Where do we start? What do we do next? How do we make sense out of all this? With Chris Ware’s Building Stories, as with life, the answer seems to be, “Just keep going. It will all come together, probably.”
Building Stories is a challenging, rewarding reading experience. I can’t say book; I can’t say graphic novel; I can’t say comic. None of those words quite fit Building Stories. Chris Ware’s newest work is the story of a woman’s life, and it comes in what looks like a game box, similar to Monopoly or … Life. And the metaphors begin.
Inside the box are fourteen different pieces of her story. Readers can start with any of the pieces and read them in any order. Does the story change depending on where a reader starts and the order in which the pieces are read? Who knows? We can only go through things once for the first time. We only get one shot at freshly building this story.
Building? Story? Chris Ware also leads us to closely examine those words. Building means constructing, and it also means an architectural structure. Stories are narratives, and they are also levels within those architectural structures. As we play with those definitions in different combinations, we come to see what Chris Ware is saying about how we make meaning out of our lives and those of others.
As we go through Building Stories, we feel a little differently as we handle each piece. The main character’s story emerges partially through colorful newspapers, partially through a game board, partially through a Golden Book-like installment, and partially through other odd-sized pages, papers and conglomerations. Understanding her life from navigating a game board seems symbolically appropriate, as does learning about her from a newspaper. Stories come to us in many ways. (None of this would work on an e-reader. Building Stories is paper-based and cannot be any other way. Take that, Kindle and Nook.)
The woman’s story, regardless of how an individual reader reveals it, is devastatingly sad, but it’s in told in comic art. So Chris Ware has also given us his tragicomic metaphor for life. Even when things go badly, it’s still just sort of funny. Life is both at the same time.
Oh, and there are bees. And a cat. Their lives, as it turns out, are not much different from those lived by people. Kind of sad at times. Kind of funny at other times. Their stories, and ours, depend on how we build and understand them. Some of it we control; some of it we don’t. Some of it we’re given; some of it we build.