Formal Disruption and Narrative Progress in Building Stories

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.

In my previous work, I argued that Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth presented a unique, prescribed relationship between its personal and public historical narratives. In particular, I was interested in the relationship between the stories of its two main protagonists and how the insularity of their respective stories made those characters blind to the wider historical events that surrounded them.

Ware’s Building Stories, his new graphic-novel-in-a-box, moves away from the narrative and formal coherence of Jimmy Corrigan, eschewing most of that work’s sense of historical context to focus on the process of individual story-making. By drawing upon a rich tradition of formal, graphical, and material experiments, this box of stories taps into the anxiety of story-making itself, prompting the reader of these pieces to participate in the necessarily flawed process of trying to make sense of the fragments of life. And by lessening the emphasis on a historical master narrative, Ware is able to focus on the insularity of interiority and the difficultly of connection, rendered not by historical circumstance, but by the necessary shifting of the real patterns of life, with its maddening mix of ambitions and desires, its competing commitments and missed connections.

As other reviewers have noted, many previous artists have produced material experiments, each of which attempted to formally destabilize aesthetic conventions, including Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, portable collections containing reproductions of his works, and Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages, which Ware has cited as influences. Ware has also directly referenced Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a novel that surrounds its central 999-line poem “Pale Fire” with an elaborate (and excessive) commentary that threatens to supersede the poem it ostensibly glosses:

I think anybody who’s read Pale Fire by Nabokov eventually ends up wanting to make a book where the book is the reason for its own existence—if that makes any sense at all—which again is probably thinking about it too much.

But here Ware sells his accomplishments short. By engaging the reader in the crafting of Building Stories’ overall narrative, Ware also draws on a tradition of prose novels that are structured as formal or material experiments. Perhaps the works closest to Building Stories in this regard are Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, a novel composed of 155 chapters, which instructs its readers to choose one of two reading methods according to a “Table of Instructions,” and B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, a novel presented as a box of 27 pamphlets, which can be read in any order, with only the first and last segments marked. These works turn their formal disruptions into thematic concerns, as readers must construct a narrative from the fragments in front of them, with no master narrative to affirm their choices. Drawing on these precursors, Building Stories extends their formal logic, making the act of narrative construction (both on the part of readers and characters) a fraught and contingent activity.

There are complex patterns and resonant thematic connections here, but they operate in a slightly different mode than in Ware’s previous works. Building Stories is less maudlin than many of his previous works, instead presenting a more nuanced portrait of the long arc of a character’s life, with all of its psychological drama, conflicting emotions, and shifting commitments. In Jimmy Corrigan, Ware treated the epic saga of a particular family, spanning a century or so, and while we have some historical notes in Building Stories—for example, at one point, the landlady works in the old Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building during her youth in the mid-twentieth century—the focus is quite different.

This is a story of our moment, filled with iPads and cellphones, with the hectic day-to-day push and pull of life and the commitments of memory and old relationships. There are some of Ware’s tropes throughout—visual repetition and the importance of key locations in Chicago, the desire to affect change and the inability to do so, the rigorous attention to composition and uncluttered storytelling. But in Building Stories, these tropes are undercut by the lack of a master narrative that establishes and fixes the pieces together. Instead each book carves out a piece of the overall narrative, often leaving the rest to the side, offering only glimpses of the wider world in which the scene is set.

In one of my favorite sequences, presented in the larger broadsheet whose first word is “god…,” we get a sense of the range of sentiments and characterizations that are at play in these stories. This sequence begins with our unnamed protagonist pushing a stroller while jogging through her neighborhood in Oak Park (northwest of Chicago). Huffing and puffing her way along the tree-lined streets, she passes the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio on Chicago Avenue, built in 1899, which Wright lived in until 1909, commenting “…sometimes I really hate it here… [….] but that’s the price you pay for living near a ‘tourist attraction,’ I guess…” As she passes the tourists lining up to tour Wright’s home, a tour guide’s explanatory text appears, but is cut off by the panel border, emphasizing that this is our protagonist’s narrative, not one that relies on a master narrative with claims to a broader aesthetic history.

As she moves further south, she passes the Prairie-style Arthur Heurtly House, another Wright design built in 1902, which occupies its own panel and dwarfs her presence, though is not identified by name. The panels on the rest of the page are drawn from her memories of moving in to their new home with her husband and infant daughter, not her immediate surroundings.

A few pages later (and a couple of blocks south), she runs into a former friend outside the First United Church of Oak Park on Kenilworth and Lake, who explains that he works just across the street in Unity Temple, built between 1905 and 1908, another notable Wright building. As she continues, she continues down the length of Unity Temple, which stretches over the bottom of the page.

All of these elements form the backdrop of our protagonist’s progress, standing in for an aesthetic tradition—Wright’s architectural evolution, which deeply influenced not just the local aesthetics of Oak Park, Illinois, but a wide range of American artists, including Chris Ware—that exists only as background.

In Ware’s previous works like Jimmy Corrigan, history and personal narrative were intertwined; here, an entire aesthetic tradition serves as a backdrop for the intricate pattern of a character’s self-generated personal narrative. Later in the sequence, our protagonist nearly misses the memorial service of a friend due to the rapid decline in health of the family cat. When she finally attends the service (in a different comic) and gives a eulogy in Unity Temple, the setting in shown with Ware’s typical attention to the detail of the isometric interior, but goes verbally unmarked, as the focus is on our protagonist’s experience and memories of the moment, not its setting.

By shifting to the process of how these characters construct their own stories, while removing an easy reliance of formal and narrative cohesion, Building Stories marks a shift in Ware’s storytelling. This is a work that intentionally troubles the distinction between “book” and “box,” and leaves readers in the same state of flux as its characters, forced to construct a contingent narrative from the jumbled moments of life.  As our protagonist recalls at one point, commenting on a dream she has of finding a book of her own life story: “All of the illustrations […] were so precise and clean it was like an architect had drawn them… There were so colorful and intricate… […] 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…”