Saturday, January 3, 2015

Building Stories by Chris Ware

As I mentioned in my Paris Review Review, the interview with Chris Ware made an impression on me.  Enough so that I went and got Building Stories.  It is as good as I hoped it would be; I can't recommend this more.

The novel is composed of 14 pieces of varying size and material.  Here's a photo culled from the internets:

This photo is reflects one of my first observations, the title represents what Ware is doing on multiple levels.  He is building stories, both by writing them and by assembling the materials the compose the novel itself.  This works another way: the arrangement of the images within the comics is itself something built by Ware.  (Of course, the stories center on a physical building, so the title works literally too.)

The 14 pieces can be read in any order, which gives the novel a non-linear feel (although, one could read them in linear order by accident or intention--I preferred reading the comics randomly).  I suspect Ware wanted the non-linear feel because it fits what plot-goal of the novel, which is to reflect normal, every day life in a literary way.  There are a couple of panels that show this (I laughed at this self-awareness, and so felt a need to share them specifically):  

The book captures this character at various times of her life, but as we follow her in the moment she is both recollection of past, coping with the present, and hopeful for the future.  Because, the reader is/is not aware of her future/past these her thoughts (and the reader's perception of those thoughts) have different meanings depending on how much of the rest of the novel the reader has read.  In some future, I expect to re-read the novel and imagine starting and ending with different comics and how much that would change how the novel feels.

Nonetheless, the lack of linearity contributes to the book's goal: to reflect ordinary life.  At any given moment, one's life is an amalgamation of memories and hopes.  We view those memories differently depending on where we currently are.  And, our hopes have a different meaning during different parts of our life.  Building Stories captures this.

It also successfully depicts the every-day in literary form.  If I were to describe the novel's plot, one might easily accuse it of being melodramatic.  Such an accusation would be misplaced, however, because of how uncompromisingly honest Ware's depiction of his character's is.  By being so honest, the plot avoids feeling melodramatic and instead feels beautiful.  Of course, this kind of honesty is no accident, and I wish I understood how one writer's honesty is literary and another writer's honesty is trite.

I suspect part of it is being a graphic novel.  By showing the characters' actions while also giving us their thoughts, Ware is able to give us the characters without using trite language.  In this regard, the novel's medium (i.e., the fact that it's a graphic novel) matters.  This is neither a movie nor a (just-text) novel.  So, it is flexible in a way that other media are not.  (Namely, I suspect a movie or a just-text-novel with the same content would very seriously risk being melodramatic).

I'm about to write my top 20% for the year (again, I didn't read enough novels to do a Top Ten), and I still haven't decided if this is going to top my list this year--it's competing against To Kill a Mockingbird.  I mention this because, I think the fact I'm having trouble deciding which of the two is the best for this year says a great deal about how good this novel is.

Highly recommended.


Brittany said...

I am so excited for this novel. I wonder what Ware will do next as it seems a little difficult to do another 'novel' of this some of the magic will be lost because it's already been done before?

If he put out another novel in this format, would you be just as excited for it?

R.M. Fiedler said...

Yes. Although this novel gets bonus points for novelty, the form justifies itself independently. That is, the form is good (almost) despite the fact that it's new.

So, if he did the same thing again, I would expect it to be just as rewarding a read as it was here.

Ware's other (graphic) novel is more conventional, though, and it's also well-reviewed. He could just do that.

Also, apparently he's doing a weekly comic for the Guardian: