Building Stories, by Chris Ware, Jonathan Cape, RRP£30 / Pantheon, RRP$50, 260 pages
Building Stories is more than just a mere graphic novel. It is a multifaceted artefact. Inside a sturdy cardboard box sit 14 separate comic-strip sections of wildly varying size. Some are as small as a leaflet, others as large as a broadsheet newspaper. Two are hardbacks with thick card covers, like children’s books, and there is a schematic that unfolds like an old-fashioned board game.
The stories can be read in any order and, together, tell of a brownstone apartment block in suburban Chicago and its three sets of tenants: an angst-ridden mother with a weak heart and a prosthetic leg, an embittered bickering couple, and an elderly lady increasingly withdrawing into her memories.
Their tales overlap and interlock. Ware reveals vignettes of lives that are adrift, yearning, melancholy, lost. He spares us no detail of his characters’ day-to-day existence, however intimate or sordid. Oral sex, dirty underpants, muffin tops, leg-shaving – we see it all, until we feel voyeuristic. And we are privy to these people’s innermost thoughts, which are as humdrum, self-doubting and vainglorious as our own.
Yet we are invited to share, too, in little domestic joys and triumphs: a cute remark from a child, a backhanded compliment from a spouse. There is also a fourth strand to the narrative, featuring Branford the Best Bee in the World, an anthropomorphised insect whose adventures provide an ironic counterpoint. Branford is an anxious, hard-working drone who has moments of existential crisis and entertains hopeless fantasies of mating with his queen. In other words, for all that his days are spent hopping around flowers and lapping up nectar, he is no happier than any of the humans.
It could be depressing but Ware writes and draws with immense compassion. He is not prying or judging, only showing. On several occasions he has the building itself deliver wistful monologues about its past inhabitants. Here is the bigger picture, the long-term view. The vista opens out, and it is made clear that, in the grand scheme of things, everyday worries do not matter. This too shall pass.
Ware illustrates in the ligne claire style, whose most famous exponent is Tintin creator Hergé. This means simple, solid lines, fields of flat colour and a strong overarching sense of design. Ware is an exquisite miniaturist, and his use of multiple panels to convey time passing, whether slowly or swiftly, is brilliant. Excerpts from Building Stories have appeared in American publications over the past 10 years, but they cohere beautifully in this book, which is much more than a box of reading matter. Building Stories is a thing to be experienced.