Thursday, December 27, 2012

Building Stories by Chris Ware

I could never imagine reading a "book" like this, but I was drawn in by The New York Times top 10 list for 2012.  This unconventional work is comprised of 14 printed works.  The stories pivot around an unnamed female protagonist with a missing leg.  Let's call her "LG" (Lonely Girl).  Here's a great source of angst for the reader: the parts of the work can be read in any order.  Since there is no end piece, the reader is tempted not to finish all the readings.  There are no page numbers, so I defer comments to each work.
Architecture figures prominently in the story, the woman lives on the 3rd floor of a Chicago brownstone apartment building.  The title, Building Stories, is a double entendre, and by little coincidence is abbreviated "BS."  Note prominence of those letters on box cover pictograph.  Chris Ware grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, home of Frank Lloyd Wright, three of his houses figure into the works.  It is not a surprise that the author has such a detailed architectural point of view.  In fact, the buildings talk in an anthropomorphic fashion.
Aside from the box itself, which has a small quantity of comic panels printed on it, Building Stories contains the following 14 pieces (I will comment on story highlights found in each):
  1.  A 52-page wordless landscape booklet
    • LG as mother tending to her daughter, Lucy.
  2.  A double-sided accordion foldout of the protagonist in the snow
    • LG ruminates on her dead end life while walking in the snow.
  3.  A double-sided accordion foldout of the protagonist with her daughter
    • LG's daughter Lucy ruminates on being between happy and sad and expresses concerns she may not be able to control her children.
  4.  "Branford: The Best Bee in the World," a 24-page comic book
  5.  "September 23rd, 2000," a 32-page hardcover Little Golden Book (including the New York Times Magazine serial)
    • This book resembles a Little Golden Book.  In fact the print is very small and the reader is forced to bring the book very close to the face, by design.  We meet her landlord on the 1st floor, a quarreling couple on the 2nd floor (the girlfriend has wide "child-bearing hips...and all without bearing any child"), and a visit from a plumber who once lived in her apartment.  She considers the "architectural precedent: why is it always the attic where we banish our past?"
  6.  A 16-page comic book featuring the couple from the second floor
    • Here we are introduced to the 2nd floor couple, their past romance, and current state of the union (neglect, boredom).  The self-absorbed boyfriend, Lance, is a rock musician.  Future (150 years) aliens pick up memory fragment of the couple.
  7.  A 16-page comic book featuring the old woman from the first floor
    • Landlord recalls her lonely childhood and parents' demise.
  8.  "Disconnect," a 20-page comic book
    • LG is a married parent in this book, we meet LG's mother, who reveals that LG's father had an affair.  This info volunteered when it became noticeable that LG's architect husband, Phil, rarely at home.  As mother, LG's body has changed and there is a memorable scene of Phil laying naked on bed with his face deeply buried in notebook, while LG stands naked beside him, completely ignored.  LG finds her ex-boyfriend on Internet and they meet in Chicago.  LG dreams she finds book in bookstore about her life, arranged "in a carton."
  9.  A 52-page cloth-bound hardcover book with no markings (a near-replica of Acme Novelty Library #18)
    • This book contains the "heart" of the story of LG, including her heartbreaking stint as a nanny for family whose wife was in affair and her evolving body image and humiliating relation with her first boyfriend and subsequent abortion.  There are sections in this work that confirm her role as the actual narrator, namely how many of the comic strips are clipped or truncated.  This work is loaded with sexual imagery akin to Georgia O'Keeffe flower visuals, after all, LG's day job is a florist.  While nanny she confronts an awkward rough house session with the son in which he becomes aroused (she becomes aware that what is poking her "is not an action figure").  Her legless body is always a source of contemplation: "My real leg is buried in a decomposing bio hazard bag somewhere."  We also learn that she had a weak heart as a child.  Nevertheless, her boyfriend opines "I love you just the way you are."  This sentiment notwithstanding, he humiliates LG in bed with some porno films by insisting they masturbate, implying LG is less interesting than the video subject matter.  There is a reference to Tarkovsky, Soviet film director, whose style no doubt informed the author of BS.  The work ends with a rather pathetic scene where the nurse must hold her thigh during the abortion, since she has no legs for the stirrup.
  10.  "The Daily Bee," a fold-out newspaper
    • In which we are introduced to Branford and his girlfriend Betty.  Branford runs into some "hard air" in form of a windowpane and is caught inside a house.
  11.  A single poster, folded in half
    • LG recalls her high school boyfriend and prom date.  Much self reflection here, sees herself as product of parents.  Ware pushing boundaries of sexual realism with tender scene of LG and husband masturbating her in front of a mirror.
  12.  A four-panel accordion-folded board
  13.  A 20-page broadsheet
  14. Unity Temple, Oak Park
    Frank Lloyd Wright House & Studio (1889), Oak Park
    Heurtley House (1902), Forest Ave., Oak Park
    •  Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple, House & Studio, and Heurtley House figure prominently in this work, which picks up LG and Phil as they move to suburban Oak Park.  LG, Doomsday survivalist, frets about collapse of civilization.  Her friend Stephanie commits suicide.  On the way to the memorial service, her cat falls terminally ill.  Ware continues focus on quotidian aspects of life with a funny quad showing shopping, daughter care, dinner prep, and spousal fellatio (as a quotidian duty).
  15. A 4-page broadsheet (including "Actual Size" from Kramers Ergot #7)
    • LG learns her father is dying.  At a party years ago, LG reveals why her leg was amputated.  "Actual Size" refers to actual size baby in centerfold, originally appearing in book titled Kramers Ergot #7.  I have read reviewer comments saying large unwieldy size of broadsheet is "impolite."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class of Kenyon College (Gambier, OH) with a brilliant speech.  He begins with a parable that appeared in his novel Infinite Jest (p. 445):
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys.  How's the water?"  And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
DFW explains that the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.  In the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.  DFW feels the value of education is awareness of what is real and essential, hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
This is water.
This is water.
The book leaves one sentence out from the commencement speech on p. 58: "They shoot the terrible master."  The suicide references, of course, foreshadow DFW's own suicide in 2008.