The Walls Could, In Fact, Talk: Musings on Chris Ware’s Building Stories

Building Stories

by Chris Ware

Knopf Doubleday, 2012

Hardcover, $55~

Chris Ware‘s Building Stories is the inconclusively plotted story of an somewhat average albeit one-legged, unnamed woman’s life, and the neighbours she shares a 3-storey walk-up with in her early adulthood: A landlady and a stagnating couple, with the occasional appearances of the walk-up itself and the religiously cathartic Branford, the Best Bee in the World.

Persistent doldrums pervade this fragmented, multi-format text made up of (but not limited to) pamphlets, posters, bound books, newspapers, and stapled three-panel zines, the feelings of isolation and desperation folks can attest to with everyday life. It’s seen in so many faces of Ware’s work; think of Jimmy Corrigan (Pantheon Books, 2000), with its vacant and consistently downtrodden stares through windows and at walls for detailed excursions into memories and introspection on the present, all the while waiting for the sky to fall.

So: It is an open-ended, depressing and broken story, both literally and figuratively. And this is what makes it so great.

Yes, every character in this book is consumed with loss (riffing on Daniel Worden here). There are little to no counterpoint figures who are successful or happy in the world of Building Stories, and if there are, the spotlight will only touch them fleetingly. Misery persists. However, the absence caused by loss forms a collectively relatable presence. So if loss is collective experience, what would happen if you collected it? Voilà, you have Building Stories.

The book’s realism draws you in, and its physiology offers an incredibly dynamic reading experience. While the collection of different print items can be read in any order, I decided to read them in the order they appeared in the box, from the top of the stack to the bottom. As a result, my “last” page shows our heroine trying to think of something to read among the Great Authors (Joyce, Melville, Nabokov) proclaiming “Fuck! Why does every ‘great book’ have to always be about criminals or perverts? Can’t I just find one that’s about regular people living everyday life?” Ware’s done just that, reflecting how ‘everyday life’ is seldom thought to be without the meaningful thoughts and contexts we take for granted, very much in the same vein as Joyce’s Ulysses. Instead of seeing beauty in our world’s careful, chance placement of surroundings, we tend to emotionally engage with what is absent from it. You probably don’t feel a trip to the grocery store will add much to the growing mythology that is Your Life, but the carefully stark and almost museological panelling and detail makes this painfully apparent. In careful geometric drawings, Ware has organized a Kunstkammer of both 21st-century urban and suburban living on every page. The characters may not see life that way, but a reader can, as is shown when the heroine finds “her” book in a bookstore in the brief metatextual tale “Browsing”:


The heroine would find (fifth panel), among the pages, a book resembling something from the Little Golden Book children’s series (remember those?). In it, she’ll find the story “September 23rd, 2000”, which begins with her apartment building taking stock not of the times it has been empty, but of the signs of life that have passed through it. When a reader takes stock of everything Building Stories has to offer, the intricacies that life in general has to offer, they are much like this building, who “now has to admit to feeling a little bit grateful for the arrival each day of 24 more hours yet to come.”

– JP

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