All across Berkeley, citizens of my demographic had been startled by their latest New York Review of Books. Since I was the only person they knew who read comics, they accosted me at the health club and café and between sets at Freight and Salvage. “Who is this Chris Ware?” they demanded. “Should I put aside The Radetsky March for him?”
I had read Jimmy Corrigan and several issues of Acme Novelty Library. I could answer the first question.
I ought to pick up his new thing, I decided.
The first day I left it on the dining room table for contemplation.
I thought, What is a book? What rises to art?
I recalled Joseph Cornell’s boxes and Duchamp’s valise.
“B u il ding S to r(eyeball)e S,” the lid said, its letters of carefully orchestrated, varying sizes and fonts. Some lay on sides; all floated amidst symbols and pictures – a building, a baby, a ring. My gaze lodged on a rectangle in the lower right corner, framing a sleeping woman.
Is it, I thought, a dream?
A six-pound, two-ounce, sixteen-and-one-half by eleven-and-one-half by two-inch dream.
It contained, the lid said, “14 distinctively discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets.” The capitalizations were deliberate, I thought. So was the omission of the designation “Comics.” It screened that pigeonhole from the dismissal of that slotting. “(S)ometimes,” said the lid, “it’s reassuring – perhaps even necessary – to have something to hold on to.”
The second day I slit the cellophane wrapper.
Inside, wrapped in further cellophane, were brightly colored, variously sized and shaped items, from which portions of cartoon strips confronted me.
The inner aspect of the lid quoted Picasso: “Everything you can imagine is real.”
The third day, I slit the inner cellophane and decided to progress top-to-bottom.
The first item was a fifty-two-page, nine-and-three-quarter by three-inch, wordless cartoon pamphlet. It focused on a woman with a (presumable) husband and a daughter. The husband is usually absent. The daughter grows from infancy into pre-pubescence. She and her mother hug, swim, pick flowers, buy clothes, swim. (Who are these people, I wondered. What of significance about them am I missing? What will I learn?) Of the three, the woman registers the most emotion, and the emotion she registers most seems to be worry or concern. The second item was a three and one-half-by-seven-inch, twice-folded sheet of paper, with cartoon panels on both sides. It tracked a solitary woman along a snowy street, despairing over her “dead end job” and “dead end life.” Once she “almost had a family” but now she is alone. (Is this the same woman, I wondered. What happened to the man and girl? Were they another dream?) The third item was a similarly sized, similarly folded sheet of paper, with cartoon panels on both sides. It focused on an unnamed woman, her daughter (“Lucy”), and an unnamed “daddy” (somewhat absent). The mother is concerned about Lucy; Lucy is concerned about life and change. Except for one partially obscured detail linking Item Three to Item One, it is unclear if any of these characters are the same characters from either of the previous items. This was partly frustrating and partly charming, and it certainly left one engaged and aware of how stories “work”: what we, as readers or viewers, expect; what we require; what our role is in the process in the “making” of a story. The fourth item, “Bradford the Best Bee in the World,” was a thirty-two-page, soft cover booklet, illustrated in the broad style and written in the cute language of a “child’s”book. But the book imparted information about bees which may be beyond the ken of even the brightest junior naturalist. And before its cliff-hanger ending, it inquired into the nature of God and the transmigration of souls and raised gender issues and revealed Bradford to be tortured by impure thoughts, all of which seemed unlikely to have been intended for children. (Is Lucy reading this, I wondered. If not, who is its intended audience and how does it fit within this work of Ware’s?)
The next three items, a seventeen-page hard cover book and a pair of sixteen-page soft cover booklets, focused on a century-old North Side Chicago triplex. In the first, some strips centered on an elderly woman, the building’s owner, who lives on its first floor. Some centered on a married couple, who live on its second. Some centered on a solitary woman – the same woman, the same detail confirms, as that of Items 1 and 3 – who lives with her cat on the third. And a few centered on the building. The action occurs on one day in September 2000, except for the last page which occurs in 2005. The second of these three items centered on the couple. Most of it occurred in the “present,” but two pages were set in 1991 – and two in 2156, as if Ware wanted to demonstrate he could jump anywhere he pleased. The third centered on the elderly woman as she recalls her past.
