A Narrative Form for the Ordinary. Chris Ware's Building Stories
Housed in a 42x32 cm box, “Building Stories” comprises a vast content of multiple removable elements (“14 distinctively discrete books, booklets, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets”, a total of 260 pages) consisting of parts as varied as a set of colossal trading cards inserted in a couple of foldout sections, superfetated or jivaroesque comic strips, a two-panel story printed on the side of a card box or, hidden under the lid, the copyright page. Be prepared to find feigned slides, a paper doll / ACME brochure appearance, an obsession with simultaneity, hypercorrection, overexposure, Escherian X-ray vision, blue blueprints, boreal hyperborean tree diagrams…
Certainly, the very nature of the book forces us to take inventory. The whole system is used in the service of a story which is not measured in human years but in building years: the story of one of those everyday humans full of sad secrets who constitute Chris Ware’s accustomed theme. In this case a woman whose name is not mentioned even once in any of the comic pages. These pages work themselves as dislocated biographical segments, some of them minor and others (due either to their narrative heft, their length or their magnitude) major. One of the longest texts in the volume is a story entitled “All My Life” [FIG. 3]. Its fold-out pages sort of work as an employment record for the protagonist, whom we’ll meet at different stages in her life but of whom we’ll get to know very little: she lost a leg in a childhood boating accident, she attended art school, she had a job as a babysitter and at a florist shop, and she wound up marrying an architect named Phil and devoting herself to domestic life and taking care of her daughter. For the most part of the story, though, the real confidant of the reader is the stage in which “Building Stories” takes place, the building their characters inhabit [FIG. 4] (some sections of another long installment of the “book”, called “September 23rd 2000”, come to mind here). Tom Robbins’ imagined challenge of writing a novel whose only protagonists would be inanimate objects is met here. Any human building is more saturated than a hundred-year-old photograph.
Ware takes his hypertrophied examination of the unsubstantial—daily routines, the clichéd, all that which is rendered almost invisible by its very ordinariness—to the extreme. And it is precisely that examination which ends up suggesting different storytelling forms and formats to him. One of the pieces in “Building Stories” is a mini comic book whose protagonist, Branford, is a bee who just happens to find itself at the “crime scene” and to whom Ware allows its own “insect tempo” [FIG. 5]. This maddeningly thorough description of customs is taken to the extreme of even showing us a copy of the bee swarm journal, “The Daily Bee”—by the way, there is an author who did indeed consecrate a number of his years to writing his “The Life of the Bee”, Maeterlinck, perhaps not a champion of thoroughness himself.
We readers are asked here to play the part of The Lame Devil, the character in Luis Velez de Guevara’s novel who was a witness to his times and society. As we open the box’s lid we find a number of tiles we can study at our pleasure. Each page requires a remarkably attentive examination, and this thoroughness leaves one exhausted and with an urge to give Chris Ware’s work a proper designation, something that sounds emphatic, something like “powerful, mercilessly microscopic glyphs not devoid of sense for a correct reading of a dismounted tome with a yearning for completeness”. Yes, something that will be catchy and memorable.
The effort and discipline “Building Stories” demands from the reader are not very different from that required by Gaddis’ or William H. Gass’ novels, or even by the inescapable “Ulysses”. “Building Stories” is a treasure chest, a fetish box, a snapshot album, a series of super 8 film cartridges, home movies, entries of journals long lost when moving out and in. It’s left to us readers to put everything in order and come to a conclusion. Some other artists have used this format before: think of “The Unfortunates” by B. S. Johnson, the unsewn pages of a novel housed in a little box; think of Max Aub’s “Juego de cartas”, a novel in the shape of a 108-illustrated-cards deck. Both works could be read, or rather “built”, in the reader’s preferred order, which is also, in the end, Ware’s proposal with his “Building Stories”. Chris Ware offers a new perspective on “costumbrismo” and invites us to take the soberest time travel imaginable.