Handle with Care: A Review of Chris Ware's Building Stories, by Michael Mejia
Handle with Care: A Review of Chris Ware's Building Stories
At a time when traditionally published books seem to be fighting a losing battle with e-books over an already slim market share and exciting small presses are popping up everywhere, like mushrooms, reeling off an astounding number and variety of hardcopy titles (as well as e-books and PDFs), and online journals, zines, blogs, and social networking sites are posting a profusion of content and comment, it seems very hard to believe that the book has reached some kind of fatal horizon. This is a moment of significant transformation, perhaps, of hybridization, evolution even, but death? No. This is, rather, an opportune time for reflection on the book, its history and continued potential, a moment when we might consider the promise of both paper and code for the purpose of devising new projects for each that will best utilize and test the boundaries of their particular properties. On behalf of paper, Chris Ware's Building Stories does precisely this.
Building Stories consists of 14 separate elements, not including the box that holds them, which offers a few additional panels (bottom, outside edges), standard copyright information (top, inside), and back cover description and an architectural graphic with suggestions for where to "set down, forget, or completely lose"–not read—the book's parts (bottom, outside). The pieces of this narrative puzzle assume a variety of formats, representing a nostalgic (though not exhaustive) panorama of paper's history as a publishing platform. There are three gazette-sized pieces, a four panel cardboard screen, a large broadside, three magazines, a tall hardback book, a smaller hardback resembling an entry in Random House's Little Golden Books series, a paperback-sized pamphlet, a horizontal pamphlet, and two folded horizontal strips. Opening the box, one finds these works stacked bottom-to-top according to size with no directions about the order in which they should be read. Whereas the "building" of the title alludes most directly to the three story brownstone within and around which many of these pieces take place, it also suggests the reader's participation in constructing the reading experience, the process of hunting for and accumulating information about Building Stories's unnamed protagonist, and the active and hopeful search for resolution.
The book's central narrative depicts the anxiety-ridden post-graduate life of a young woman, a former art student, who, in the early 2000s, occupies the top floor of a once elegant turn-of-the-twentieth-century building in Chicago. She lives alone, with only a cat for company, and works at a florist's around the corner. Below her, on the second floor, live another young woman and her boyfriend, who are often engaged in loud arguments over his constant critique of her appearance. The building's owner lives on the first floor. An old woman now, she's spent her whole life here, taking on the duties of maintaining the place after her father's early death and the onset of her mother's long, debilitating illness, which, the old woman seems to believe, was the cause of her never having married. By the time her mother died, the woman's youth, and all her opportunities for escaping the building, had passed. Despite their proximity and the common qualities of their loneliness, the three women remain separated as much by walls of social awkwardness and deference as by the physical walls of their living spaces. When they do cross paths, their sense of each other is so distorted by their lack of information, their reticence to inquire or reveal, and their concerns about their own painful pasts and presents that any substantial sympathetic connection, and consequently any salvation from their living entombment, seems impossible.
While the women on the lower floors each receive extensive narrative time of their own, including a magazine devoted to each, they also seem to provide ominous suggestions of potential futures for our top floor protagonist, until, in the Little Golden Book, she reconnects with a former classmate, Phil, the man she'll marry and with whom she'll have a daughter, Lucy. Naturally, their subsequent life together is no fairy tale, underlining the irony of Ware's formal choice of the Golden Book for recording the events of the day that culminates with their fortuitous meeting. But neither is it tragic. Rather, their move to the suburbs, their remodel, their struggles as parents and partners, and as children of aging parents are punctuated with a number of dramatic crises, but few real surprises. Our protagonist continues to suffer from the creative failures she experienced as an art student and in post-graduate writing classes, and to lament her appearance—her perception of which has been challenged throughout her life by the amputation of her left leg below the knee. She worries about the potential for societal collapse, her mother's loneliness, and hints of her daughter's isolation and depression. But in her new context, as a suburban housewife and mother, she's also able to ask what seems like the most ridiculous and yet the most essential question, one we're glad she's finally able to articulate, particularly in the midst of personal tragedy: "My God…was I happy?"
Compared to the pleasurable unpredictability of each element's style and focus, its picking up of a narrative thread or presentation of a new perspective on a moment we've only glimpsed before, Ware's text, broadly considered, delivers few innovations. The materials and milieu, even the sources and nature of sadness, are familiar, as are the expectations of our sympathies for the central characters' art school sensibilities and progressive attitudes about gentrification, while the rich world of urban diversity nevertheless remains always out of focus or beyond the margins of the comic's panels. But this is not to say that the characters aren't sympathetic or that Ware's equally rich depictions of love, loneliness, personal failure, and physical decline aren't affecting. The contrast between the text's emotional darkness and the primary colored world of Sunday comics, between sometimes minimal cartoon images and moments of stunning, detailed realism—as in a panel where Lucy, in a tantrum, strikes her mother across the face—are brilliantly managed throughout, each page or spread clearly guiding the reader through a sequence of elegantly constructed emotional beats. Two panels showing the movement of light across a ceiling are efficient and functional indicators of time passing as well as heartbreaking depictions of an oppressive silence, a quiet, empty life. Lucy's face printed across the fold of one of the gazettes—her expression ambiguous, that of a child aware of nothing but play—is one of many examples of Ware's sensitivity to the emotive power of scale. It's a moving revelation for the reader as much as for the girl's mother.
Perhaps Building Stories's greatest triumph, however, remains its physical abundance of formats, not solely because of the broader argument they collectively make for paper's persistent creative potential, and for the continuation of experiments with the morphology of the book, but also because of the way each element provides a very different experience that reframes and adds to the development of Ware's characters and narrative. The gazette requires a different physical relationship between the reader and the text than the hardback book, and perhaps a different reading environment, as well. And its resemblance to the daily paper makes it an appropriate form for illustrating the suburban world that is its subject. The two double-sided foldable pieces, on the other hand—the shortest works in the box—having no clearly indicated beginning or ending panels, acquire the quality of Möbius strips, the suggestion of endlessly repeated sequences, moments of actual experience replayed as memory or dream, turned over and over in the mind of the protagonist as they are in the hands of the reader, no longer simply representations of cycles of despair and anxiety, but the physical experience of these as well.
Indeed, touching and presence are significant themes throughout the book. One magazine opens with the protagonist scornfully critiquing her fellow shoppers at the grocery store for their annoying dependence on their smartphones, while a number of pieces contain panels in which she and her husband sit illuminated by separate screens—a laptop, a tablet—as their daughter plays alone nearby, or is somewhere else, out of sight, absent. Against these disconnections are ranged a host of more or less subtle touches—hands, fingers, paws, mouths, voices, drawing, writing—that arrive as vital reminders of the continuous loving presence of others. Even the building, a speaking character, is enlivened and gratified by the physical memory of its parade of tenants, the way they've passed through over the decades, touching its doorknobs and floors, their presence altering it for better and worse. Passing through Building Stories, opening it, unfolding it, turning its pages, we find that, in all ways, it is a deeply moving and gratifying work of and about tactility, one that reminds us of all the reasons we love paper and how lively a medium it remains in our hands.
Michael Mejia is the author of a novel, Forgetfulness (Fiction Collective 2), and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including AGNI, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Notre Dame Review, Black Warrior Review, Forms at War, and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. He has received a Literature Fellowship in Prose from the NEA and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. A co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, he teaches Creative Writing at the University of Utah.