Month: October 2012

Chris Ware: Building Stories

I read graphic novels from time to time, but the only one I’ve reviewed here before is Daniel Clowes’ sublime Wilson. The fear of failing entirely to encapsulate a book in a review – always great, usually justified – is even greater when it has images just as important as the words. So I do it only when the book is so good, so astonishing, that I want everyone to read it. Yes, even you.

Building Stories carries, in its box of 14 books, pamphlets and Möbius comic strips, a certain buffer against criticism. Forster said, “One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it,” and I’m fearful of a related effect here. Ware’s work is so impressive – the composition, the structure, the detail, the art – that it’s tempting to switch off critical faculties; or, worse, fail to notice that they’ve been switched off. (Hang on though, that doesn’t sound so bad.) At the same time, why should a publication as different as this be judged in the same terms as those anodyne, anaemic books without pictures?

But the format also troubled me a little. A collection of stories to be read in any order always risks seeming like an abdication of responsibility by the writer, though I admit that my response (“Just tell me what order to read it in!”) might be mostly to do with my own completist and obsessive impulses. On opening it, Building Stories’ appearance reminded me not so much of Johnson’s The Unfortunates as the junk mail edition of McSweeney’s (a quarterly which, as each new subscription copy arrived, I never failed to coo over before putting away unread with all the others). Yet the conceit worked for me. There seemed to be a direction built in to my random reading order: from the gold-spined hardcover which introduces the main characters, through cycles in the life of the main heroine, to a literally tear-jerking conclusion – spliced with episodes from the life of Branford, the Best Bee in the World.

Branford provides some light relief – he’s a character in a children’s book within Building Stories, but also appears at one character’s window. This being Ware, light relief is relative. There is a beautiful sequence which comes from Branford’s wondering why his luck is always so bad. It can’t be just luck, he thinks: he must be to blame.

(Click on any of these images to enlarge, though in the book this panel is just 25mm high. Ware’s drawings are impossibly intricate and detailed.)

Turn the page, and here is the outcome of Branford’s efforts. The come-hither postures of the queen as she repeatedly provokes Branford’s imagination are funnier than any comic illustration of bee mating has any right to be. I was particularly taken by the middle one. What red-blooded fellow wouldn’t be?

Branford, like any bee, is forever trying to break into the world of humans – battering at windows – and then, when he gets there, wishing he wasn’t. (“I have suffered a dreadful deliverance,” he notes, quoting Robinson Crusoe.) By anthropomorphising Branford, Ware makes the stuck-in-the-world-of-humans conceit literal: he is humanly self-aware, and would doubtless be happier if he wasn’t. The fretful face of anxiety in the final frame above comes to look like his natural state.

The other characters are no happier. They live on different floors of the same Chicago building, whose rooms are presented in bleak light, like Edward Hopper interiors. Every detail makes them look more pitiful: the specks of dirt on the floor, the single bed, the slices of apple under cling film on a plate. The first occupant is the elderly owner of the apartment, full of stories – her own and others’ (“Everyone always talks about themselves when they’re trying to rent an apartment”) – but with nobody to tell them to. Then a couple whose unhappiness must surely reach breaking point soon. And finally our aforesaid heroine who, in case it wasn’t all sad enough, has her left leg amputated below the knee.

Although the characters’ lives change in different sections of Building Stories, within each part they are usually stuck and stagnating. The heroine spends a lot of time sitting on her couch, or looking at her watch, or lying in bed, turning and turning. Ware’s frames shrink down to emphasise the slowness of time passing, and often so little happens that we are directed to consider not just the movement between frames, but the stillness between them. There is no sense of familiarity as potentially a comfort rather than a bore. This, really, is not a book to be read when you’re at a low ebb (it could push you over the ebb). One section has as the centrepiece of its first page the words, “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.” This, again, is our heroine, and Ware lays it on thick, as she reflects on “the stasis of my life,” “the overwhelming reality of [my] loneliness” and how she was “always ready to be disliked.” So parts of the book lack emotional subtlety, but they do reflect the rut of a depressive mindset. And if the heroine is low because she is alone (and so is her landlady: “I’ve lived my whole life afraid of people”), then her neighbours in the building have the opposite problem.

Yet even as the content distresses, the style delights: here, the bubbles of thought and regret rising and settling at the top of the frame, so that something still becomes beautifully animated. Throughout the book, Ware teaches us how to read a page, how to read images rather than just looking at them. The large double-spreads, some of A1 paper size, take the reader on a circular story around a central motif. One book, each page the banknote shape of a daily newspaper comic strip, slows the reader down with its wordlessness: every image must be thought through. Another section consists of just one long strip of paper, where the story continues each time you turn it over, and each image is reflected on the other side of the page.

What it all comes down to is time: Building Stories shows us how time passes, or refuses to pass. Some of the drab, repeating panels say: every day will be like this. It shows what time does to us. The characters think about what has happened, how things have changed and what might have been. The past is not dead – it is not even past – as Facebook springs old friends on them, or unwanted memories shoulder their way to the front of their minds. The form enables Ware to integrate the static intrusion of memories into life in a way more effective than any I’ve seen in pure prose: and to note the evasions of memory too, when an editorial footnote corrects a character’s chronology. It also gives a smoother and more convincing transition between different viewpoints than is normally seen in fiction. It can tell two stories at once, and show us what the residents of the building think of one another. They are unhappy because they are alone, or unhappy because of who they’re with. (Our heroine still turns and turns in bed in almost every story she appears in; alone, with her husband, with her daughter.)

