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1 October 2012

Review: Building Stories

87 billion novels in one.

By Alex Hern

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.

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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