Book Review: Building Stories
The Graphic Narrative
HUGO FENAUX (MArch I ’16)
BUILDING STORIES By Chris Ware
Illustrated. Pantheon Books
At this point, Chris Ware’s new graphic novel, Building Stories, is not so new. Like the characters that live within the cramped quarters of his packed pages, the book itself professes the age and despair it so masterfully depicts. It is refreshingly depressing, sad in all the best ways, and uniquely monotonous.
Building Stories is not a graphic novel. It is certainly not a book. It is a box; a big, colorful, cardboard box, containing fourteen sympathetic yet essentially unique pieces of a single story.
Sifting through the contents of the box, it is impossible to find the beginning. The collection ranges from hardbound volumes to tabloids, Sunday comic strips, pamphlets, leaflets, and one very large folded board, like those found in a dusty stack of board games, forgotten on the bottom shelf. But where to begin?
It becomes apparent that just as Building Stories is a collection of work, produced over more than a decade, it is also a collection of stories that seem, in no logical way, to follow the life and death of the inhabitants of a building: to be exact, an old brownstone in Chicago. In every way it is a social critique, but likewise it is an architectural speculation carried out to its appropriate end.
Ware uses architecture as a vehicle for social interaction. The brownstone serves as the organizing element of Building Stories, and as such becomes a metric for judging the atmosphere of the narrative. The residents are often secondary elements, we read their emotions through the architecture of the building and the page.
Many scenes depict nothing more than tired carpet, speckled in that dissatisfying way that carpet gets; crumbs which seem to cling, relentlessly, to the page; drab paint peeling and a single person emerges from the corner. It seems at times, that the brownstone is, itself, the narrator.
Ware often uses the organization of each page with as much architectural intent as the brownstone. With a minimum of text, Ware drives the narrative through his drawings. The relentless, claustrophobic composition of the scenes often expresses more about the characters than the tiny speech bubbles hovering silently over their heads.
Building Stories is as much about the qualities of the composition as it is about the narrative woven throughout, and is thus just as successfully viewed hanging from the wall, as splayed across the floor. While it is capable of holding its own as a singular piece of art, it seems far more interesting to look at the implication for social and architectural speculation.
All illustrations by Chris Ware. Photographs by Francesca Carney.