Often, the story and characters seem not just unhappy, but to refuse the possibility of happiness – even to wallow or revel in it. They are hunched, shrunken, static, with only fleeting moments of pleasure (“Something … a time-lapse tulip … bloomed in me”). The thought processes of the characters, their internal monologues, could seem banal or gauche if written in prose: but one would not argue that song lyrics do not work as poems on the page. As with Jimmy Corrigan, the initial effect of Building Stories is to make the reader determined not to be like these people, but then, as we get to know them better, not so much seems to separate us. In any event, it softens the blow of a writer taking twelve years to produce a book when its subject is, more or less, everything it means to be human. And when you’ve had enough of that, there’s always Branford. Even he gets to feel optimistic sometimes.

Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods

Helen DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000. Seven years later, she self-published Your Name Here, an odd collaborative work with Ilya Gridneff. Meanwhile, I learn from an early review of the US edition of the present book that it was written ten years ago but unpublished until now. Was it unpublished through choice? Or was DeWitt unable to place it? In either event, DeWitt now has two excellent publishers: New Directions in the US; And Other Stories in the UK. The latter has been punching not just above its weight but in another league since its launch last year, not least with the all-conquering Swimming Home. If there’s any justice, Lightning Rods should repeat that success.

Lightning Rods is a book about one thing which pretends to be about another thing. What it is really about is language, but it disguises all this in a satire of sexual politics. It tells us about Joe, a failing salesman in Missouri, whose unsatisfying masturbation fantasies lead him to a novel idea. “He was thirty-three years old and he had zip to show for it. And here he was lying in the bed in the middle of the day not even masturbating effectively but just twiddling until he got the fantasy set up to his satisfaction. He didn’t feel good about it at all.”

I hope you see what I mean about the language. The narrative voice is a curious and canny mix. It has the casual tone of Joe’s interior monologue (“zip to show for it”), a strange utilitarian blankness (“not even masturbating effectively”) and childish words that clash with the subject (“twiddling”). But the overall effect throughout the book is of a cross between a business report and an uncritical biography. As the story progresses from eccentric to outrageous, we get to see the full effect of this masking language.

Joe’s idea – … well, I hope I can discuss it. I think I can. I can’t imagine how to impress upon you the effect of the book without going into some detail – which the blurb on the US edition does, and the introduction to the UK edition. (In any event, this book is likely to become sufficiently talked about that the basic premise will pass into general knowledge, as with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.) Read the next two sentences without pausing. Joe’s idea is that sexual harassment in the workplace can be prevented by providing men with an outlet for their urges. Those outlets will be colleagues – women – hired to the firm by Joe’s proposed company, and who are in every sense normal employees, carrying out administrative duties; except that when they get the call, they will take up a position in a frame which backs them anonymously into a secret cubicle in the men’s toilets, lower half only showing, and the male colleague will take his pleasure.

‘Take his pleasure’ is how DeWitt might put it in the book. This is a novel of evasion and manipulation. The whole thing is delivered in such measured tones that the process Joe starts on begins to look like logic, and the logic begins to look unarguable. The way of telling is so filled with familiarity – even cliché – that the contents sound first half-reasonable and then even more ridiculous. There’s a homespun folksy wisdom that becomes hypnotically comical.

If you don’t have what it takes, you can waste a lot of time asking yourself “How can I get what it takes?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “Is there something else that takes what I have to offer?”

After all, what Joe has to offer is a monotone masturbatory fantasy, which “would one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” Of course, not everyone in a company will get to benefit from the services of Joe’s lightning rods (yes, you see now?). “It is often the most valuable individuals in a company who present the greatest vulnerability to sexual harassment related issues. We know that a high level of testosterone is inseparable from the drive that produces results.” And so begins for Joe the painful task of working out the problems in the system in meticulous detail, and the problems that the solutions give rise to, and the problems arising from that, and so on. And the logic of working for the benefit of “high-testosterone, performance-oriented individuals” infects Joe’s own thinking, until the reader approaches straight-faced lines like this: “For the kind of money she was getting you’d have thought she could throw in a slap on the fanny every so often without getting into a big song and dance about it.”

The deadpan coolness which is so crucial to the success of Lightning Rods is not so much ironic distance as an exemplar of the ways we can fool ourselves into believing the preposterous, and mask the instinctive response when doing so. It demonstrates how intuition can be outwitted, how steady step-by-step argument can persuade us to insane conclusions. It is so clever that when other entrepreneurs set up rival companies to Joe’s without all his protective mechanisms, the reader might even start to share Joe’s view of himself as one of the good guys. (“He pointed out that Playboy had never been seen as all that tasteful and intellectual until Hustler came along.”) As a corollary, the author is both entirely absent – her views immaculately subsumed into service of the story – and unmistakably there on every page, calmly directing the ingenious farce.

But is it farce? Or satire? Or something else? There is plenty here that takes specious thinking down a peg or two – the notion, for example, that sexualisation constitutes empowerment, or that working in a controlled sex industry is something to be celebrated just because it could be worse. Equally, it does damage to softer targets like society’s priorities towards money-creation and its limited understanding of ‘success’, and the accommodations we will make for these things. There are interesting questions raised over to what extent Joe is responsible for his own success, in a system built to buoy up people like him. But the point, again, seems to me to be language and communication, and the only thing that prevents me from describing Lightning Rods as unlike anything you’ve read are the similarities to aspects of the work of George Saunders.

In 2005 Saunders wrote a piece which stands as a manifesto for much of his work. Read it yourself, but one of his conclusions is that “all attempts at world domination begin with weak, evasive, impersonal language.” But you don’t need to go to the SS for this: it’s around us every day, when companies obfuscate, when governments try to make bad news sound good. It applies here too. The language in Lightning Rods is sneaky, tendentious, and deceptive; and it is that which makes it such a triumph, so funny and so frightening. It is likely to be a book which, for content and tone, nobody who reads it will easily forget.