Review: Building Stories

87 billion novels in one.

It is polite, when reviewing a work of fiction, to not spoil the ending too thoroughly. Which is problematic when it comes to discussing Chris Ware's newest work Building Stories, his first full-length publication in over a decade. The graphic novel ships as a box of 14 assorted pamphlets, books, broadsheets and one cardboard screen (resembling, deliberately or not, the thing a Dungeon Master hides behind during a particularly intense game of Dungeons and Dragons), which can be read in any order – the book has no deliberate beginning or end.

That means that what I experienced as the climax of the novel – a wordless overview of four scenes, showing the interconnections between all the characters whose stories I had read up to that point – may for someone else be the opening, allowing them to understand the broad strokes of the characters' relationships before going deeper into their personal stories. And so the story becomes personalised, each reader experiencing a materially different book.

Quick back-of-the-envelope mathematics suggests that there are over 87 billion possible orders in which to read Building Stories, and some of them will inevitably be less successful than others. I pity the person, for instance, who finishes the book with the two "Branford, the Best Bee in the World" sections, which are charming, if odd, tales of a bee who bucks the rules of his hive and goes out searching for pollen himself. Despite being visually interesting, and a clear call-back to Ware's own love of the newspaper cartoons of his childhood, the stories are only very tangentially connected to the bulk of the novel.

As well as the Branford sections, there are a few smaller pieces which are little more than vignettes – short passages showing moments in the life of the protagonist, a woman from Chicago who is the focus of around half the pieces. By having these float freely in the order, rather than ensuring that they are read around the middle of the book, Ware runs the risk that some readers will end up reading them too early, when they would be largely incomprehensible, or too late, when they would dampen the drive of the story.

But for all the pitfalls, the freedom of this book is exhilarating. The knowledge that your last read could be someone else's first forces you to reconsider everything. This is the first book which I have finished and immediately started again, wanting to experience each of the stories with full knowledge of what happens in the rest.

The inventiveness is not limited to the book's form. Its artwork is finely detailed, with even the standard-sized pages containing two or three-times as many panels as you would expect from a more conventional graphic novellist. But it also shows an artist who has become far more comfortable working at a large scale. One of the pieces, an A1-sized broadsheet, opens with a single panel, taking up two-thirds of the page, depicting just a tree-lined suburban street. It gives the reader a rare moment to breathe and take in the scene. 

The number of narrative techniques Ware uses in the novel is giddying. Wordless, diagrammatic pieces show the interplay between the lives of four people (and a bee) sharing a Chicago townhouse; another presents the events of single day, written from the point of view of that same building; another mimics multiple newspaper cartoons. In nearly all of them, he pushes the art forward, presenting not just pastiches of other forms, but whole new ways of writing. Building Stories is a stunning piece of work, proving yet again why Ware is so frequently included in lists of the greatest living cartoonists. 

Building Stories is published on 4 October, £30.00, by Jonathan Cape

A self-portrait by Chris Ware. Image courtesy of Jonathan Cape

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump