Building Stories

Encased in a board game–sized box and composed of fourteen individual books — the largest a broadsheet that’ll test your wingspan, the smallest a narrow pamphlet — Chris Ware’s graphic novel Building Stories is a sumptuous package. As his longtime fans know, Ware is a flagrant experimenter with size, both in terms of his physical books and in what he puts on the page. He can fit stories into pinky-nail panels or conjure epic panoramas, like his vision of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition in his 2000 breakthrough, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Ware’s full-page, full-color comics in the Chicago Reader, where much of his early work appeared, were so gobstopping they could persuade you he’d save print newspapers single-handedly. Not so, alas, but he’d mastered a style that looks luxurious, almost candied. No comic artist today is more deserving of such hefty — and, frankly, expensive — treatment.

If Building Stories seems a drab title for such an audacious project, understand that one of those buildings is something of a character in itself. A cheap Chicago three-flat, home to generations of singletons and young couples, occasionally narrates, and throughout the collection Ware encourages us to think of our homes as places with heartbeats and respiratory systems, beating with life. “Though [the building] was embarrassed by the ill repair of its entry,” reads one caption of a full-page cross section, “it nonetheless staggered forward from the shadow of a passing cloud and stood up straight in the sunlight.”

In a way, the apartment has more pride than the unnamed woman who’s central to the book. Building Stories isn’t plotted so much as assorted, collecting snapshots of her life from childhood to early middle age, and throughout she bumbles from art school to marriage to raising a daughter to burying a parent. She lost half her left leg in unclear circumstances as a child, and her prostheses are forever in Ware’s sights, an inescapable symbol of her incompleteness. He swoops in and around her existence, sometimes shifting to the bad-news couple in the flat below her or the elderly landlady on the first floor, or (as rare comic relief), an insecure bee that pollinates the local flowers. But he always returns to the same melancholy point — this woman has fallen short in some way, from her mediocre art to her doomed first relationship to her nattering on about peak oil to disinterested moms at a suburban pool.

“I’m never going to change,” she thinks as a single woman, preparing for another disappointing night out. Years later, a married mom feeling stuck in suburbia, she flays herself again: “God, have I really given up on myself that much?” Her malaise feels oddly disconnected from the elegance and diversity of Ware’s draftsmanship; it’s as if somebody had shot a film version of Revolutionary Road on the set of a Hudson-Day comedy. Ware’s intentions can feel unclear in that context: Is he approaching these people sympathetically, ironically, or (as it sometimes seems) with full-bore contempt?

Consider one story, in which we follow the heroine on the day she meets her future husband, from the morning’s busted toilet to the evening’s heady make-out session. Optimism has arrived at last, it would appear. The building butts in: “I can predict with almost 100 percent certainty that she’ll remain unattached for the duration of her time here.” But what does some dumb building know? Reader, she married him.

Yet this particular episode comes packaged in an imitation Little Golden Book, and what can that do except contextualize this woman as a child? And what message can that bee deliver except something about our short-lived insect-y lives? Ware’s preferred perspective is what you might call Domestic Security Camera, in the room but above the floor and looking down. Such omniscience is illuminating but also condescending: The perspective favors the bad sex, bad conversation, and bad feelings his characters suffer, and exposes their own obliviousness to it. From booklet to booklet, that godlike perspective begins to make every room feel like a diorama. Their occupants, so cleanly drawn and so easily taken to middle-age suburban fat, begin to look a bit like Fisher-Price dolls.

Ware is unquestionably tuned into an essential and contemporary American anxiety. One panel, so coruscating and on-point it served as a New Yorker cover, shows the woman and her husband in their kitchen sweating over their bills, unaware of their daughter making a pile of fake money on the floor nearby. But that tableau isn’t a transformative moment in Building Stories’ ongoing narrative, just one more example of its unchanging mood. Jimmy Corrigan‘s hero was a sad sack too, but Ware allowed him a fantasy life and embedded him in a story that, however glum, had the satisfactions of a narrative arc. The characters in Building Stories are doomed to stasis, left to emotional distance and self-hate. They arrive in a gorgeous package, frustratingly boxed in by gloom.