No one seems to think Chris Ware is very funny these days.
Judging by most of the reviews of his recent Building Stories — a graphic novel comprised of fourteen differently shaped comics packaged into a fifty-dollar, several-pound box — Ware has tapped directly into the goopy primordial stuff of human misery. At its simplest, Building Stories is about the inhabitants of three apartments in a Chicago three-flat near Humboldt Park, and about how their lives intersect and then break away from each other.
It has no set beginning or end, and the reader controls how to move through the narrative. In this way, the book plays with our idea about how time works in ordinary life, while wreaking havoc on what we think a comic book should look like. I’ve had the damn thing for two months now and I still can’t get my head entirely around it.
Its difficulty complicates the nameless heroine’s gripe about what counts as literature.
"Why does every 'great book' have to be about criminals and perverts?" she asks. "Can't I just find one that's about regular people living everyday life?"
Fair enough, but mightn’t we as easily ask “Does every ‘great book’ have to be so damn difficult to read? And cost $50? And weigh 30 pounds? Can it even be a comic book in the first place?”
Building Stories takes only indirect stabs at these questions, but it certainly reveals something of the comic absurdity inherent in an artwork’s efforts to contain or describe even the most ordinary life. On the back of the box, Ware defends the work’s almost brute physicality. Adopting the voice of a jacket-cover summarizer, he argues, “With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring — perhaps even necessary — to have something to hold on to.” There’s something literally weighty about the statement he’s making against the Kindle, the eBook, the iPad, and the translation of everyday interactions into virtualized transactions.
In a great moment of satire about our descent into virtual dystopian hell, we’re transported to May 20, 2156. Future Chicagoans wait for a train on an L platform, wearing white unitards, electronic stimulators over their privates, and translucent screen helmets that broadcast ads for “Endofux (Learn to Feel Again!)” and sexts to fellow commuters.
In a panel that takes on directly the collision of the virtual and the physical, our protagonist stands naked in her bedroom, staring at her husband Phil. He lies in bed naked, his flaccid penis illuminated by the glow of a blank iPad screen. She looks down at Phil, self-conscious about a body that has refused to cooperate with efforts to shed pounds.
Doug Wolk of the New York Times calls this Ware’s “most despairing image.” Here, he seems to suggest, we get the epitome of a domestic life poisoned by technology. But the scene moves on from there, and it seems like an incomplete reading to suggest that Ware wants us to weep instead of cringe.
Phil, an affectionate albeit sometimes distant guy, notices his wife. He looks up and asks if she’s okay. She responds, “Just feeling a little self-conscious, that’s all.”
Phil replies — not without some lasciviousness — clicking off the iPad, “Well, don’t…We’ve only got an hour until the movie lets out.”
Their daughter is out and they have a few minutes to get busy. It’s a scene right out of the most boring porno ever made, Marriage — better known as Real Domestic Life for a Lot of Us. For now, we’re still physical bodies, struggling to stay present and attractive to each other. And if there’s something sadly comic about the way that we interact with each other, it has to do with the limitations of our means of expression mediated by flesh.
At every turn, Ware emphasizes these limitations. We can’t ignore the fact that his characters’ fleshiness collides against the architecturally proficient rendering of everything else. His fragmented style of storytelling, along with his notoriously intricate drawings and miniscule lettering (as always) demand just about all the readerly attention we can muster. The book is hard to read, not just from an emotional or intellectual standpoint, but also given the physical effort it takes to squint at these manically ordered panels.
And don’t get me wrong. Things get pretty grim.
“Am I going to live here for the rest of my life?” asks Ware’s heroine as she shuffles coatless through a Chicago snowstorm — she also happens to be an amputee, missing the lower half of her left leg. At this particular juncture, she’s in her mid-twenties, dealing with the dual traumas of a recent abortion and the subsequent desertion of her boyfriend Lance (one of two dastardly boyfriend villains in Building Stories). The snow wraps around her as she wanders to the end of her block, squinting back over her shoulder toward her apartment building every few steps.
“I can’t!” she thinks, “I can’t bear it!” It’s one of many moments at which she seems to brush against rock bottom.
But just as she decides to freeze death (because, of course, “that’ll show everyone”), she returns to the dark, radiator-heated apartment. She makes it. And keeps going. And gets married and has a daughter named Lucy. And at the end of another section — one designed to look like a classic children’s Golden Book — she stops her car in front of her old apartment.
“God, I was so wretched and miserable when I lived here,” she thinks. “So why do I feel…nostalgic about it?”
The tragic becomes trivial — an afterthought in the context of a married life, five years removed. She has more complicated challenges to contend with, and the past seems silly.
In a few ways, Building Stories suggests how memory’s revisions of the past change the meaning of events in a life lived thoughtfully, if not exactly according to plan. Put differently, the stuff of real life isn’t very often comedic — but it can become absurd, or more to the point: comic.
This might sound like a simple restatement of the idea that “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Or perhaps an overinvestment in the idea that we have to stick with the term “comic book” to describe a graphic novel. But Ware’s book demonstrates that this is too much of an over-simplification. It requires more than simply time. It takes thoughtful effort. To go on living through our mistakes and failed relationships, through the Chicago snowstorms and loss of parents requires the ability to think through the past — to figure out a way to stare it in the face and decide that it hurts less, or at least hurts in a way that we can try to smirk at.
This, in turn, reflects the way that we have to read Building Stories as a comic. The book resists any effort at linear consumption (and rewards re-reading, upside-down reading, backwards reading, and [totally hypothetically] hanging-from-ankles reading).
Ware’s characters do beat the hell out of themselves and each other. But they also apologize, reinvest, double down on failed relationships, and learn how to get back up. In his Times review, Wolk suggests “Quiet desperation is just about the best anybody can hope for in Ware’s world.”
I think that’s one way to take this book, and it seems the dominant one out there. I’m just trying to offer an alternative by suggesting all of this visiting and revisiting produces precisely its comic (okay, maybe tragicomic) heart. These reiterations allow us the opportunity to catch small but concentrated doses of unfiltered joy and translate despair, disgust, self-consciousness, and doubt into a harmlessly absurd moments in a past that we’re glad is behind us. They’re comic bumps in the road — the side effect of living the only way we know how.
In other words, I don’t think that garden variety depression is the best we get.
This gets to the heart of what I want to emphasize about this maddening / beautiful / funny / terrifying comic book: that instants of pure joy have the capacity to explode out of unexpected ordinary moments. A brisk walk on a crisp morning in the suburbs; a child’s sweetly annoying feet in her parents’ face in bed; the butterflies-in-guts feeling of starting a new relationship. A chance encounter on the L.
In Building Stories, the comic isn’t necessarily comedic. Rather, it’s something more like a constant search for instants of joy embedded in the experience of an otherwise ordinary present: the proximity of laughter to the mundane and, in some cases, its nearness to thing that we used to think would overwhelm us.
A-J Aronstein teaches at the University of Chicago. He lives in Chicago's Noble Square neighborhood. Tell him he's not a real writer on Twitter.