Fugue for Centrifuges: On Chris Ware’s “Building Stories”

By Rick MoodyOctober 25, 2012

Building Stories by Chris Ware

THIS BOOK IS A MASTERPIECE. What would it mean for this book to be a masterpiece? First we would have to address on what basis, in a review of Building Stories, we would be able to use the word “book.” Chris Ware, as an artist of “comics” is not initially a maker of “books.” Not at first. In fact, Building Stories, having been assembled (or amassed, or compiled) from pieces made for Nest, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere, would itself appear to be something quite different from a book. It would look, in fact, like something more ephemeral, more contemporary, perhaps like something closer to a “magazine” or a “comic strip” than to a book.

But what a “book” is now is a contested subject. For example, if you accept the argument that an e-book is not a book but the merest simulacrum of a book, a sort of watery gruel of book-related material, and that, rather than promoting innovation, the form of the e-book inevitably engenders the most straightforward narrative necessities (because it is very hard to skim around in an e-book, and therefore the e-book is the “book” that must by its nature go from point A to point B), which narrative necessities are anathema to innovative modern literature, a form more about consciousness than about narrative trajectory, a form more about a community than about an individual, a form more about interior and subjective space than about external events, and a form more about fragmentation than continuity; if you accept these arguments, then a literary “book” could very well be an enormous reinforced box full of sixteen or so discrete booklets, most of them with differing trim sizes and formal intentions: a booklet that reads like a comic strip, a booklet that reads like a comic book, a booklet that reads like a newspaper (broadsheet), a booklet reads like a pamphlet, a booklet that is really a board game, a booklet that reads like a hardcover book, a booklet that reads like a paperback, and so on.

Building Stories, in this view, is a very clever and moving statement about what a book is now, and what a book is now is a physical object that you can cherish, hold close, and ruminate over, a physical object you can come at in completely different ways, depending on circumstance, and which gives the maximum amount of interpretive power to you, the reader, instead of rendering you a passive recipient of some narrative bludgeoning. Thus — as Building Stories would say, and often does with a big emphatic colon: Thus: “Thus:”this book is a masterpiece, in part because it is a big f#%& you to the e-book, and to those of the digerati, who say “I get grumpy now when I have to read a physical book.” Oh f#%& you, buddy, and your precious stock valuation, try picking up this box, which is the size of an atlas (with all that that implies, because it’s an atlas of a certain kind of urban life, viz., apartment life, and the ways in which people are conjoined, however temporarily, in apartments, until they move on and are unconjoined, but always with the trace of that prior address in them, ever after), and which makes your Kindle look about as heart-warming as an electro-stimulator.

This book is also a masterpiece, because it is nothing like a film. As indicated above, there is no one route through Building Stories, there is no linear map for Building Stories, indeed, if there is one particular shape to Building Stories it would be a centrifugal shape, sort of like that carny ride from the seventies, the Round-Up, the ride at the fair that centrifugally glued you and your vomit to the back of the thing as it went around and around. Many pages in Building Stories are built around a large portrait in the center of a page (an elaboration on the traditional splash page), with debris fields of narrative orbiting around the perimeter of this centermost image, toward the edges of the page. This is not, it should be said, the prevailing storytelling shape for either a typical “literary novel” or for a “comic book.” “Underground comics” (which ultimately became “graphic novels” after Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, and still more after Maus, and, e.g., Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, also by the uniquely talented Chris Ware, and still more including such luminescences as Seth, David B., Daniel Clowes, Phoebe Gloeckner, Joe Sacco, Lynda Barry, Daniel Eisner, Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns, Marjane Satrapi, many of whom at one time or another have excoriated the term “graphic novel”) have long been liberated from the linear narrative space occupied by their steroid-swilling superhero-comic cousins, at the same time the steroid-swilling superhero comic, and its idea-free repetitions, has become the subject and provided the form of nearly all of recent Hollywood Cinema. Without the comic book and its blunt lines, where would American cinema be now?

