By Chris Ware. Pantheon, 230 pp
Building Stories is Chris Ware’s first major work since his award-winning 2000 graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. Over the years, however, various illustrations and panels from what would become this insanely ambitious project have appeared in various places, including the cartoonist’s own ongoing series Acme Novelty Library.
So Building Stories is long-awaited, at least by graphic-novel/comics nerds.
The first thing you notice about the book, if it can be called that, is its radical deconstruction of the comics medium. Building Stories arrives in a box that contains 14 different pieces of various shapes and sizes—or, as Ware describes them,“14 distinctively discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers and Pamphlets”.
But there is a narrative here, one that runs through all the various pieces and connects characters who all at one time lived in an aging apartment building (the building’s a character too). Because the material within many of the pieces jumps around in time—including, for one memorable sequence, more than 100 years into the future—there seems to be no right or wrong order in which to read the pieces (though the back of the box also includes a schematic “as to appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents”).
There’s also a main character to root for. She is a nameless young woman whose life periods—her confused art-school years, her doleful, lonely 20s, her hard-won, almost happy 30s—will be instantly recognizable to many a Generation Xer (Ware was born in 1967). But while she provides a through-line and a sympathetic reader stand-in, Building Stories has so many layers (it’s wise about cats and bees, domestic strife, and gentrification), so many nifty tricks of storytelling (the way Ware incorporates text messages into his panels, for one), and so many recognizable, heartbreaking moments (the loss of a friend, of a long-time companion, of youthful ambition) that it is finally a work that has to be experienced.
Ware recently praised David Foster Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King as “the first great novel of the 21st century”. Like Wallace, Ware is a poet of loneliness and despair. And Building Stories, I’d wager, could well be the century’s second great novel.