Unsolicited Endorsement: Building Stories

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by Daniel Wirtheim

At first it was just nice to look at. The approximately 2- by-1 box that lay on my coffee table with the words Building Stories written in various fonts within illustrated blocks like something from the cubist movement. My brother had given me Building Stories, illustrator Chris Ware’s irregular graphic novel, as a gift only a few months ago, as something that I should “explore,” he said.

There’s really no starting point here. When you take the lid off of Building Stories you’re confronted with 14 different stories in various, unique formats. There’s a dispatch from “The Daily Bee,” an entire stand-up cardboard layout of a brownstone apartment building in Chicago, various comic strips, a journal and a few accordion-folded comics. Through these artifacts, Ware tells the story of a woman living in a Chicago brownstone.

The heroine, if you can call her that, is never named but lives on the third floor, which she has a hard time getting to considering that she has a prosthetic leg. As readers, we follow her through art school, her first love interest, an abortion, a birth and the subsequent loneliness spurred by her failed dreams of being a successful artist.

Along the way we’re privy to the thoughts of the little old landlady, a couple who’s about to break up and even the building itself. Ware injects a playful sense of self-awareness to Building Stories, making it that much more compelling.

At one point the protagonist comes across a copy of Building Stories in a bookstore. In another sequence, students from 150 years in the future read the characters’ memories from a “consciousness cloud,” commenting on how boring and incredibly misguided people in the 21st Century were. It’s a lot to take in, but Building Stories, which took Ware about 10 years to complete, is an incredibly reflective, fast-paced and thoughtful work of art.

While all of the stories are self-contained, they overlap in the big picture, so it’s not just mindless fun. In fact, it’s downright depressing at times. Loss is a common theme throughout Building Stories. Tenants leave, children grow old, and the aspiring artist loses her ambition and leg but Ware maintains that life must go and ensures the reader that every tenant, every story is part of a much larger narrative. And at times Building Stories is akin to a graphic prayer novel for 21st Century apartment dwellers — a comic-sutra, perhaps.