The Tournament of Books' nod to graphic novels comes with this entry: Building Stories by Chris Ware. I wasn't familiar with his work before this showed up on the ToB shortlist, but right after that, he did the post-Newtown New Yorker cover that I found very touching in an understated way. So I was ready to crack this open.
But, if you didn't already know, this isn't really a book. Or it's several books. In a box. With pamphlets and newsprint. When you open the box (pictured above), this is what you see:
Cut off the protective plastic, spread everything out, and here's what you have:
There are no instructions, no suggested navigation. Just a pile of varying types of print matter, all illustrated, some bound like books, some like newspaper, one like a Little Golden Book, one like a folded-up board game.
So that flummoxed me a bit, as I'm a traditional "start at the beginning and make my way to the end" type of reader. After dithering for a bit, I went back to the way the stories were packaged, and read them in that order.
It probably doesn't matter. They're not packed in chronological order. Most of the stories involve the inhabitants of a specific building, but as I got deeper into them, one character in particular took center stage. Her life as a single, lonely woman evolves as she eventually marries and has a child, moves to the suburbs, worries that she's losing herself, especially as an artist.
There are also a couple of stories about a bee. I found the bee annoying. I was much more interested in the people. Having been where the main character is, I found her story compelling, then wondered how I would have found her story back when I was post-college. Would I have found her narcissistic and boring? Probably. I saw a review on Amazon that complained about just that thing, and yet I found many of her stories really interesting and downright moving. There's one pamphlet that focuses on her, and there's no text at all, and it's not quite clear where it begins or ends (it's printed on both sides with no noticeable "start here" point), but it ended up reminding me of that amazing sequence from the movie Up, that tells the story of Carl and Ellie's marriage without a single word. I was moved, and that was surprising, given that overall I found the artwork kind of flat. Often I could only tell the characters apart by their hair color.
It's a mixed bag. Some things were successful, some not so much, and yet I found myself anxious to get back to it and start the next story, and found myself thinking about it after I finished it. The format, crazy as it is, seems to work with the story--how we live our disjointed lives, the different stages sometimes seemingly random in occurrence, parts of the past coming into the present unexpectedly, occasionally in a haunting kind of way.
I also found it interesting that the only blurb came in the way of a gold sticker on the exterior packaging, with a rave review from--can you guess? Who would you expect to blurb a literary graphic novel?
I don't think it'll last long in the ToB, but I applaud them for including it.