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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories