Though never so explicit in the everyday lives of the worried, circular-headed suburban Chicagoans who populate his work, the engine that drives Chris Ware's comics has always been the tension between narrative control and submission. Ware's first full-length graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, was a beautiful and exhausting exercise in authorial intrusion, coming as it does with an actual instruction guide on how to read its nonlinear paneling. The novel's two main stories unfold in exquisite synchrony, the structure bending under the weight of multiple dream sequences and lengthy arrows from here to there. Even the use of colors and the movement of frames exploit the momentum inherent to the single-volume format, wrestling from top to bottom and left to right on the level of rods and cones.
Confined to a medium in which the briefest expositions (the cursive words, for Ware) necessarily impose on or pause what seems like the present-tense story, cartoonists, even the great ones, seem nearly doomed to the problem of artificiality and contrivance in the reading experience itself, determining the rules of the page over and over again. Building Stories, Ware's second full-length work, addresses this issue outright, doing away entirely with the single-volume format and instead offering (at a hefty but worthwhile price tag) an oversized box filled with books, pamphlets, newspapers, and other assorted printed matter.
The pun in the title is that the reader very literally builds the story as he or she goes through it, piecing together something larger from the booklets, each an episodic installment in the lives of a group of Humboldt Park residents, individually bound and placed in a stack. Some stories take the form of delicate foldouts while others are heavier case-bound volumes; one spreads like a board game and stands upright, throwing an almost protective shadow over the tinier contents within its reach. As a novel, it can begin in one of 14 different ways and take on something like 87 billion paths, depending on the order in which it's read. Whatever sense of momentum a reader might then experience becomes less a product of narrative trickery and more a simple matter of choices being made in real time.
Beyond existing as both a comedy and a tragedy (or an exploration of stasis, or any number of other things), Building Stories features pages of surprising interpretive ambiguity, often eschewing the intricate paneling of Jimmy Corrigan for abstract images with fragmented reminiscences placed in dazzling array throughout the frame. There's a remembered feeling to the layout, with evocative half-sentences and cropped imagery appearing intuitively, as if out of nowhere; only when taken in full does a sense of plot begin to form.
That there's a discernable plot despite the unconventional production and manufacturing is a feat, especially such a thorough and unrelentingly thoughtful one: The four main characters (five if you count the bumblebee) grow older, go to school, clog toilets, lose limbs, acquire pets, get married or don't, have children or don't, largely within the walls of a decaying three-story walkup, and the richness of their dreary interior adventures seems to defy the mere few hundred pages the whole box adds up to, partially due to the desire to linger over every last detail that the author's style provokes, and partially to the pervasive dramatic irony of one story's triggering memories of another. But the plot, here, of course matters less in the end than the looking back—upon the muted spectrum of colors and the bright punctuations of sweaters and flowers, and the characters and the ways in which they make different homes from the same building, all arranged in a stack in a bright, cumbersome building of a box.
Chris Ware's Building Stories will be released on October 2 by Pantheon. To purchase it, click here.