she lay in bed. Upon waking, her baby sleeps in her crib. When Dad leaves for work, he kisses a toddler. The day passes and the daughter grows older and bigger. By the time Dad comes home, he can barely hold the lanky pre-adolescent in his arms.

The four-dimensional mashup is an incisive play on the parent’s clichéd lament, “They grow up so fast.” Ware shines here, adding depth to a visual vocabulary that resembles our minimalist touch-screen interfaces and the bold infographics we share on Facebook.

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.

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.

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