Back in March 2011, during that year’s Tournament of Books, I was introduced to what might be best described as a concept book. Nox is Anne Carson’s literary project to unearth the identity of her recently-departed, long-estranged brother. Instead of pages of text bound between a front and back cover, Nox is a box containing a robust accordion-fold collection of notes, snapshots, receipts, journal entries, and other ephemera of a mystery life. Tournament of Books match commentator John Warner says this about Carson’s project:
I read Nox in a single sitting of under an hour, though “read” is the wrong word. “Looked through,” or “experienced” might be better. I’m one of the now many who reads in both physical copy and digital formats, and for most of the time, and most books, I can’t really say that the digital version alters the experience in any significant way. Regardless of how you’re reading something, often, text is text is text.
Nox makes a strong argument for its necessity as a physical book. It comes shrink-wrapped, and upon opening, reveals itself to be a box which contains a rendering of a notebook, the pages connected via an accordion fold. The literally continuous nature of the book makes for an unusual sensation as you read, since the pages unfurl from one side and stack on the other. It was almost impossible to stop reading, as the next page was already partially unfolded, reminding you of its looming presence. This is unlike a digital text where you can only assume there’s more behind the next click.
There are an unexpected number of grocery shots in this book.
I was dead fascinated by the idea—especially by the idea of a book that justifies its physical nature, it’s unwieldy spatial presence. I largely read my comics in bound-paper form. It’s not that I don’t find digital reproductions as worthwhile or powerful.11I’ve purchased and read several comics through Dark Horse’s, Viz’s, and Top Shelf’s digital apps and the experience, while tactilely different and leaving the reader incapable of flipping through pages with any real facility, was not a far change from the more traditional means of comics consumption. More, I tend to avoid digital because the preponderance of unreasonable DRM schemes22Meaning that I, the purchaser, am not the owner of the thing purchased and am merely a leasee. I cannot loan digital comics to friends. I cannot give them to a friend to keep for as long as he wants. I cannot sell when I no longer want to keep the book around. The only two rights I am granted by digital purchasing under current DRM models are 1) the right to read my books so long as the service I’m leasing from allows it, and 2) the right to delete the book from my archive. I’m still excited by the potential of digital publication but I find the means through which companies distribute their digital content abhorrent.. Still, I wondered if there would be any Nox-like experiments to grace the medium of comics literature. Chris Ware’s Building Stories is that experiment.
The descriptions I had read of readers opening Nox and their surprise at its contents were the first non-experiential thing to grace my mind when I began unboxing Building Stories. I hadn’t known what to expect. I had seen that Ware had a new book coming out, his first substantial work (I gathered) since Jimmy Corrigan‘s release more than a decade earlier. I believed merely that I’d be reading an amusingly shaped book, like Ware’s prior publications (e.g. Jimmy Corrigan and his odd-dimensioned Acme Novelty Library editions). Instead, this large box (roughly 12"x17”) arrived at my office two weeks ago. At first I imagined it a tough slipcase for what would then be a Very Large Hardcover—and so I winced at the thought of trying to read such a heavy, unwieldy thing. Instead though: a box containing fourteen individual pieces of media of different sizes and dimensions. Fourteen stories, some hardbound, some in the form of pamphlets, some the size of newspapers (for those who remember newspapers). One was an 11"x16” folding screen, like a boardgame board. Another two were single pieces of quad-folded paper (like travel brochures), about as tall as the width of a business card but maybe seven inches in length. I of course immediately laid out everything in our office lobby to get a better sense of what I’d soon be attacking. Here is our receptionist, posing with the unboxed Building Stories:
The first thing that will strike any unprepared reader when sitting down to actually read the thing is that there is no starting point. For the disparate apportionment of Ware’s stories here, there is no indication of either ordo apocalypsis33That is to say, a recommended order of revelation, an indication as to which piece should be read in which order. or even a recommendation of where to begin. From a purely metafictional standpoint, this is one of the more interesting aspects to Ware’s project. Very few readers will share the same reading experience.
I mean, even though this is the case with your everyday novel 44For instance, our own individual experiences and circumstances always colour our readings of even common novels, giving us each our own slightly unique filter through which we approach a work., it’s more so the case here. There will be those who approach by pattern, reading smallest to largest or vice versa, but the rest of us? It’s entirely possible/likely that no one will have experienced the same story as I did when I read it or you will when you read it. The total possible number of different ways to approach Building Stories is 87,178,219,200 (or more than 87 billion, or 12 times the population of the earth).
What’s fascinating about this—for me at any rate—is how wildly different one’s experience of the book might be depending on the order imbibed. The book could be read as largely depressing, largely affirming, harmonious, cacophonous, or even just bizarre. I happened to begin with two very downbeat stories, ones that led me to believe that Building Stories might be as depressing or more so than Jimmy Corrigan. This set a tone for me and I was disappointed at the thought that Ware had not graduated from the kind of character that made Jimmy Corrigan so painful and worthwhile. While I found Jimmy Corrigan a particularly worthwhile book, I’m always sad to find authors who exhibit no personal growth in their writing—i.e., our window into their personal reflections on life. When a fifty-year-old writes a song about love, you’d hope he’d write something perhaps more nuanced and incisive than he would have as a teenager
Fortunately, in my reading, things begin looking up. Everything is not quite so dour as I first believed. Ware’s protagonist (so much as there is one) is more like a full-orbed person and experiences both highs and lows, even if she does show some indications of clinical depression—so far as my unclinical eye can diagnose. As well, her thought-life is… robust. I use the word robust a lot, but it really is very fitting. While she definitely does wallow occasionally in self-pity and a panoply of woe-is-me predictive scenarios, she’s also thoughtful about social issues and the ethics of trivial actions. There’s even fleeting interest in questions of philosophy and theology. She is a woman built of hopes, recriminations, desires, disgusts, fears, joys, and a waxing and waning of drive. Much like any of us.
