Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
Chris Ware chats about his imaginative new work, Building Stories.
Comic books taught me Russian. That wasn't my artist father’s original intent. He introduced them to my brother Andy and me so that we would learn more about the human form, action, and anatomy, through examination and sketches frame by frame. Instead, we lay for hours on the floor of Andy’s bedroom, engrossed in the multi-cultural, multi-national — indeed, multi-universal — world of the X-Men. Superheroes led our language lessons — far more worldly and sophisticated than any of our real-world classes — and showed us the ways of relationships in every tongue. The comic forms, we found, could be rich, transporting, blissful, heartbreaking. In our travels with them, we learned how to be curious about the world.
In his stunning new work, Building Stories, the artist Chris Ware invites us into a far more intimate (though no less expansive) world with his virtuoso 14-piece graphic-novel-in-a-box: a treasure trove of printed pamphlets, books, magazines, newspapers, and cards that together tell the complex, multi-layered story of intertwined lives in a Chicago apartment building. This is the graphic novel taken into innovative new territory: because the works can be read in any order, there is a time-travel, choose-your-own-adventure quality to the narrative, each piece taking shifting weight depending on its proximity to the next in time and space. Each time you sift through the box to consult one, the resulting read is ever more poignant and prismatic, much like memories themselves.
The architecture of the project is in great part its genius. The reader builds a story from physical pieces, constructing a narrative of life in an old brownstone walk-up; even the building gets its say, though the central figure of the work is the lonely woman who lives on the third floor. Depending on the order in which you read the fragments, the building’s residents will reveal themselves in different ways.
Chris Ware’s first book was the award-winning Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth; his work has been shown in the Whitney Biennial and published in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He took some time from his Building Stories book tour to answer these questions from Cities.
BT: The tangibility of this box and its contents is a beautiful thing — as you've said yourself, that tangibility can be reassuring in an increasingly ephemeral world. The physical object of the box almost invites a fondness for the characters before you've even opened it: it's their home, and you're invited to enter and spend time with them, in all their various states of undress, vulnerability, and mundane profundity. I wonder if you feel protective of them now that you've pushed them out into the world, revealed their interiors?
CW: That's sort of a complicated question, since the main character and her daughter very much resemble my wife and daughter — so yes, I feel definitely protective of them. Beyond that, it's always my aim to try and somehow find some reason to fall in love with my characters even if they're jerks, though in this book no one is terribly immoral or corrupt. Without giving too much away, the book itself is entirely filtered through the mind of the main character (the woman who lives alone in her 20s and then is married and a mother by her early 40s) and for better or for worse is an attempt to objectify her abandoned creative ambition. So in a way I guess the box and its stories also try to shield and protect her, while hopefully echoing the ways we mentally examine our memories as three-dimensional "things," not just as plot strands.
In conceptualizing this project, how much did the form evolve over time? Was it always going to be a collection of physical objects that opened up our traditional ways of reading a narrative? What was the germ?
While working on my other ongoing book, Rusty Brown, I wrote what I thought was only going to be a one-shot strip about a young woman and a failed dating service experience she suffers in her early 20s. I hadn't intended to take the story any farther than that, but I ended up writing about the characters on the other floors of the building and before I knew it I had two graphic novels going at once. I was very inspired by Krzysztof Kieślowski's film The Decalogue and thought that the structure of the book might break similarly along the lines of the occupants of the building (i.e., into character-specific books), but as I worked and the woman on the third floor clearly became the focus and then the protagonist, the story became a little stranger and a bit more complicated.
Can you talk about the myriad ways that architecture — say, the physical structure of the apartment building, the physical forms that the stories take, how we as readers take apart and put together the tales, and so on — inspired you? Was the idea of architecture always on your mind?
