Comics/Graphic Novels

2013 Tournament of Books Discussion: BUILDING STORIES by Chris Ware

We here at Book Riot are huge Tournament of Books fans, so this year we’re going to discuss each of the finalists in the weeks before the Tournament gets underway, in alphabetical order. You can find the schedule of our discussions here. Read along with us! 

Today, Jenn Northington and Rebecca Joines Schinsky discuss Building Stories by Chris Ware.


building stories by chris wareDescribing Building Stories is a challenge. So here’s what the publisher Pantheon has to say:

Everything you need to read the new graphic novel Building Stories: 14 distinctively discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets.

With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold on to. Thus within this colorful keepsake box the purchaser will find a fully-apportioned variety of reading material ready to address virtually any imaginable artistic or poetic taste, from the corrosive sarcasm of youth to the sickening earnestness of maturity—while discovering a protagonist wondering if she’ll ever move from the rented close quarters of lonely young adulthood to the mortgaged expanse of love and marriage. Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public (and which can return to them in somewhat damaged form during REM sleep).

Rebecca: Okay, Jenn, I have to confess. I’m a little intimidated by this book. Can you even call it a book? What the hell is it? Why is a box of creative content giving me such palpitations? I’d heard Building Stories described only as a graphic novel before I ordered it, and I knew it was huge, so I wasn’t surprised when it arrived in a giant box. But when I opened it up and there were a bunch of different parts, and no instructions about where to start or how to read it? Total of crisis of confidence.

Jenn: OH NOES! Don’t be afraid! Deep breaths, and embrace the confusion. One of my favorite things about this …. project? You’re right, it’s hard to call it a book per se, is the fact that you can read it in any way that takes your fancy. Smallest to largest! Longest to shortest? Pick up all the pieces and throw them around your house and then pick them up at random! Doesn’t matter — it was written and designed specifically to be a free-flowing narrative that works any way you want it to.

RJS: Okay. I did it! I decided it was best not to try to impose any order on it, so I just dumped it all out on my desk, and grabbed the first piece that popped up. And lo, my skepticism has been replaced with awe. This is a really incredible piece of work, and it actually can be read in any order. So. Freaking. Cool. And now I’m curious: when you talk about it with customers at your bookstore, how do you describe it?

JN: Hooray! Basically I describe it the same way I described it to you: it’s a graphic novel in a bunch of pieces of different sizes, but they all connect and you can read them any way you want. I’ve had some fun conversations with people about the best approach before they buy it, it’s fascinating to see how people think they’ll proceed when they open it up. And I have a question for you — did you keep track of what order you read it in? I photo-logged the process. (Because I am that kind of nerd.)

RJS: Oh, I wish I’d thought of photo logging! I numbered the pieces as I read them–I’m a write-in-books girl from way back–and kept a notebook at hand so I could jot down a few thoughts about each piece. After five or six sections, I had a decent sense of who the characters are and what their general arcs look like, and I started thinking about how the story and experience would be different if I’d read them in a different order. Where did you start? And where would you start if you had it to do over again?

JN: Ah, numbering and notebook, very smart! I started with Branford the Bee. Which, in retrospect, was a really weird place to begin but I’m not sure I would have done it any differently. It really is its own little arc, and such a weird little interlude in the larger story, and I like having entered the story not with any one of the human characters. I think if I were to start over again, I’d start in the same place. Another thing that happened was that I was introduced to the former-art student (and I only just realized, we never learn her name, do we?) both at her bleakest single-ness and then in her early motherhood, and it took me many more pieces before I found out how she got from one to the other, which was just great. However, I do regret that the last piece I read was about her friend’s funeral and her cat’s death — OOF. I think I would have preferred to end on one of the wordless pieces, maybe, or another Branford story; it was a big emotional weight to end on. Which is part of the genius of the project, as well as the dangers. You don’t really know where you’re going to end up. But then again, that’s true of all narrative, I guess. What about you, would you rather have read it in a different order at any point?

RJS: So interesting that you started there! The colors on the Branford book caught my eye, but I didn’t know what to make of a wordless book with all those lines and chart-looking things. So I began with one of the pieces about the nameless woman’s disillusion with marriage and motherhood; the panels are bleak, and they radiate loneliness even when the characters are not alone. It set the tone for the rest of the experience–we should probably mention that this is not what one would call an upbeat book (or whatever it is)–and I knew that all of the pieces in which she appears younger were driving toward it. I ended with Brandford the Bee, and it was sort of nice to have some breathing room after going through so much with the characters. Part of me wants to go back and try to reconstruct it in chronological order, but I think I’d miss the whimsy of doing it this way.

And now the big question: what kind of shot does Building Stories have in the TOB?

JN: I think its strength is that there is absolutely nothing else like it on the list. I don’t envy the judges who have to decide how to approach it. If you lean entirely on the structure, I don’t know that anything else can match up! Then again, the story itself is not that complicated — but it’s a very good story, really bleak like you said but with beautiful moments throughout. I think it’s so hard to judge both the form and the content in a piece like this one. How much weight do you give to each? Tricky! What do you think?

RJS: I think it depends on what it’s paired up against, and who the judge is. I mean, I recognize that those are key factors for every book in the field, but even more so here. It’s different-ness could be a strength, making it stand out from some of the novels that are executed well enough but aren’t really new in any way. But what if the judge is a fraidy-cat like me? It’s not unheard of for a TOB judge to just not finish a book, and I can imagine someone being intimidated by this thing because I was there not so long ago. I really don’t know how to lay a bet on this one. It’ll be fun to watch!