On the ground floor of the building is the old lady who owns it. She inherited it from her parents, at which point her spinsterhood, which might have been only temporary, calcified into permanence. Above her is a young couple. He works nights, the better to avoid his girlfriend, whose weight gain repulses him. He's a vile man, his muffled insults seeping through the building's too-thin floors. But his girlfriend makes it too easy for him to behave badly, trapped as she is in a waiting room of futile hope (every weekend, or so she thinks, is the one when he'll start being nice to her again). When he tells her that he despises her trousers or her skirt, she wriggles out of them obediently, as if by shedding her clothes she will also shed her misery. Finally, there's the top floor, which is rented by a young, single art student (well, she's young and single in some of the books, and not-so-young and not-so-single in others), and it's with this woman, who lost her left leg below the knee as a child, that you feel Ware's interest really lies. When I opened one of the 14 books, and found she wasn't in it, I felt disappointed, longing to get back to her.
Ware's trademark frames are tiny and rigid, confining his characters every bit as much as their too-small bathrooms and their stifling romantic lives. But they also, in this instance, call to mind windows; Building Stories is such an intimate book that to read it is to feel like a Peeping Tom. Lives are thrown wide open, the private moments no one ever sees brought carefully out into the light. A lavatory floods, and induces in its owner an existential crisis. A woman tries, and fails, to do up her jeans. Another woman inserts a tampon. Ware's drawings of people, all dots and circles, are rudimentary on the face of it – and yet no emotion is beyond him. It's amazing, this economy. Even more deft, sometimes he will use some other body part to do the work of a frown, a wince, or a pair of lips pressed tightly together. A woman's waddling backside, huge in tight red trousers, tells a story of repressed anger; a man's flaccid penis – yes, really – somehow articulates all the pressures of recessionary middle-age. As for his apartment building, it constantly underscores the book's theme: the gap between what people hope for, and what they get. Home, as Larkin also had it, starts out as a "joyous shot at how things ought to be". Then it withers. Larkin could see it in the pictures and the cutlery. Ware sees it in a plastic shower curtain and a mustard‑coloured armchair. Never before has such a brightly coloured book been so mournful.
I don't want to give the impression that Building Stories is without its faults. On a practical level, older – ahem – comic lovers will sometimes struggle to read Ware's miniature writing, and I must be honest and say that I would rather have been told the best order in which to read its sections (there certainly is one, and I think it's pointless to pretend otherwise). Confusion about past and present sometimes distracts from the deep pleasures of the crammed page. But still, this is a wonderful achievement. It's not only that it is so beautifully and attentively made – though in the age of the Kindle, and of all things disposable, Ware is certainly making a powerful statement. No, it's the sense of belief that gets to you, the absolute commitment to the form. Building Stories does things no traditional novel can, or not without much lumbering effort; and it does other things no comic has hitherto pulled off. No wonder, then, that opening it for the first time makes you feel like a child at Christmas. It's a thing to be treasured, a box of delights.
And a review in The Telegraph
Photo by Julian Andrews, The Telegraph
And a review in The New York Times