Saturday, October 06, 2012

Building Stories Review

Building Stories is Chris Ware's new... book? What are we calling this thing anyway? It actually includes several books, but also some pamphlets, posters, strips, etc. It's certainly more than a book, and more than a single story; it sort of defies classification by virtue of its uniqueness. All of the individual parts work to form a collective whole, but they all stand on their own, within whatever specific format Ware chose for each portion.

Anyway, the title is very deliberate in that it refers to both the content AND the context here. All of the stories told in this collection revolve are a handful of protagonists that have/had some involvement with a very specific building. The various tenants, the landlady, a bee who's inadvertently trapped in the basement, and even the building itself take center stage at various points. But all of the individual stories are crafted in such a way that the reader can piece together these full life stories from the smaller, obliquely connected vignettes. A innocuous-seeming line of dialogue in one book make be the launching point for a deeply involved story in another. A few scenes are repeated from different people's perspectives. Stories from the past, present and future are all presented in a non-linear format, and Ware trusts the reader to make the connections necessary to build the broader tapestry of these characters' lives.

For what Ware is trying to do here, it's almost impossible not to take that approach. Since the stories he's trying to tell overlap and flow in and out of one another, a simple linear narrative for everything simply would not work. But by packaging all of these stories of varying lengths and depth into one box, he can craft a broader tale that makes sense, even if you can't experience it all at once.

Ware's sense of craft here is readily on display. Both at the macro- and micro-levels. The broader tale, as I've suggested, is complex but still readily digestible, and the individual page and panel layouts show a mastery of comics storytelling. The only complaint I might lodge in that respect is that the text seemed a tad too small for comfortable reading. This wasn't a problem, naturally, with his silent and near-silent passages, but some of the extended monologues put a bit of a strain on my eyes. (Gene Kannenberg joked last night on Twitter that he needed a loupe to read everything!)

Now, with all that said, I found Building Stories to be absolutely miserable. The craft was superb, as I mentioned, but the stories themselves -- every one them -- was filled with depression, misery, sorrow, anger and/or ennui. There was pervading sense that everyone's life was completely and totally unfulfilling, and we're all just going to die anyway. There was one, single instance where someone said they were happy in the 260 pages (the page count is listed on the box that way, but I have NO clue how they actually defined "pages" here) and on the VERY NEXT PAGE, the character's cat died. On her way to a memorial service for another friend who committed suicide two weeks earlier!

It just did not let up. The first bit I read showcased the idea that life with a small child sucked because you couldn't do all the things you wanted to do because you were taking care of the child. But then every other story was seemed to follow the whole "life is miserable" and "I'm not doing anything I enjoy" themes regardless of who the main character was or at what point in their life they were. From the more pedestrian ("I'm too fat to be loved") to the more esoteric ("I'm a male bee with female body characteristics that make me question my gender identity even though I have plenty of dreams reinforcing my heterosexual nature.") every story is about how tediously miserable life is.

You know, I had to read various books by the likes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen in high school and college. And I didn't really care for them because most everybody was unhappy. I mean, it's called Bleak House for a reason, you know? But there were always some underlying hopes and dreams of a brighter future. A lot of the characters most decidedly did not live happily ever after, but there were always attempts at resolving whatever issues the characters faced. I didn't get that in Building Stories at all. Everybody seems pretty resigned to living crappy, meaningless lives and sure, it's sucks, but what are you going to do? Dreams are always talked about in the past tense ("Well, I used to want to be an artist...") and no one is motivated by much of anything.

The formal elements of Building Stories are fantastic and, not having much of Ware's work, I'm glad to have a good sized collection of it all in one place. As I said, he's able to play with both the smaller storytelling techniques as well as the broader form of the comics in a way that is very impressive on many levels. Worth reading through all of it to see what he does there. But I have trouble recommending the actual content. I wanted to read it all in one go, so I could make all the connections while they were still fresh in my mind, but I had to read it over multiple sittings just because it was so pervasively depressing. A great exercise in what can be done with comics, a not-so-great exercise in being entertained.

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