All the residents are unhappy. The elderly woman has lived in this building her entire life. Her father died when she was a child; her mother died after a lengthy illness, during which the woman cared for her. She had studied art; she had worked in a department store; but, except for her parents, she never had a significant relationship. The couple met when he was a rock musician. Now he is a night watchman and she works days. When they are together, they fight. The solitary woman had hoped to be an artist or writer but is neither. Her father is deceased; her relationship with her mother is strained. She has met a man (Phil) to whom she is attracted, but she knows he will not call her. She has, it is revealed, lost her left leg below the knee (the detail I had mentioned previously). “What makes lives turn out as they do,” she wonders. This speaks for all the residents – and resonates for us.
The building is not unhappy. It is matter of fact. It has seen 301 tenants, it informs us, 29 broken hearts, 11,627 lost childhood memories, 5 spiritual crises, 65,418 orgasms, 13,246 light bulbs… It is all the same, it infers. Things and hopes, they come and go.
One of the remaining seven items, a twelve-and-one-quarter by eighteen-and-one-half-inch, four-page “newspaper,” “The Daily Bee,” related the next chapter in the Branford cliff-hanger. Another, which folds out into a quartet of sixteen-by-twenty-one “pages,’ revisited the residents of the triplex – with a surprise appearance by Branford, now drawn and written in conformity with Ware’s handling of the triplex’s world. (The effect was illuminating. It suggested that, as the form in which Branford had been presented previously had caused my “adult” sensibility to dismiss his life and musings as “childish” and laugh at the silliness of and errors in his thinking, so might a greater consciousness dismiss my “adult” attempts to understand of the mysteries of the cosmos. It suggested also that all “comic books” be treated with respect.)
The remaining five items focused on the solitary woman. (As far as I could tell, she is never named. I shall refer to her as SW hereafter.) Four of the five centered on her post-triplex life. In these she has a husband (Phil!) and daughter (Lucy!), with whom she lives in a house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. (In the item in which she lives in the triplex, a detail suggests that she indeed was the woman in Item 2.) The couple and elderly woman are absent, but Branford is the central character in a book Lucy enjoys. Phil is essentially content and Lucy essentially untroubled.
But SW worries about her weight and the oil crisis. She worries about potential disasters, natural, political, economic, social. She feels guilty at her treatment of one former boyfriend and angry at how another treated her. (Both contact her within a brief period, slightly straining a reader’s credulity.) She is rocked by the deaths of a foetus, a friend, a pet, a varmint. (Two of these deaths coincide so neatly that even Ware’s credulity is strained. He reflects this by having SW chastise God for inflicting such an “obvious” “metaphor” on “the script of my life.” But if any creator is to be held accountable for this strain, it is Ware.)
The aspect of these two deaths which bothered me was my inability to fix them in time. In Item 13, they seem to occur in 2011. (Obama is president, and a funeral is held on Friday, September 2; and 2011 is the only year after his election in which that date fell on that day of the week.) But in Item 8, which is set in 2009 (according to the date on a cell phone), the two deaths have already occurred. Perhaps this confusion represents Ware’s venture into the realm of parallel universes. Perhaps it is a consequence of collecting pieces created over a period of years into one unified work by a publisher whose editing budget was insufficient. Or perhaps it results from an artist unwilling to re-write and re-draw enough to achieve consistency. This is understandable but frustrating because one of the joys of Building Stories comes from engaging with Ware’s use of time.