With so many diverse pieces of comics literature included in Building Stories' box, a chief question will be How Well Does It Hold Together? Ware’s pieces occur in different eras and while generally focusing on the Woman, some of the artifacts concern the Old Woman Downstairs, the Fighting Couple, or Branford Bee (a local apine denizen who intersects with the Woman’s narrative for about a day). I held some small anxiety that Building Stories would be among those popular contemporary novels in which each chapter follows a different character but never comes together in any satisfying way (a la Let the Great World Spin). Those books are fine for what they are but I never find them as deeply satisfying as books that draw themselves together a bit more tightly.
My concerns were happily unnecessary. While Building Stories may not function so much as a traditional novel—offering a common Western narrative structure of beginning, middle, end—it does what it does very well. There is no overall build of tension, no climax, no denouement—but there was never any pretension to such things. Beyond the impossibility of discovering The Correct Order in which to read Ware’s creation, his intension is less about unveiling a plot as it is about discovering a life lived. This is the life of the Woman, and by the end of it you will know her as well as you know many of your friends. She is undressed, not for your approval so much as for your empathy. This is the closest many of us will come to walking in another’s shoes.
Andrew Womack, the Tournament of Books judge who allowed Nox to move forward into the next round of the tourney says this about his experience with Carson’s attempt to give shape to the outline of a brother she’d only spoken to five times in twenty-two years:
I reached the end of the scroll and slid the box closed. Even with the book closed, I felt that discomfort again. When the task is to sum up a life, how adept can any of us be? Carson comes to terms with her brother’s death by accepting that she won’t ever know all the answers; sometimes out of chaos comes only more chaos. Nox is a beautiful new look at life and what comes before and after it, and an enrapturing read from beginning to end.
Building Stories functions similarly, though possibly with greater clarity. Ware gives us to spend substantial time with the Woman, but we cannot possibly know her as we know ourselves. For all the many pages of insight, he still presents us an incomplete portrait whose history is scattered to the winds. Ware has picked up many pages from her’s life’s story, but certainly not all of them. There are gaps, holes. There are stories from her life that I wished Ware would have dwelt on more. Or at all. That, however, does not diminish from the work; it may even, in some way, magnify it.
I censored this image for nudity for the sake of the mothers of younger readers who really won’t appreciate the book anyway.
At one point I had considered that the project’s title, Building Stories, referred to the actual, physical structure in which the Woman spends much of her time in many of the book’s discrete portions. (That building, after all, does even narrate one of the stories.) After a while, however, I came to believe that Building was not here used as a noun, but instead a verb. Instead of stories about or in the vicinity of buildings, Ware is focused on building (or constructing) the stories that round out the personhood of a particular individual, the Woman. He does not need his stories to add up to a grander story. He does not need them to fill out an over-arching structure. Such an over-story does not here exist nor was it ever intended to.
This is why Ware doesn’t concern himself with alerting the reader to a recommended order for approaching the work. Story, in the large sense, isn’t the point. Because he is revealing a person, not a story. And which one of us ever lived a life that was a functioning story? Sure, there might be brief instances that might circumscribe a storylike structure. Or narratives that exist only as cherry-picked collections of moments, working toward an artificially constructed framework that we force upon our lives at a distance. But nobody’s life is that neatly set and laid. Not mine, not yours, and not the Woman’s. And this is why Building Stories is such a success. Ware deftly gives us both sense of person and sense of history’s capriciousness. These are stories, but instead of adding up to a Story, they add up to more. They add up to a person, living and breathing, and tossed to and fro by the winds of circumstance, hope, and fear. Ware called his project Building Stories, but he could have as likely called it The Human Condition, though that might have been too on the nose.
Building Stories is a phenomenal work. I don’t believe I was predisposed to think it so. While I enjoyed Jimmy Corrigan (as much as someone can enjoy something so relentlessly depressing), I haven’t much followed Ware’s work in the last decade. I tried one of his “Rusty Brown” collections but found I loathed the character so much that I never picked up anything Ware had done since. I even approached Building Stories with some degree of guarded caution. Despite this, Chris Ware blew me away with his vision of this Woman and her surrounds. Building Stories is deep and deserves multiple readings—already I’m forgetting things and struggling to remember how certain details fit together. And of course, no two readings need resemble each other in the least. This book gets my highest recommendation, and the next time I update my Top 100 it is certain to unseat Daytripper as my Number Two favourite comic.
I wish so very badly that its ticket price were lower. I got it on a good pre-order discount and had some store credit to knock it down a bit more. It’s not that I’m averse to spending money on the things I enjoy. It’s just that Building Stories is such a rich, important literary experience that I’m desperate to share it with book clubs and friends. The price tag, however, makes that almost impossible. And the scattered nature of the box’s contents makes me doubtful that libraries will want to carry the thing. As someone who spends substantial personal investment in evangelizing his social circle with the gospel of good comics, being unable to promote the medium using such a magnificent work is heartrending.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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