‘Very nice. Who’s next?’

Nick Richardson

  • Building Stories by Chris Ware
    Cape, 246 pp, £30.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 07812 2

Chris Ware’s new book, Building Stories, isn’t a book at all. It’s a cardboard box, about the size of a board game, covered in bright, blocky illustrations and stuffed with comics. A couple of these are hardbound: one in plain charcoal grey; one with a picture of a girl on the cover, drawing. The rest are paper: some the size of the Beano, some as big as old broadsheets – one is done up as a newspaper for bees, called the Daily Bee, motto ‘God Save the Queen’. Others are mere slivers, a frame or two high. There’s even a comic book that works like a board game: you unfold its stiff cardboard and read it like you’re playing Snakes & Ladders, following an elaborate maze of arrows from frame to frame. The cartooning is old-school: minimal shading, lots of primary colours. Most writers of serious comic books, many of them inspired by Ware – according to the Canadian cartoonist Seth, Ware made his generation realise they needed to ‘try harder’ – fit a sober style to their grown-up stories: Seth’s diachromatic noir, Adrian Tomine’s clean-line realism. But Ware, for the most part, favours the vivid, pared down style of Siegel and Shuster’s early Superman strips. There’s a mismatch, as there was in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, between the style of cartooning and the bleak stories Ware tells; the style makes the stories easier to persevere with.

Building Stories follows the lives of three sets of characters who live for a time in the same three-storey walk-up in Chicago. A young ex-art school student who’s had a leg amputated has the apartment on the top floor; a couple still together despite the man’s contempt for his partner and her growing frustration at his lack of affection on the middle; and a lonely old woman – who owns the building – on the ground floor. They’re all trapped in lives of oppressive stasis. Neither member of the middle-floor couple has the confidence or energy to get out of the relationship, though they hate each other. The amputee can’t get a boyfriend, though she desperately wants one: she places a personal ad in a local paper at one point and spends an evening alone in a restaurant waiting for her date. The old woman is so caught up in remembering her own frustrations – she could never find a man because she had to spend so much time looking after her sick mother – that the presence of her rare visitors barely registers.

Even the building sounds world-weary. ‘“I’ve never seen her before,” thought the building,’ one of the comics begins. ‘“Could it be possible I’m available again?” … Then, snapping to, and though it was embarrassed by the ill repair of its entry … it nonetheless staggered forward from the shadow of a passing cloud and stood up straight in the sunlight.’ The building’s decrepitude sometimes brings the characters together, as when the student goes to the old woman’s flat to ask her to ring a plumber to fix a broken flush. But mostly they remain shut up in their own rooms, thinking about one another: the man on the middle floor fantasises about screwing the amputee in small, circular, blue thought bubbles; she wonders whether his arguments with his girlfriend are caused by drinking or philandering. They’re all constantly shutting doors on each other, and when they do we see the word ‘shut’: not ‘clunk’ or ‘chk’ or ‘click’, but ‘shut’ – the effect, not just the sound. Their isolation is emphasised by each of them having a (Beano-sized) comic about themselves in which the other characters feature as walk-ons if at all.

The amputee’s story is the most developed. We see her in her first job after leaving art school, working as an au pair for a rich family in the suburbs. She sympathises with the mother, whose husband is never home, until she realises that the woman is having an affair. Then she fantasises about having an affair with the husband, until he makes it clear how uninterested he is when he fires her because his kid has become ‘too attached’. He had thought the child wouldn’t develop a crush because she was disabled. She goes to visit her mother, who tells her that her father had an affair. Building Stories takes a dim view of relationships. Not that the alternative looks rosy: you end up alone and resentful, like the old woman, or dead, like the amputee’s fat friend Stephanie, who kills herself halfway through the thickest broadsheet.

The amputee’s first boyfriend, Lance, disappeared ‘travelling’ after she had an abortion. There’s a harrowing scene in which the girl’s mother tells her that he telephoned: ‘I completely forgot to tell you … He didn’t ask for your number, either, so I didn’t volunteer it. I hope I did the right thing.’ She spends the rest of the evening frantically checking caller ID on her parents’ phone then Googling Lance’s name trying to find contact details. Finally, she ends up living in the suburbs herself, with an architect husband and a young daughter. Like the middle-floor couple’s, their relationship is sexless, though she almost persuades herself it doesn’t matter. ‘I’m not too concerned about it, really … Sex is basically over-rated if you ask me,’ reads a fragment of interior monologue over a vertical triptych of her quietly masturbating under her duvet. She’d tried to persuade Phil not to have a minister at their wedding – ‘I’d already acceded [sic] so much to Phil, it was all I had left’ – but his wishes overrode hers, because of some story about his grandmother. (Ware does a clever thing here: the speech bubble in which Phil tells her why they need to have a minister is only half in the frame and is partly obscured by another speech bubble so you can’t really make out what he’s saying except that it’s something about his grandmother. This is a way of saying ‘yada yada yada’ graphically.) Like the rich guy she au paired for, her new husband spends most of his time at the office; when they’re together, they stare at their respective laptop screens, barely talking. And then she notices her daughter is isolating herself the same way she did. She arrives to pick Lucy up from nursery and finds her playing with sticks on her own. History repeats itself in Building Stories with agonising inexorability. At one point there’s a cross-section of the apartment building in which the rooms are marked with the number of times they’ve seen certain events: 469 feelings of ‘being wretched’, 886 screams, 22 pregnancies, 106,323 breakfasts.