It was; I've tried to focus on the shapes that the sort of visual writing we cartoonists create as I think it reflects the way we remember things, which is not just visually or aurally, but also spatially. Not that this is a new idea — directors like Tarkovsky and Kubrick focus on this idea in almost every film — but comics allow for an almost four-dimensional experience of space and time, a sort of flattening-out of memory that I think is closer to the way we take things apart and put them back together in our minds. The shapes of the places we live in, especially in our childhoods, stay with us our whole lives and come back to us in our dreams, if not occasionally in our waking lives, when we might for a second or two feel that around a corner is our childhood room simply because a similar space suddenly reminds us of something familiar. There's something very mysterious about how space affects memory and experience which I don't entirely understand, but I imagine the greatest architects comprehend in an almost poetic way. I was surprised recently to discover that recent research on the brain points to its neurons being organized not as a tangled mass of tendrils, but as a grid, with regular x and y interstices. Maybe there's a reason that we prefer right angles beyond their simple carpenterable utility, from our homes to our computer chips to our literature. (To say nothing of comics, which have x, y, and z axes all their own.)
You portray the intimacy of living in a small, urban apartment building with aching accuracy. Are there specific reference points you pulled from your own experiences of city apartments? Are there any scenes that jump out?
Sure, though they're all disguised or buried in the story; I grew up as an only child in a single-family house and only started living in apartments in college; I found the experience of hearing other people's activities unnerving yet compelling. One of my neighbors at the University of Texas had been a good friend in high school, and in our first year of college we lived in separate dorms but saw each other almost every day. Our second year we both moved into the same apartment complex but for some reason this close proximity acted as a weird limiting factor, and we hardly spoke for an entire year — that is, until we moved a mile away from each other and we suddenly started hanging around together again. It was an odd, a counter-intuitive equation of space and "closeness" which I've seen occasionally repeated since, something like the forces that leave mail left on a desk unopened for weeks, if not months and years.
There are frequent disconnects, but also the sublime, subtle moments of connection — admittedly much rarer — between the residents of your building. Is this a remark on life more generally, or on the forced intimacy of city life in particular?
Well, the real connections in the story happen after the main character is married and has a child; before that, she's sort of lost in her own memories about a relationship which ends abruptly after an abortion — and which isn't all that unusual a story, sadly. I'm not trying to say that people can't communicate; really, communication is what it's all about, trying to figure out if the other person is seeing and feeling the same things you do. Generally, we feel things more deeply in memory than we do in the immediate present we're all trapped in; I frequently find the memory of hugging my wife or daughter more moving than the actual moment itself (or, more indefensibly, my edited version of the hug, where I say something more tender and heartfelt than I was able to at the moment, always with the added sub-narration, "okay, next time, I’ll do better.") As adults we spend most of our time stuck in these sorts of feedback loops of memory and revision, which is one of the reasons we end up feeling unhappy; we can't focus on the moment, we don't see the moment, we just remember and anticipate and navigate the world half-blindly (which is why I think we find it so compelling when this primary limiting filter, language, can be turned back around via literature and make us see things a little more clearly, if not sympathetically.)
Complicating everything more recently are these glowing pits that we've started staring into for increasingly longer every day; they make such "out of time-edness" almost a 24/7 vocation. My good friend Lynda Barry tells a story which she begins (paraphrasing), "This happened at a time when children were still more interesting to their parents than what was on their phones."
Though you dedicate pieces to all the apartment building's residents, the central figure of your work is the woman on the third floor — it's her story that continues outside of the building, and outside of the time of residence in the building. Can you say something about why, to you, her story in particular asked to be unfolded?
She early on became the most interesting person in the story, and I couldn't stop thinking about her, and soon all of the other characters' characters were being filtered through her mind and voice as well. Everything that we think of as true about other people — all of the notions we have about others' lives, wills, and motivations — are all the product of our own authorial voice; everyone around us is a fictional character, from the stranger on the street to our own spouses. Put another way, even though we think we know other people, we're always just writing their stories in our minds, revising and editing them (and, as the lit seminar classes of the 20th century taught us, revising and editing ourselves, as well.) Not that this hasn't been said before; I just wanted to make something that maybe reflected the "shape" of this process a little more than a traditional book might. Fiction and literature don't tell us how to live, they guide us towards developing that thing, whatever it is, that we use to try and understand other people. Some people probably take a Machiavellian approach, though ideally it should arise from empathy, though for most of us it's likely some sort of combination of the two. I believe empathy is the single most important "skill" (feeling? asset?) that art can inculcate.
All images from Building Stories.