What an interesting reading experience Building Stories by Chris Ware is! Have you heard about it? Published in 2012, it is a graphic novel in the loosest sense. It is short stories. But it is not all one book. Each of the 14 stories has its own “book.” I put that in quotes because the book might be a tiny pamphlet or a huge fold out piece of cardboard or something in between. And it all comes in a really big box.
I did not know this when I requested the book from the undergrad campus library. When it arrived at my library I was astonished. How the heck am I going to get that home on public transit without pissing off all the other passengers? So I kept it at work and took a story or two with me to read on my lunch break. This was also sometimes difficult given the size of some of the pieces especially when they needed to be folded out. They would take up the entire table and I had to be careful to not get my lunch all over them. Plus reading it in a public place was a bit awkward sometimes because of nudity and sex. I’d be holding up this huge page and trying to read it and realize on the other side was a full frontal naked woman and man — oops!The stories aren’t numbered and most aren’t even titled. At first I was worried about how I was going to know what order to read them in. But as I went along I realized it didn’t matter and that is kind of cool. I suppose for people who buy the book they come in some order, but when the book is shared, everyone might read the stories in a different order which will then affect how you read them.
Most of the stories are about the same unnamed woman. She lives in Chicago and wears a prosthetic leg because of an accident when she was a child. But we also learn about the old woman who owns the building our woman lives in as well as another couple who lives in the building. There are also stories about Branford the Bee that seem totally random until they aren’t. Because I did not read the stories in a linear order, I learned different things about our protagonist at different times. In one story she was so depressed she was thinking of suicide and then the next one I picked up she is happily married! How did that happen? And two stories later I found out.
For the most part, these are not happy stories. Loss is everywhere from the loss of our woman’s leg to losing weight to death, lots and lots of death. Which makes it all sound super depressing. And while the stories didn’t make me return to work after lunch with a huge grin on my face, they weren’t downers either. In fact, all the loss served to highlight how precious things are — parents, friends, flowers, children, pets.
Building Stories has a couple different meanings. Buildings play a role in the stories. There are a number in which the apartment building our protagonist lives in has a speaking role, thinking about its life and the lives of those who lived and live there. And our woman’s husband turns out to be an architect. In addition to the physical presence of buildings, there is also the idea of building, as in creating, stories. This takes place in the stories themselves but the physical nature of the “book” is also a constant reminder of how we build stories.
If you have a chance to read Building Stories I highly recommend it. If nothing else, the experience of reading it is like no other book you have ever read.