Book Review
October 18, 2012

Inside the Box
‘Building Stories,’ by Chris Ware

Published: October 18, 2012

The most despairing image in Chris Ware’s magnificent new graphic novel, “Building Stories” — and there are plenty of candidates — depicts a dumpy middle-aged couple, naked in their bedroom. She’s just dropped her clothes to the floor; he’s lying on the bed, oblivious to her, his face and chest illuminated by the iPad propped on his belly.

You will never be able to read “Building Stories” on a digital tablet, by design. It is a physical object, printed on wood pulp, darn it. It’s a big, sturdy box, containing 14 different “easily misplaced elements” — a hard-bound volume or two, pamphlets and leaflets of various dimensions, a monstrously huge tabloid à la century-old Sunday newspaper comics sections and a folded board of the sort that might once have come with a fancy game. In which order should one read them? Whatever, Ware shrugs, uncharacteristically relinquishing his customary absolute control. In the world of “Building Stories,” linearity leads only to decay and death.

Arguably, the box’s central nugget of story is a sequence Ware serialized in The New York Times Magazine in the mid-2000s, which appears here in something that approximates the dimensions and binding of a Little Golden Book. The chief protagonist of “Building Stories,” a sad, lonely florist with a prosthetic leg (Ware never gives her a name), lives on the third story of a 98-year-old building in Chicago. She’s a former art student who eventually gave up on creating anything: as she explains in a pseudo-gag cartoon on the edge of the box (!), she was “just art curious.”

Below her, on the second floor, there’s a couple whose romance is utterly dead; the ground floor is occupied by the landlady, an elderly, faltering spinster. On an autumn day in 2000, the florist deals with a plumbing problem, briefly loses her cat and has a fumbling makeout session with a former classmate. An epilogue shows her, five years later, driving past the building with her baby daughter; on that section’s back cover, a wrecking ball is smashing off the corner of her former apartment. That’s what you get for chasing time’s arrow.

Instead, Ware lets his readers follow the gnarled paths memory takes as it builds and rebuilds stories. The individual elements of the box show us the building and its residents at fraught moments in their lives, or chart aspects of their existence over time. Ware has an extraordinary command of time and pacing: one bravura page depicts the florist and her husband dealing with her father’s decline over several months, every panel a perfectly composed little square, the thought balloons doubling as after-the-fact narration, and the whole thing a tribute to the look of Frank King’s old “Gasoline Alley” Sunday pages. In another sequence, we see the landlady age 80 years in 18 panels, with paper-doll tabs extending from her body. A bee who’s trapped inside the building until the florist opens a window turns up again as the star of his own comics, the closest thing to comedic relief here. (The spiritual crises and sexual neuroses of “Branford, the Best Bee in the World” amount to little more or less than any of the human characters’; in a moment of self-loathing, he concludes that he’s “an impure, disgusting slug who thinks too much of fertilizing the queen.”)

The organizing principle of “Building Stories” is architecture, and — even more than he usually does — Ware renders places and events alike as architectural diagrams. He’s certain of every detail of these rooms, and tends to splay their furnishings out diagonally to show how they fit together. Every visual observation of bodies or nature is ruthlessly adjusted to the level of symbol, rendered in a minimal number of hard, perfectly even, perfectly straight or curved lines. Elaborate strings of micro-panels explode scenes’ components outward through time or through a character’s thought patterns; mandala-ish page compositions arrange associative chains of text and pictures around a central image. The florist’s young daughter appears, practically life-size, at the middle of one of the biggest double-page sequences in the book.

“Building Stories” is one of the two enormous projects Ware has been working on since “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” made his reputation in 2000. (The other is “Rusty Brown,” apparently still in progress.) It’s so far ahead of the game that it tempts you to find fault just to prove that a human made it, and there are absolutely faults to be found. The way Ware hangs a lantern on his story’s weaker beats, for instance — when a not-quite-dead baby mouse reminds one character of a long-ago abortion, she thinks: “What a ridiculous metaphor . . . really, could it have been any more obvious? I was embarrassed for who or whatever was coming up with the script for my life” — doesn’t make them any stronger.

Still, Ware is remarkably deft at balancing the demands of fine art, where sentimentality is an error, and those of storytelling, where emotion is everything. He rejects the possibility of showing his hand in his (notably handmade) artwork, but that watertight visual surface lets him get away with vast billows of existential torment. Quiet desperation is just about the best anybody can hope for in Ware’s world. To be fair, this time he doesn’t punish all of his characters for having the temerity to be in his story. A lengthy, wordless pamphlet about the florist’s love for her daughter may be the tenderest thing Ware has ever published.

Like everything else here, it’s also slow, demanding and melancholy. Ware has earned the right to make demands of his readers, though. He’s built a whole microcosm in this box, over the course of more than a decade. You have to play by his rules to perceive its complicated splendor, or find yourself like Branford the bee, stuck behind a pane of “hard air” and unable to reach the flower beyond it.

A version of this review appeared in print on October 21, 2012, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Inside The Box.