(This review can be read in any preferred order)
Writing about Building Stories is somehow awe-inspiring : before typing the first sentence, the reviewer holds on for a moment, hesitating to jump in, just as he had gazed for quite a while at the box before opening it.
Building Stories is intimidating on several levels. A comparison might yield more confidence : in familiar territory, there is no need to wonder which path to follow. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates or Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 might first pop to mind : both novels were published in the 1960s as boxes containing loose pages. The French reader would undoubtedly think about Georges Perec and La vie mode d’emploi (translated into English as Life A User’s Manual), since several descriptions of Building Stories have put forward the similarity between these two works : both relate what is going on in a building. The title of Ware’s ‘book’ has several meanings, and ‘the stories of a building’ is assuredly one of them. If I start reading the whole with this booklet, or that pamphlet, I quickly understand that the narrative is about those four inhabitants of the same building, and perhaps also about a bee fluttering thereabouts. However, if I begin with this other booklet, I end up somewhere else : in a slightly middle-class suburban house home to a couple and their child… What about the title then ? Did I understand it the wrong way ?
Building Stories can also mean ‘construct stories’, or ‘create stories’. It rapidly turns out that the main protagonist of those stories is also the one that is present on the box itself, as if that was a hint : it is not the story of four characters, but that of one protagonist and her neighbours, her husband and her daughter (and ‘her’ bee). It is indeed her story, a before and after story : before, when she lived in the building, when she was sad and lonely ; after, when she lives in the suburbs, married, a happy mother, albeit haunted by the spectre of death and by the anxiety of solitude.
I might as well start reading with that newspaper-like page telling the adventures of “Brandford, the best bee in the world”. I could otherwise start with that other leaflet, showing fragments of the everyday life of a couple that is falling apart. Or this one, where the old woman of the first floor recalls her youth, and the missed opportunities to leave the building she cannot perceive as the trap it actually is. These are many stories in which the main protagonist, a shy and disabled young woman, is barely featured. So, what about her then ? Did I understand what is happening the wrong way ?
Chris Ware is a demanding artist, as much of himself as of his readers. Again and again, his works are tirelessly expanding the possibilities of comics, and requiring absolute attention for everybody wanting to enter his universe. Such attention is fully rewarded in Building Stories inasmuch as we eventually understand, through some hints placed here and there, that the story – or rather the stories – that we are reading is the figment of the protagonist’s imagination : Branford’s adventures are stories she tells to her daughter, she takes notes about her day-to-day life for her creative writing class, and shows an artistic talent that would make of her the intradiegetic narrator of the work. Several metafictional passages underpin this interpretation, for instance when she is telling one of her dreams in which she encounters in the library a rather peculiar book : “Someone had published my book […] And it had everything in it… My diaries, the stories from my writing classes, even stuff I didn’t know I’d written… […] All the illustrations were so precise and clean it was like an architect had drawn them… […] It wasn’t really a book, either… It was in… pieces, like… books falling apart out of a carton, maybe… But it was… beautiful… It made sense…”. Or else when she is looking for a book to read on a plane journey : “Fuck ! Why does every “great book” have to always be about criminals or perverts ? Can’t I just find one that’s about regular people living everyday life ?” The book she would want to read obviously is the one the reader is holding.
Building Stories does not need Ware’s plain hints to make its goal clear : talking about the ordinary life of ordinary people ; trying to create a ‘book’ that, as Johnson’s or Saporta’s boxes, would reflect the fragmentation and loose order of our memory.
Regarding gender, Building Stories is at the opposite of Jimmy Corrigan : it is dominated by women, and the masculine is reduced to an antagonist role or to undeveloped characters. This is not negative at all : comics with complex female characters who are not reduced to their romantic aspirations barely exist, and it is to the credit of Ware to have succeeded where he thought he failed with Jimmy Corrigan, i.e., in telling the simple story of complex characters. Jimmy had a fragmented, intricate and neurotic family. The protagonist in Building Stories might struggle with her own anxieties but, despite her handicap, she could nearly correspond to the archetype of American normality.
Ware’s fascination for architecture was already present in Jimmy Corrigan and in Lost Buildings, a documentary to which Ware contributed, but it finds here a breeding ground. The building where the main characters are living has its own voice, its own personality and bemoans the modernization of its neighbourhood. Later, once the protagonist has moved to Oak Park – a village close to Chicago –, she does not criticize modern architecture as much as the isolation it provokes, in a neigbourhood where several houses were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Should we read into that the author’s opinion ? Long-time readers should be familiar with Ware’s discourse regarding that matter, by times backward-looking and reluctant to praise modernity ; but it seems like the message here is rather more complex. Architecture, in Building Stories, is not the vindication of a better past, but influences a nostalgic present : the characters regret the beginning of their love relationship, the life in their former neighbourhood ; deplore a fantasized past where everything was simpler. It reaches a climax in a sequence where the inhabitants of an inevitably cold and impersonal near-future bemoan that good old XXIst century when people seemed so much warmer.
Building Stories is a book, a series of books, a box on memory and imagination ; at the risk of sounding silly, we could even say that it is about life. There would be so much more to be said : the way, for instance, she epitomizes the muted anxiety of a housewife who seized the opportunity to settle in the suburbs, but in the meantime regretting the gentrification of her neighbourhood ; who sacrifices the dreams of her youth wondering about whether she should regret it or not ; who cannot help feeling lonely even when surrounded ; and who fears the petrol crisis and the death of her loved ones. With no beginning nor end, Building Stories is thus, by definition, infinite, and keeps on haunting the reader’s mind long after this one put the lid back on the box.
The apparent wealth of this work needs to be nuanced since a feeling of incompleteness lingers after the reading is completed. This feeling is logical, since the reader can only grasp fragments of the characters’ life, which is also part of the work’s consistency, as Ware stated several times that Building Stories also was about the construction of meaning. The inter-iconic space here becomes the space between two books, a space increasingly large that cannot conceal the fact that there seems to be missing chapters to the story : once the fourteen segments are finished, we wish we had read more about Brandford the bee, about that couple falling apart, or about the owner of the building. Like the before and after moments in the life of the protagonist – whose handicap could metaphorically stand for this incomplete box –, we can feel a before and after in Ware’s intention : as if he had first wanted to tell the life of a building and of its inhabitants before choosing to center his project around one character. The imbalance this decision creates, possibly linked with too high expectations for Jimmy Corrigan’s successor, causes a disappointment slightly marring the enthusiasm generated when starting reading.
“Everything you can imagine is real”, the author tells us quoting Picasso on the inside of the box lid : we cannot but admire Ware’s imagination, who keeps on creating books as planets of a same solar system, patiently filling a universe that does not seem willing to stop.