Creativity, throughout Building Stories, is a line to redemption that’s never grasped tightly enough. The old woman, like the amputee, was an art student once, but responsibility for the building, and for her mother and the tenants, got in the way of her artistic ambitions. The middle-floor man was in a band: his musical talent is one reason his girlfriend found him attractive, his thwarted career one reason he now resents her. The amputee, by the end (end?) of the story, has completely given up on her dream of becoming ‘a writer or an artist’. She suffers blow after blow from ‘authorities’ who dismiss her work: an art teacher at high school savaged a self-portrait; her work at art school was given an equally cold reception. Then there was the creative writing class she signed up to, at which she was obliged to read her story right after a successful Hollywood scriptwriter read his. ‘OK,’ the teacher, who had just effusively complimented the scriptwriter, said. ‘Very nice. Who’s next?’ Ware lets us know that the work we’re reading is in some way derived from the amputee’s imagination: she tells her friend about a dream in which her book has been published, ‘only it wasn’t a book.’ But then she throws away all her notebooks. This gives Building Stories a vertigo-inducing ontological status: it’s a book that should have existed but didn’t, but that now, in fact, exists. The amputee is allowed to luxuriate in the successful application of her artistic ability just once, when she prepares a flower arrangement for her friend’s memorial service. She feels pleased with herself for five minutes. Then her cat dies.

Illustration from ‘Building Stories’ by Chris Ware

The title is a multi-storey pun. These are stories about a building, or about what it was like to live in a certain building. It’s also up to you to build the stories: at any rate, more up to you than it usually is – Ware gives you a box of narrative components to recombine in whatever order you like. Reading Building Stories is like making an Airfix model without the instructions. Throughout, Ware keeps the idea of building, and of buildings, in mind. The amputee’s husband is an architect, they live near Frank Lloyd Wright’s old house, and the memorial service for the amputee’s friend who kills herself is held at Wright’s Unity Temple. Ware’s drawings are strictly ruled: many of the frames are organised in series of squares, at regular intervals, with very little overlapping. They look like bricks. By drawing attention to the layout (by making it look like a caricature of a layout) Ware makes sure we recognise his craft as something different from the craft of the novelist, or illustrator, closer to the architect’s. The ‘incessant use of rulers’ – Ware’s phrase – is an ‘attempt to get at how houses and buildings affect the shapes and structures of our memories, and how these shapes can continue to live on in our minds for years or decades once the buildings are gone’. Ware hems his characters in so that we see how hemmed in they are by the spaces they live in, and – possibly – realise that our own reading of the stories is restricted by the spaces in which they’re told. If buildings shape people’s perceptions, then building-like stories structure our perception of the adventures of their protagonists.

Ware reminds us we’re doing something other than reading a novel by occasionally forgoing words entirely. One of the most effective comics charts the first few years in the life of the amputee’s daughter. The amputee is woken in the middle of the night and sits with her baby as the sun comes up; she prepares a bottle of milk; she pushes a buggy through summer and blustery autumn; she teaches her daughter to use the loo; takes her swimming; hoovers up after her – all without a single speech or thought bubble or stage direction. The effect is to impress on the reader the self-sufficiency of the pair. The architect hardly appears in this strip. If he does it’s as an almost shapeless presence at the other end of the bed, or a figure striding in or out of a frame on his way to or returning from work. Ware stops short of condemning him but he does make you realise, in this strip particularly, how unbalanced this set-up is, and how different the worlds of mother and father are from each other: the quiet and patient world of mother-daughter v. the breadwinner’s busy schedule.

