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My favorite book of 2012 was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Perhaps I should not even be calling it “a book” since Building Stories comes in a box and contains 14 different comic book artifacts — thin pamphlets and hardbound volumes, broadsheets and fold-out posters — but I like how calling such a treasure trove “a book” wonders at the edges of that word. What, exactly, is a book? This turns out to be a topic that I’m perennially fascinated with, and as I perused Ware’s amalgamation, I found myself reconsidering some of my basic assumptions about what constituted bookishness: was a book defined by its composition? By an expectation of narrative? By a currency of pages? By its singular thingness?
Indeed, Building Stories subverts more than a couple mainstays of the medium. There is no table of contents. No set of instructions. No “if this then that.” No beginning, middle, or end. You must pick up one of the objects (I went for one of the hardbound books first, as it somehow felt like a more legitimate starting point) and then simply launch into the ether. But gradually, through the slow, exquisite visual pacing that defines Ware’s storytelling, a narrative emerges, or not so much a narrative but a life. Or not so much a life but lives — interconnected by a slightly dilapidated three-story Chicago brownstone that occasionally offers its own silent advice to its resident cast of characters. The top floor apartment is occupied by our anti-heroine, an unnamed melancholic woman with a prosthetic leg who works in a flower shop and worries the days alone with her cat. The middle floor is haunted by a couple trapped in one of those restless equilibriums two clicks short of love, and on the ground floor we find the aging landlady, who has seen enough to know that loneliness is a gift.
As one booklet ended and I picked up the next, I found myself skipping back and forth through time, in a happenstance hopscotch of my own design. In one pamphlet, the woman was in art school, in another, she was married with a child, in still another she was just out of school and au pairing for a rich couple. Temporality was undermined, shorn, skirted. And yet the sum of such dislocation began to work its magic on me. The sequence of booklets was like one of Ware’s pages, where the panels are not always delivered in obvious sequence but rather in an orbiting constellation of possibility. At first, you want to know which is the right way to read a page, so that you can get it right, but once you give up this need for direction, the potential for multiple narratives frees you from the responsibility of linearity. You begin to read as one lives life — out of sequence, with stops and starts, with side plots that take all of our attention and then just as quickly evaporate into nothing.
What I find particularly effective about Building Stories is the combination of this narrative multiplicity with the beautifully rendered banality of Ware’s subject matter. Ware has such a gift for tracking the seductive rhythms of life’s more ordinary moments. A cat on a bed. A woman shifts positions. The cat, still on the bed. Snow falls. The woman shifts again. The cat shifts. It is no longer snowing. The medium of graphic novels — caught somewhere between the pacing of a movie and a book — is especially suited for clocking such passage of time. Each of Ware’s panels becomes a choice to capture a certain moment, but why capture the moment when nothing has seemingly happened? Yet the choice to do so, the choice to represent that moment, makes something happen. The cat shifting becomes all cats who have ever shifted, who will ever shift. It is why we love literature; it is why we love photographs; it is why we love to hear stories over a cup of coffee. Let me tell you this so we can make it realer than real.
In this regard, Ware’s onomatopoetics are deceivingly evocative. Here he uses a well-worn tool from the comic book artist’s cabinet — that is, the representation of an action sound through a word (kerplam!) — and lovingly reapplies it to his wheelhouse of his melancholic domestic oblivion. Set goes the tea kettle onto the countertop, plop goes a warm body into a couch, fff goes a pair of jeans as she pulls them up over the last inch of waistline flesh. This symphony of normalcy is composed of imperfect approximations, but their imperfections are what makes them so delicious because we know these gestures, this last inch of flesh. That fff is louder than any kerplam can hope to be.
Building Stories gives me hope for the future of storytelling. Our increasing reliance on visuals and our tendency to now digest, capture, and broadcast media in bite-sized chunks does not necessarily spell the end of nuance and pathos. Rather, faced with the splintering of old media, today’s storytellers must execute their craft with even more precision and restraint, even as the boundaries of the book become increasingly blurred.
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