Building Stories rejects this trend in contemporary American literature, comics, and cinema, that is, by tossing out the linear three-act structure, and by building stories out of the merest things at hand, the episodic desperations of daily life. Instead of distracting us from our pain with pre-masticated cinematic posturing, Ware ennobles our suffering and makes of the daily hurts high art, as in the remarkable page called “1 a.m., September 23, 2000,” in which the blond girlfriend of the character I will now refer to as the electric-guitar playing a%&hole is falling asleep (in a sequence of panels, digested here), alone, thinking about her boyfriend:

When did he start leaving without kissing me goodbye? When
did he start telling me I was getting fat? When did he start
walking by without touching my head? When did he start
grabbing me in anger? When did he start looking at me with
disgust? When is it going to stop?

This book, no matter how you assemble it, is nothing like Batman 1-4, or Resident Evil 1-6, or Spiderman 1-3, and it is not framed like a film, it doesn’t move like a film, and it has no special effects, and Ware’s gorgeous, patient, attentive line always looks both elegant and like a human being drew it instead of looking like it was machined by a bunch of underpaid digital sweatshoppers in Bangalore; and so Building Stories resists being a film of any kind, especially not demographically pre-formatted film, focus-grouped film, and, as such, it requires us to slow down and deal with the people in it, with their aches and pains, and with the landscape as it is.

This book is also a masterpiece because it is principally concerned with the feminine. Now I recognize that in certain quarters it will be considered impossible for a book by a writer called Franklin Christenson Ware to deal definitively with the feminine, and further it will be considered impossible that a reviewer named Hiram Frederick Moody, III could definitively evaluate Ware’s conception of the feminine. Nevertheless, as David Foster Wallace proved, with his preoccupation with annular systems, no matter which chromosomes you have there is often a creative longing to be a part of approaches that are against and apart from what seems most linear, teleological, masculine, phallic. It’s natural and reasonable to want to get the hell away from the masculine. And the centrifuges of Building Stories not only invite that specifically anti-teleological reading experience, that annular reading experience, but the content of the book is primarily feminine and is mainly given over to characters who are not men, especially the protagonist (she’s the protagonist simply in that she gets the most page-space), who I will call the art school woman with the missing leg. The way Ware takes her from her lonely condition in the Chicago building which is the main setting of the book’s action (in which she remarks severally on how long it has been since anyone kissed her), into a later marriage, into blissful parenting, and then into a sort of aggrieved yuppiehood in Oak Park, in which she always (for such is Ware’s incredibly acute eye) just misses being a good friend, partner, and member of the community, is an affirmation of and ratification of the feminine protagonist, of the reality of the woman. The ordinary early underground approach to the woman, in comics by men, was often to cast her as the big-assed fetish object, see R. Crumb, et al. Indeed, that is the one starting point in the medium of underground comics: heterosexual frankness and self-ridicule. But Ware goes as far as any contemporary male literary writer working today to understand his women and their lives: his women look like women, they act like women, they are as strong and as frail and complicated as women, and they seem to want what women (at least to this reviewer) seem to want. As all male writers know, the holy grail of contemporary American literature is a believable first-person women’s voice composed by a male. These just don’t exist, really, except in a very few cases (Mating, by Norman Rush, e.g.). While Ware has not exactly attempted this throughout Building Stories, the first-person woman composed by the male writer, he has gotten tantalizingly close for much of the this book. And it’s not just the differently abled art school woman. She’s not the only woman here. There’s also the lover of the guitar player a#$%hole, and the elderly landlady, these women who also live in the building in Chicago, and who are also convincingly drawn as women, even if not accorded the same generous narrative expanses.

And, thus: Building Stories is a masterpiece, above all, because it cares about human beings, many of them women. It cares enough to observe human beings closely, both when they are behaving themselves, and when they are engaging in their manifold selfishnesses. It cares enough about them to depict them when they are attractive and when they are singularly unattractive. The contemporary novel, it bears mentioning, does not care this much, because the contemporary novel is so preoccupied with affirmation that it will not risk what Ware is willing to risk. Perhaps Ware risks in this way because, as a person who began by illustrating, he is willing to see exactly what’s taking place around him, all of it. But by building up his stories from the fragments, from the discontinuous moments, episodes of glancing contact, and the disconnections as well as the connections, he has made something that, if possible, is more literary than most contemporary literature. The American novel, that is, has a lot to learn from this very convincing and masterful work.


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