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Friday, March 15, 2013

Building Stories by Chris Ware

This is not your typical graphic novel.  It comes in a big box, and contains fourteen different segments in different formats -- broadsheet, accordion fold, newspaper, pamphlet, Golden Book, and so on.  There's no particular order to read them in, just pick one up and start in on Ware's tale of life and loneliness, told in his clear, neat, evocative illustrations.

The work centers around a nameless, one-legged woman struggling with depression, but it's not as bleak as it sounds.  Ware is no sadist, delighting in making his characters suffer; instead he is deeply understanding of them. Building Stories is about life, and the way one copes with everyday disappointments and expectations.  By almost every standard, the protagonist has a good life, and she acknowledges it (certainly in hindsight and sometimes in the present), but it doesn't make her struggles and doubts any less sincere or painful. 

Several sections of the work have been published elsewhere, including in the New York Times Magazine, which is where I first encountered Ware and his endearing protagonist.  That portion focused on the apartment building the woman lived in for a time, and aptly demonstrated different kinds of loneliness -- the young woman, convinced she would never get married and have children; a married couple unable to break out of their vicious, petty, squabbling cycle, and the elderly landlady with no one in her life other than an aide, thinking over the choices (and non-choices) she made long ago.  Ware's art and writing is like a sharp needle to the heart, so skilled he is at capturing the feelings so many of us experience at one point or another.

The segment ends with a flash forward to the protagonist, now married and with a child, marveling over her past loneliness (not really a spoiler, given the nature of the work).  It seems like a happy ending, but it isn't, really, because the other segments, about other areas of her life, show that the loneliness and sense of loss never really go away.  In this sense Building Stories reminded me of Our Tragic Universe; it is a story-less story, with no real ending or beginning, no neat resolutions or dramatic revelations.  This is not a happy, cheerful work, but it is a profoundly human one.

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