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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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times