You often hear how unusual books are, how different a particular book is from another book on the shelf, how one book reveals some rare truth not even considered by the majority of other books out there. ‘This book is special,’ you hear. ‘This book isn’t like all those other books.’ Books that are actually special, however, are few and far between. We all know: there is a lot of sludge (let’s repeat that for the people at the back: THERE IS A LOT OF SLUDGE), a thin tier of books that are alright, worth a read etc, a thinner tier of books that are of the surprising ‘hey, that wasn’t bad’ variety, an even thinner tier of ‘yeah, you should definitely read it’ and an impossibly skinny tier of ‘oh my God, if you don’t read this, I’m not sure we can be friends anymore.’ Chris Ware’s beautiful, ambitious, moving, hilarious Building Stories lands, something like a building itself, and pushes any book you were considering placing in that final impossibly skinny category right out of the nest – but you don’t mind because Building Stories is like the sexiest goddamn cuckoo you’ve ever seen.
I said Building Stories was something like a building itself: it comes in a cardboard box like a boardgame (albeit with a cover that would seem to suggest the most avant garde boardgame you’ve ever played). You slice through the thin plastic with the edge of your thumbnail (and oh, how erotic it is when you slip the sheer plastic away, how the plastic clings, but no, discard, discard, we need to see what is inside) and lift the lid (and the lid groans as it eases itself free) and there it is, or rather there they are: 14 books – or perhaps books isn’t entirely correct: 14 pieces, let’s say, books, pamphlets, newspapers, leaflets, brochures and boards. There is a mostly wordless landscape comic about the width of your forearm that runs for about 50 pages, a glorious 20 page A2 newspaper, a dark blue board that manages to convey the world of the book (from the old lady who owns the building right down to a bee trapped in the basement), a couple of small concertina type strips, two different sized and ever so elegant books and a handful of comics of various sizes. The first evening you sit with Building Stories, it’s probable you won’t do anything other than appraise it from various angles. You know from the get-go that here is a story that can be read from a number of different perspectives. You know your experience of Building Stories might be slightly different to another person’s. But where to start, where to start, where to start? (And, as you’re circling, you are confronted, immediately, by moments – a lady glimpsed through snow, an odd red vision of bees, a lavish street scene straight out of American Beauty – that suck you in, the beauty of the art being such you want to try and place it in context, even as you draw away because you don’t want to spoil it for yourself, don’t want to accidentally glimpse something that maybe spoils a revelation later on). It’s delicious.
[You may even do, as I did, and make a small mental plan of the order in which you’ll take things: I thought I would start small and work big, leaving the books and the big newspaper until last – but it wasn’t a plan I stayed with, I very quickly went off-piste, embraced randomness, took whatever came to my hand, used each half of the book to separate the read from the not-read, sometimes – yes, sorry – transferred certain bits back from the read box to the not-read box to take a second swoop over a bit I probably read in haste first time. Building Stories will make demands on you, in the same way, in a different way, from Chris Ware’s last major opus, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.]
But what of the narrative itself? What is Building Stories actually about? Well, as the title suggests, this is a book (in some ways) about a building, in which the building is a character, in which we hear from a building as he – and it does feel like a ‘he’ – tells us about his life, about how many lightbulbs have been used beneath his auspices, how many orgasms, how many babies born, how many arguments fought, how many declarations of love announced. At the ‘time’ of the story (and ‘time’ is loose because we do head into the past and into the future a ways), there is an old lady, the landlady, living on the ground floor, her life largely boxed up in the basement; an unhappily married couple on the first floor and a lonely young lady with a prosthetic foot on the second floor. It may help to know that the young lady with the prosthetic foot is the hub around whom the majority of Building Stories revolves. We are with her in her loneliness, we are with her later in her marriage, as she becomes a mother, as she revisits her mother and father, as she briefly passes the building in which once upon a time she spent a couple of lonely years (different versions of herself viewing the time as both less and more happy than the time in which she ‘now’ finds herself). We also, perhaps curiously (although not curiously to anyone who has read Quimby the Mouse), spend time with Branford the Bee, a character who is to all intents and purposes what Leopold Bloom might have been like if rendered by Joyce in bee-form (and, again, curiously, it is worth noting that Branford ‘exists’ in the main cut and thrust of the narrative at the same time as he exists as a comic read by the main character’s daughter later on in proceedings).
There are a great many (a great many) things to like about Building Stories, but the majority of the things to like are best discovered as you make your own way through it. The best thing to know in advance of picking up the book/s, though, is that Building Stories has about it a wistful thoughtfulness, is filled with the kinds of moments that pass without any thought being given to them (the drinking of coffee, the painting of nails, sleeping), the kinds of moments in which we are at our most vulnerable, the kinds of moments in which we are more of, most of, ourselves. In the sharing that goes on between author and character and reader is a gentle communion that salves the soul. You can keep your Chicken Soup for the Soul. Building Stories is the only soul food I need.
Any Cop?: Building Stories is the kind of book that makes you count your blessings, appreciate your life, see what you have. It feels in many ways like a treasure, the kind of book you’ll go back to for a jolt of the good stuff if you’re ever feeling low. Already it feels like a classic. Already it feels like a favourite.