Building Memories: Mine, Hers, and Ours

To mark the release of Chris Ware’s decade-in-the-making Building Stories—a box of fourteen print artifacts ranging from cloth-bound volumes and newspapers to broadsheets and silent flip books—The Comics Journal is featuring a series of essays from the contributors to the 2010 volume The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking (University Press of Mississippi). Each contributor is revisiting the argument they made in that edited collection two years ago in light of the newly released work, speaking to the ways in which Ware’s comics have either transformed in that time or are returning to the themes of his earlier publications. We hope these first thoughts give rise to a spirited discussion about a novel that will shape conversation in the medium in the years to come.

The weight of history.

If you read my contribution to The Comics of Chris Ware—the final entry in that collection—you probably remember the essay as much by its position within the book as by its contents. Perhaps you recall the weight of the preceding 200 pages on your left hand, the book’s remaining segment trying to pull itself closed. And if any of the essay’s words or images stayed with you, they may exist solely in the geography of this recollected text. Yes, you might think, it was somewhere over here, near the top-right margin, under a picture of a staircase.

Of course, the chances that you recall my piece at all are slight. But if the above memory-story seems at all familiar, then you already understand the core of my claims about Chris Ware’s Building Stories. In these comics, I argued, Ware attempts to use the comics form not simply to tell a story about memories, but to reproduce in the reading experience—in the interaction of word, image, and especially the navigation of the page—the feeling of remembering.

When I first presented these ideas back in 2007 and published them in 2010, I engaged only a fraction of the final novel, focusing for the most part on three key sequences. Now these “old” pages have been situated with a larger framework that makes memory, I find, more central both to the story and to one’s encounter with the graphic novel. Indeed, I found the act of reading Building Stories to be more narratively unsettled and more physically unsettling—indeed, vertiginous—than I would have expected.

Memory form: Be here now.

Chris Ware has already noted that the discrete units of comics pages—and Building Stories is as insistently a collection of pages as any long-form comic I can remember—are analogous to the way we break up and shape our own memories. Following this lead, Building Stories deploys its variable volumes to highlight different rhythms and to replicate different styles of remembering. Ware’s horizontal “strips,” for example, develop their stories out of small repeated intervals, which build upon each other and, so doing, create feelings of linked moments or looped thoughts. (Read the unstapled accordion-fold strips, front and back, three or four times to see what I mean.)

Other formats produce different effects. Single-page layouts tend towards more discrete narrative blocks—memories with a clipped start and stop—while double pages rotate you around a central, even centripetal, image. These latter pages, as you read them, create a nice analogue for the feel of remembering, with looming objects that you rarely look at directly (and do not really “read” per se), but that hover nonetheless right on the edge of your field of vision, recognized but not-quite-seen. Memories, for Ware, are not just associations one has with objects or places; they are movements of the mind, encountered and traversed as spaces themselves.

But for me, the most palpable effect of these various sizes is, well, that they remain palpable. The variable printing formats compel you to share a space with them: they refuse to disappear as you read them. They are propped stiffly before your gaze one moment and extend between your outstretched arms the next. Ware’s multipage folio obscures your lap and flops around in an ungainly way, while his “Golden Book” chapter fits comfortably in your hands, but demands to be pulled close before it can be read. These sizes – these narrative fragments – stay with you, requiring your physical participation and acknowledgement. This, I take it, is the lesson of the Building Stories’ back cover: books, forgotten or not, are our roommates. They dwell in our homes and punctuate our histories.

Memory content: What happened when?

I have been living with some of these pages, in one version or another, for more than a decade. The Naughty Pete-inspired “staircase” strip and the “Paper Dolls” pages first appeared in 2002, while the New York Times Magazine sequence—which I think was originally designated, in at least one Chicago-area art show, as “Chapter 4”—was serialized in 2005. This is a long time to live with a work in one’s mind.

Perhaps predictably, this caused even small narrative changes to affect my experience as a reader. The excision of a word-balloon here (see the “staircase” strip), the replacement of a panel there (see the “popsicle” dream sequence), the insertion of two crucial pages into what used to be Acme Novelty Library 18: each of these forced me to reorient my own recollections, making space for new associations and highlighting aspects that I had earlier overlooked.

But I was unprepared for how Ware would use the idea of memory to transform the narrative arc and frame of the novel as a whole. To be sure, the pages—old and new—are all about recollection, but now the memory-world of Building Stories is far more fragmented than it was before. The memories of one page are contradicted by storyteller’s husband the next (“I didn’t say that.… You did…. Don’t you remember?”)

One volume relates the heart-rending tale of a funeral and the protagonist’s participation therein, while a separate volume, closing with the death of Miss Kitty, casts doubt on whether that earlier story exited anywhere other than in the narrator’s pained imagination. (“Earlier,” of course, comes preloaded with scare-quotes, given Ware’s refusal to provide readers with a pre-set reading order.) At times, it seems that each page is an interaction of conflicting registers of memory. Images are overlaid with texts from different times, played at different speeds. Character’s visions are framed by their revisionary thoughts, often asking, “Why did I do that? Why did I think that?” Moments like these indicate how thoroughly, in Ware’s world, one’s life if open to revision – how memory, itself, is an act of “building” stories.

Imagination: Whose memories are these?

The most powerfully disorienting experience, though, came while I slowly realized how fully the “Lonely Third-Floor Girl” had emerged not just as the center of the novel, but also as the center of the book’s narrative gravity – the center of the book’s very imagination. As David Ball suggested in TCJ a few days ago, it seems likely that this woman “may not simply be the subject of Building Stories, but its author as well.” I would argue that this statement goes both too far and not far enough in its estimation of what Ware is attempting. It seems clear that the “Third-Floor Girl” is the source of this imaginative world. In her writing class, for instance, our protagonist gives substance to snippets from her landlord’s life, reciting passages from elsewhere in the novel, even as she despairs of her ability to imagine what a “real old lady” has actually experienced.

These are composite tales. They depict the fictional construction, as one classmate dismissively puts it (in a phrase that Ware did not include in the original version of these pages), of an “old/young woman.”

This technique applies, I believe, throughout the novel. At other moments, we see our would-be writer eavesdropping on the unhappy couple downstairs, all but conjuring the husband out of her fantasies (and having him fantasize about her in turn). She even seems to reenact the scenes from her neighbors’ lives, or has her neighbors “pre-enact” scenes from her own. The narratives double and re-double, swallowing themselves whole.

But that isn’t all. It seems just as clear that the one-legged woman (with her painful prosthetic memories) is not “really” the author at all, but is a bit more like the imagined author of a book she did not or could not create. These fragments, Building Stories tells us, are something like the memories (or dreams) of what one woman might have made, the books and drawing that she might have created. And this story, as a whole, is as much a fiction of the person she might have been as it is the fictional recreation of people she, through memory and imagination, has tried to understand.

“We’re all fiction-writers,” I recently heard Chris Ware say. “All our ideas about other people”—all our attempts to know them—take place as much in imaginative hindsight as in our real-world interactions. These people, he continued, are all “fictional assemblages.” As a reader, of course one knows this. Nonetheless, it remains an odd feeling to find one’s own memories completely realigned and re-collected. Without warning, all my memories were now those of our narrator too. The landlady, with whom I had spent so much analytical time, was now “her” landlady, the downstairs couple now “her” version of their coupledom.

And I guess that makes my decade-long memories of Building Stories into “my” memories of “her” memories – or perhaps her version of what all those memories might have been.