{story building}

I can count the number of graphic novels I’ve read on one finger (it was Persepolis). I’ve nothing against them; just that, like sci-fi and Westerns, it was just never a genre I really ever felt drawn to. Chris Ware’s Building Stories caught my eye, though, because it’s not a book—it’s a graphic story told through 14 different pieces which (supposedly) can be read in any order. Intrigued, I nominated it for this month’s nostaglic English majors book group and trekked to the library to pick up the approximately 6 lb, 11″ x 17″ box that these story building blocks are housed in.

For posterity’s sake, here is the order in which I read the contents of the box (matched to their description on the Building Stories Wikipedia page):

  1. A 52-page cloth-bound hardcover book with no markings
  2. “September 23rd, 2000,” a 32-page hardcover Little Golden Book
  3. A 52-page wordless landscape booklet
  4. A double-sided accordion foldout of the protagonist in the snow
  5. A double-sided accordion foldout of the protagonis with her daughter
  6. “The Daily Bee,” a fold-out newspaper
  7. “Branford: The Best Bee in the World,” a 24-page comic book
  8. “Disconnect,” a 20-page comic book
  9. A 16-page comic book featuring the old woman from the first floor
  10. A 16-page comic book featuring the couple from the second floor
  11. A single poster, folded in half
  12. A 20-page broadsheet
  13. A 4-page broadsheet
  14. A four-panel accordion-folded board

I put no more thought into this than simply grabbing them out of the box in the order the previous library borrower had packed them in.

The protagonist mentioned above is a young woman who remains nameless. In her twenties, she works in a flower shop and lives in the third-floor apartment of a Chicago brownstone that is itself a pervasive character (incorporating the old woman from the first floor and couple from the second floor mentioned above). The young woman lost part of her leg in a boating accident as a child, had an abortion in college, and nannied for a wealthy family after she graduated. All these are told in flashbacks as she fills her lonely, uneventful days. In later sections, she marries and has a daughter, moving with her family to the suburbs, generally happier with her life but often frustrated at her husband, weight gain, and lack of creative outlet.

My mother once said something to me that I’ll never forget. I had just moved to California, gotten a great job, and was making a lot of new friends. Overall, life was pretty great—except I didn’t get along very well with one of my roommates. After I spent an entire phone call venting to her, my mother replied, “Well, it’s always something.”

Building Stories explains this “always something” better than maybe anything else I’ve ever read. Other stories have beginnings and endings; they’re defined by events; characters enact change in their own lives and then face new challenges. What bothers the protagonist isn’t so much one specific problem she’s trying to conquer, with a logical and attainable solution—it’s more that it’s “always something.” Her dead-end job, her lonely apartment, her disability, painful memories: these all just circulate constantly through her life in the brownstone. Later on is markedly better; she loves her daughter and has a supportive, loving husband. But there’s still “always something”: her father dies of cancer, her best friend commits suicide, her longtime cat companion finally dies. But beyond this, she tends toward just general despondency, frustration at becoming what she hates: a talentless suburban mom. (Even though at one point, she drives past the brownstone and, remembering how unhappy she was there, chides herself for continuing to complain.)

It’s an existence that (sadly) I think resonates with a lot of people, which is one of the reasons (I think) we turn to fiction. The endings may not please or satisfy us, but at least there’s that definite promise of a last page to turn. I don’t think Chris Ware could’ve gotten away with telling his story in the conventional form; the cyclical, undefined nature of his “building blocks” is essential to the mood—you never know what piece of the story you’re going to pick up next, if the one you’re currently reading is going to pick up again later or just be left unanswered.  The graphic element adds quite a bit as well—for one, I think it’s easier to follow such seemingly haphazard illustrations than it would be to track simply words. For two, the drawings convey the “boxed-in” sense of depression vividly enough without the use of extreme language. I mean this in no way to demean Ware’s writing skills, which are impressive, but just that because illustrations are also included, he doesn’t need to hammer home DEPRESSION with words alone, which I can imagine being more traumatic for the reader.

Building Stories is one of the most interesting, and certainly most unique, pieces I’ve read all year. I can’t wait to discuss it with the group—I’m really interested to see if we all took different ideas away from it by reading the pieces in a different order (I’m still not convinced you can actually read them in any order). Recommended!