Review: Building Stories

CW: suicidal ideation.

building-stories-1Here is reviewer Steve Almond in The New Republic on Chris Ware’s deconstructed graphic novel Building Stories:

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.

I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as Almond in declaring it “one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced”. It is, when you get right down to it, yet another story about white middle-class ennui; and goodness knows there are more urgent tales we could be telling. And yet this is as accurate as description of how it feels to read Building Stories as I’ve seen. Ware’s novel is unexpectedly devastating, unflinching in its depiction of the narrowness of its characters’ lives. I don’t really want to read it again.

The book’s protagonist is an art student turned florist with a prosthetic leg, living a lonely and largely unfulfilled life in Chicago. In the course of reading fourteen differently-sized pamphlets, books and comic strips, all housed in a box the size of a board game’s, we learn about the major events of that life: a woeful first relationship with a man twice her age; a job as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family with issues of their own; her increasingly disappointing marriage; her experience of motherhood, at once joyful, heartbreaking and dull. (Content warnings also for abortion and pet death: this is not a happy book.) We also get the viewpoints of various supporting characters: the apartment building the protagonist lives in as a young adult and the old lady who owns it; her neighbours, a deeply unhappy failed musician and the partner he abuses; a lovelorn bee from a nearby hive.

There’s no prescribed reading order for the various components of the book: as its title suggests, the reader builds the story themselves, making their own sense of the patterns of imagery and event that recur throughout the text. It’s tempting to read into this a commentary on the formlessness of life, an observation that the only narrative shape a life can have is the one we give it ourselves. This reading is borne out, I think, by the different physical forms each component takes; the use of these different forms – reflects how we narrate our own lives to ourselves. Sometimes we see ourselves as the subjects of art photography, perfectly framed and wordless; sometimes we have so many thoughts they spiral around and around in our heads while we lie exhausted on the sofa.

But the Building Stories experience is not a random one: Ware is not asking us to impose an arbitrary order on a series of random events. Each individual textual component is in fact highly structured, centring on a climactic (or simply representative) event or events; each one is its own short story in and of itself. And they clearly relate to each other on a macro level: themes and images do recur between components, connections become apparent as we make our way through the work as a whole. Whatever order we read Building Stories in, it is a carefully structured experience: “formlessness” doesn’t really come into it.

I think Ware is doing something, though, with precarity. These fourteen artefacts – most of them just paper folded or stapled together, not even properly bound, eminently losable, stainable, burnable – make up, collectively, the story of a life. How achingly tenuous the importance of that life, to be reduced to these few fragments! (The back of Building Stories‘ box features tongue-in-cheek suggestions for losing these items among the clutter that makes up the average “well-appointed home”.) This is a text about the futility of imposing not structure but meaning on our lives. The themes that emerge from the connections between its multiple components are ones of entrapment, regret, old age; of the gradual shrinking of our lives from the infinite possibilities of childhood. Characters are constrained and overshadowed by the buildings they live in, just as they are constrained by Ware’s panels; there’s a recurring motif in which upper- and middle-class property owners feel anxious about the prospect of undesirables (represented for them by Black and poor people; it’s very telling – and intentionally so, I think – that the one recurring Black character in the novel is the old lady’s carer) invading their homes. They are trapped by their middle-class accoutrements; an entrapment to which they themselves contribute.

It’s interesting that the main way characters in Building Stories relate to each other is romantically: there are a few friendships, a few parent-child conversations, but pretty much the key interpersonal dynamic here is that of the heterosexual romantic couple. And these relationships are invariably disappointing: because of infidelity or abuse or simply because of missed connections. (The old lady in her apartment block, sitting alone, her romantic prospects gone because she never did anything to encourage them.) Again the impression is one of entrapment: these characters are so constrained by Western cultural narratives of romantic love that they cannot act to form more fulfilling relationships.

In fact, I want to say that the problem that faces the characters in Building Stories is not a lack of structure but an overabundance of it. They are trapped by the structures of middle-class life, of Western narrative, both of which foreclose the possibilities open to them, emptying their lives of significance and meaning. This is why, I think, the novel is so devastating to the middle-class reader: because we recognise ourselves in it, complicit in our own entrapment. Ware leaves it to us to imagine ways out of this entrapment.

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