The work is an amalgam of puzzles, and a major one is trying to determine what is happening – or has happened – when. Time is fluid to Ware, and he uses the comics medium to demonstrate this masterfully. Time can shift from panel-to-panel, let alone page-to-page. Decades collapse in the width of a border line. The existing moment dissolves into dream or memory. One must pay attention to a character’s size, hair style, dress color. One must be aware of calendars and signs on buildings. One must recognize that “Mr. Kitty” is not “Miss Kitty.” One may think he has grasped the here-and-now, only to quickly realize his mistake. (I was certain I had located a “present” in four panels at the end of Item 8. But second thoughts pulled that rug from beneath me too. The Lucy in these panels is an adult, and since she was unborn in 2000 and in first grade in what-looks-like 2011, that “present” must be “future” – at least what remains “future” for some years yet.)
Frequently, within what passes for a “present,” great portions of the narrative will occur in a “past” or “future.” Characters spend so much time looking back or looking ahead, while barely registering their “now,” Ware calls the entire idea of “present” into question. All of time seems to exist as simultaneously as if he was channeling Krishnamurti. (This supposition gains support from Ware’s omission of page numbers. While making it hard on someone who wishes to refer from his notes back to the text, it reinforces the idea that to think in terms of events proceeding in linear order is to be in error. The physicist Julian Barbour has proposed that the universe be considered “a stack of moments,” like a deck of cards, which may be “shuffled and reshuffled arbitrarily to give the illusion of time…”; and Ware, who tells readers it does not matter in which order his items are read, may be suggesting that his bindings be loosed and his pages treated in this fashion. I half expect his next work to arrive as a jigsaw puzzle which, once completed, spreads across the floor in one gigantic “page.”)
SW is the primary character for Ware’s explorations. She is, from when first met, back and forth across decades. a troubled soul. On the North Side, she is possessed by a “hopeless loneliness.” In Oak Park, she is imprisoned by life’s “unfairness.” The disappointment which burdens her most is the imagined cost of her untaken paths. Because she did not become the artist or writer she was “supposed to,” she fears she has been a “failure.” All she can summon to balance against this accusation is Lucy. At times Lucy’s “joyful reality” makes SW promise never to feel badly again. “I am happy,” she insists. “Finally, I am happy.” But the last images Ware leaves us with is two panels of SW’s face, blank and glum, after Lucy has asked her, “Will I be the most important thing you ever do?” Her relationships and residences may have changed, but, as the Buddhists put it, “Wherever she goes, there she is.”
Ware’s use of the comics form to enhance the emptiness at his character’s core is superb. If he possesses the illustrative chops of a Hal Foster or Alex Raymond, he resists all temptation to demonstrate them. He does not render a richly detailed, lushly foliaged, deeply dimensioned world. The life he sets forth is narrow, stunted, cramped. Few possibilities for beauty enrich it. Few periods of excitement enliven it. The deepest emotions are registered through the slightest alteration of the dots and lines that constitute facial features. The glories of speech are reduced to undecipherable squiggles, when overheard through a muffling wall, or converted to simplistic glyphs as if Ware was an Egyptian primitive employing a stylus on papyrus. Emphasis can be attained by merely darkening or enlarging the letters that form a word.
If Ware does not have the huff and puff of extensive plotting to keep his readers churning pages, his technical skills motivate their flipping forward. The variety of the size and shape of his books and pages and panels keep his readers alert and engaged. The variations of his lay-outs send the eye on entertaining slips and slides. Sometimes Ware sets them upon carnival rides, as when he provides gaze-directing “arrows” which slip through windows he has drawn and slither under doors. One of his favorite devices involves centering a page (or a two-page spread) spread with an image that, while not sequentially connecting to the narrative unfolding around it, enhances that narrative thematically. These images can also take on their own narrative progression, moving from a naked woman, to her skeleton, to (presumably her) vagina, to a “painting” of a vagina, to an orchid’s blossom. Even his inchworm-like approach to story-telling can resound within a thoughtful reader. One nods his head approvingly at his capturing how life works. Yeah, one affirms, when you meet someone new, they rarely come with paragraphs of expository background information attached. And, yeah, you don’t know from jump street which of them will prove significant.