Men don’t fare well here – Phil is the pick of a rotten bunch. Even Branford the bee, the hero of the Daily Bee, and of a story the amputee reads to her daughter, is hopelessly inadequate. He gets seduced by a reflection of flowers, confused by a window – ‘some kinda hard air, or something’ – and ends up trapped in a basement writing floridly stricken journal entries in the style of young Werther. Male-bashing happens a lot in contemporary comics: the work of Tomine, or Ivan Brunetti, or Ware himself hitherto, is full of anxious young men beating themselves up over their socio-sexual incompetence – thinly veiled avatars of their creators. (This has been the case since Will Eisner’s semi-autobiographical Contract with God, the first comic book marketed as a ‘graphic novel’, and hugely influential.) But in Building Stories the condemnation, unusually, isn’t restricted to the over-thinking outsider, it’s more than species-wide: wealthy lawyer, middle-class architect, working-class Joe and bumblebee.

Ware’s father walked out on him and his mother when he was a child and didn’t contact them for thirty years: ‘I grew up as an only child, emotionally impaired; I hated myself, everybody hated me. I had never met my real father and it kind of lodged in my brain like this weakness, this emotional weakness.’ Eventually Ware Sr got in touch and he and his son had an awkward dinner together. He stood Ware up on their second date, and died of a heart attack before they could arrange a third. Coincidentally, at the time his father got in touch, Ware was working on a book about what it would be like to meet him, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. In this strip, Jimmy, middle-aged and lonely, receives a letter from his long estranged father that reads: ‘I think it’s about time we fellas get to know each other, what do you say? … Let’s get together, I think we’d have a lot to talk about.’ Jimmy imagines what his father might now look like in a sequence of spot-the-difference panels: oiled and affluent in a yellow polo shirt; sleazy and drunk with an unkempt moustache; fat and jolly with a booming voice. But when they do meet up the two of them look almost identical – the same bean-shaped heads (Ware himself has a distinctively broad forehead), the same thinning hair, even the same sleeveless cardigan – and you realise immediately that acquaintance with his father is going to give Jimmy more of the same kind of life, not turn it around. His father isn’t glamorous, or monstrous, he’s average, and they get on neither badly nor particularly well.

There’s a similar long-anticipated reunion in Building Stories. Lance, the boyfriend who disappeared, eventually gets in touch with the amputee and they meet up at a drinks party. He’s old, boring, bald and ugly and has a family of his own. They exchange meaningless pleasantries and go their separate ways. Love’s special bond, once broken or buried, is impossible to recover. In an interview with a comics magazine last year Ware described his meeting with his father:

I think like the third sentence he said to me, he asked if I got married, and I said: ‘Yeah, I got married a couple years ago.’ He said: ‘Why didn’t you invite me to the wedding, ya shit-bird?’ … He was in the Navy and he was so uncomfortable; he wanted so much to just put things on sort of a conversational level that his brain was overcompensating, it was really kind of sad and painful to hear him say that, because he was obviously just trying to connect in any desperate way that he could.

But of course he couldn’t. Ware’s scepticism about the possibility of reconciling broken families is matched by an almost evangelical enthusiasm for the nuclear family unit. ‘I cannot imagine divorcing my wife and not seeing my daughter for 10 or 15 years’ he told Comics Journal. ‘It seems like pure hell.’ When the Guardian asked him ‘when were you happiest?’ he replied: ‘The day my daughter, Clara, was born, and pretty much every day since.’

The desire to make us better people – better fathers, better lovers, more creative – is part of the reason Ware wants to tell us these stories, which, if not for their extravagant mode of presentation would be unremarkable (in that nothing remarkable happens to these people). But Ware is also trying to tell us that we like unremarkable, or at least that there’s a gap in the market for it. Before going on holiday the amputee looks through her books for something to read on the plane. ‘Maybe this is finally the big Moby-Dick vacation,’ she thinks. ‘What about Ulysses? Start Proust? Dostoevsky? … Too many murderers and lunatics … I could take Nabokov but he’s such a pedant, child molester and … Fuck! Why does every “great book” have to be about criminals or perverts? Can’t I just find one that’s about regular people living everyday life?’ Building Stories doses us with regular people and everyday life but sweetens the pill by dignifying them with pictorial beauty (and a massive cardboard box). Ware also makes a point of using drawing, rather than prose, to flag up the book’s preoccupations: the restrictions placed on our thinking by the places we inhabit, the creative life as a kind of salvation from propriety. By using drawing to elevate these stories the book celebrates its format’s aptitude for alchemy. One of the most beautiful frames comes at the end of one of the broadsheet comics. It’s a view of the suburban Chicago street at night: the sky is one shade of grey; the trees, furry and curvaceous, are another; the houses are blocks of black studded with burning orange windows. It’s just a street with buildings on it with normal people living in them. But what Ware has told us about buildings has turned each orange window into a frame.