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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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear