Review: Building Stories
by Chris Ware (Pantheon Books, 2012)
“Everything you can imagine is real.”
Epigraph to Building Stories, inscribed on the inside of the box lid.
I have a deep, visceral love of Building Stories, which is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Its uniqueness starts with its form. It’s a graphic novel that comes in a large flat box. Inside the box is everything from skinny mid-sized books to huge pamphlets to tiny strips to a foldable flat board.
What Building Stories looks like spread out. The box is in the top left corner.
The title refers to both the subjects of the stories- that is, the inhabitants of a single Chicago apartment building- but also the idea that, as the characters do, we are constantly creating and recreating our own stories, and these stories in turn comprise how we think about our lives and how we see the world. Likewise, you engage with this idea when you read Building Stories, as the pieces can be read in any order. In an interview with Rookie magazine, Chris Ware says he wrote the novel in this way to show how our stories are constructed: “how we’re able to tell them starting at this point or that point depending on the circumstance, and to take them apart and put them back together.” You see the same events referenced in different contexts, with the characters prescribing them different meanings.
We see the thoughts, feelings, and memories of many unnamed characters. The main character is a woman, who is followed from her post-college days in the building up through her marriage and motherhood, which happen after she moves out. She has a prosthetic leg and dreams of creating something. You will come to be very protective of her. Also in the building is the ancient landlady, who has sadly been imprisoned in the building her entire life; a tumultuous couple of a former wannabe rockstar and his groupie long after the flame has gone out; and Branford Bee (yes, he is in fact a bee) who visits the flowers outside for pollen. The first time I read Building Stories, I thought the Branford storyline was insane. A bee with a wife and kids and existential crises? It seemed too far-fetched to be believable, especially compared with the realism of the rest of the work. But the second time I read it, I truly came to enjoy and appreciate this storyline. Similarly to what my favorite writer David Foster Wallace wrote about Dostoevsky, maybe using a bee to talk about existentialism (in Shakespearean prose, no less) is a way for “engagement with deep moral issues that we- here, today- cannot or do not permit ourselves.” Also, there is a lot of fun and funny stuff in this storyline, like bee gender roles about pollen and tons of alliterations, like Branford’s ancestor Benedict B. Bee.
These are the things I love most about Building Stories. First, a deep appreciation for mundane, everyday life: Ware has the ability to capture our brain voices, the thoughts that we have when we’re at the grocery store or the park or eating dinner and don’t think we’re thinking about anything. Second, Building Stories has a beautiful, melancholic, and lucid articulation of the loneliness and isolation of being human. At the same time, it instills in you an immense respect for the characters and for humans in general through its reliance on each character’s particular inner world, each with its own tragic, funny, and triumphant stories. I love that Ware has given me such worlds to get lost in, and I hope he does the same for you.