Ware is also adept at documenting the nothingness at his characters’ cores. He will devote an entire page of a sixteen-page book to a solitary figure sitting silent, pining or regretting, not noting a single thought. The author of a 300-page novel would have to spend nineteen pages repeating the same sentence to equal the effect. The director of a ninety-minute film would have to hold his camera steady for nearly seven at a woman in a chair. Readers would fling books at walls. Moviegoers would stomp and whistle. Under Ware’s spell, though, one just smiles and looks again to make sure he has not missed anything.
Toward the end of Building Stories, Ware has SW ask herself why a “‘great book’… (can’t be) about regular people living everyday life.” She poses this question after rejecting for vacation reading Proust, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Moby Dick, and Ulysses. It is unclear why she does not consider Stephen Daedelus and the Blooms (or, even, Ishmael and Swann – ships and wealth notwithstanding) regular people or their lives uncommon. Perhaps she means to ask why a great book can’t be written simply and straightforwardly, without ornate prose or symbolic overload or reference to Virgil and the Bible. And perhaps SW’s thinking is to be distinguished from Ware’s for, while he has created a work about the ordinary lives of ordinary people, it is not simplistic or straightforward and seems to owe a debt to Joyce and Proust and, even, Melville. But positioned at the end of Building Stories, as SW’s question is, it seems reasonable to conclude that Ware is asking to have his work measured against the literary greats and not dismissed because it is light on homicide or sex abuse or passion or whales.
By the way he frames SW’s question, Ware seems to accept that literary greatness can not be achieved by technical mastery alone. Something which speaks to the human condition is required. And for an evaluation of “Building Stories” in this regard, SW is, again, key. She is its only fully developed character. The elderly woman and the married couple vanish once she leaves the triplex. Lucy is primarily a goad to prod reactions from her and Phil a more-or-less one-dimensional moon orbiting her gloomy sun. And with SW, I confess… disappointment. From her shallow insights into her discontents, to her chirps of protest against Starbucks and cell phones, she seems a familiar figure in contemporary literature. She has suffered parental betrayal, romantic disaster, personal loss – and my jotted notes of “Beautiful,” “Sad,” “Poignant” remind me that at times Ware treatment of them broke through beyond the commonplace; but these moments were fleeting. My body was never shaken into increased awareness, nor my soul truly stirred and educated.
Even SW’s amputated limb vexed more than moved me. Having chosen to afflict his central character thus, Ware, in my estimation, did little with it. I couldn’t help wishing he had ventured more deeply into its implications. He does not reveal the amputation’s cause until his work’s final page, as if he has been withholding a mystery-solving clue; but little, really, has been made of the loss to this point, and the revelation does not seem to shed sufficient light on what has gone before to justify dramatically its concealment. SW seems not only less driven by her loss than Ahab, but less effected than Captain Hook. I would agree with Chekhov that if you are going to hang an amputated leg on the wall when the curtain rises on Act One, it better be stuffed down someone’s throat by the end of Act Three..
Building Stories is wonderful in many ways. I credit Ware for engaging with the ordinary. I credit him for waging this engagement beyond the familiar ground of the autobiographic. But while “wonderful” is “very good,” it is not “great.” For “great,’ you must stride further that Ware has managed, and, to me, SW’s unstuffed leg seems related this unreached goal. Ware has handicapped SW in a way that may not seem true to her as a literary character, but it seems true to how all of us – readers and writers, reviewers and the reviewed – hobble through our days, all of us gifted in some ways and limited in others. For Ware, at this point in his career, these limitations seem to assert themselves in the scope of his vision. Life has more to offer artists than he has accessed. There is more beauty, more hope, more blessings, and more grace. There is greater pain and deeper pits of despair. There is more wisdom to be unearthed and shared. But Ware is still young. He is talented and dedicated, and he has – if Krishnamurti and Dr. Barbour will excuse me – the time to discover more and mine it.