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Chris Ware
Building Stories
Pantheon / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-375-42433-5
Publication Date: 10-02-2012
14 Pieces; $50.00
Date Reviewed: 11-22-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  General Fiction

Story is integral to our sense of self. Our sense of what elements make up a story, how they should be arranged to tell a story and how they are related are all part of how we create our own identity. Chris Ware started the work that eventually became 'Building Stories' in an arena in which words were, as a practicality, problematic.

With this challenge, Ware created the first character visually, and she eventually became the foundation, the cornerstone upon which he crafted what has become, in this incredible assemblage of art pieces, a complex Dickensian vision of modern American life spanning three generations. 'Building Stories' is a true masterpiece of storytelling as art, and the art of storytelling. With simplicity and stunning invention, Ware re-imagines this world, makes it his own, then offers it to readers in a collection that defies definition but invites imagination.

'Building Stories' consists of 14 different formatted stories collected in one box, sized to approximate an old fashioned Sunday newspaper, folded in half. Inside the box you'll find huge Sunday-funny size stories, slim miniatures that unfold to a couple of feet across, a "Golden Book" style hardcover, and pretty much everything else beyond and between. There's so much stuff in this box that it is easily some of the best money you can spend on books and reading.

Most of the stories center on one building, and there are different sets of characters who pop up in different contexts, not all them consistent. This is, of course, deliberate, a sort of alternate personal history that lets Ware view our American lives from a variety of angles. The stories are poignant and powerful, and in spite of Ware's initial constraint (or self-imposed restraint), the overall feel here is most closely duplicated by Charles Dickens, with his panoramic views of London. This is a visual work that has the feel of rich prose.

Ware gives readers no idea how to approach reading the material in the box. There are no titles, there's no order or numbering to guide us as to where to start and what to read next. This makes the collection infinitely re-readable, a story that can tell and un-tell itself in a variety of fashions. Beyond the tough-but-fragile young woman who anchors the work, readers will meet her landlady (based on Ware's grandmother), a troubled young couple, assorted neighbors and even the characters in the books she reads to her child. We find them at many points in their lives, and the building as well, which has its own voice.

Ware's illustrations have a level of abstraction that makes it clear we're looking at art, but a gorgeous style that is evocative and poignant. He knows how to put together a page and a panel with just enough tiny details to bring the reader emotionally into the scene, to make the emotional connection that one makes with fiction. The simplicity of his style makes it possible for him to put together long and layered stories without inducing a sort of artwork overload that can hinder rather than help the readers' involvement in the story.

As a printed work, 'Building Stories' is never less than remarkable. It is unmistakably a work of careful collaboration between the writer and the production department at Pantheon, with an eye on top-notch quality. This goal has been achieved. The colors, the formats, every physical aspect of what you end up holding in your hands is so pristine as to remove all barriers between the reader and the work that Ware is presenting.

Given the elaborate presentation and high price tag, one might be tempted to conclude that 'Building Stories' is for a pretty select audience. But Ware's work is amazingly accessible to any reader and any attention span. It's easy to start anywhere and once you do, you'll find the pull of Ware's world to be very powerful indeed. This is a book that should be on anyone's list, one that is easily shared in a household because everyone can be reading (or re-reading) different parts at the same time. In this and every other sense, 'Building Stories' does exactly what the title implies, in a truly three-dimensional manner. As we read, as we experience Ware's world, we can use the tools that Ware offers to re-examine our own lives and how we build our own stories.

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