Friday, March 4, 2016

Jigsaw Lives: Chris Ware Builds Stories

My bags were packed. Into my suitcase, I’d neatly arranged the folded flags of shirts, squares of underwear, my shaving kit, my slippers, a corkscrew for an emergency bottle of wine, and a clump of white socks which, with their balled cuffs and trailing streamers of feet, looked like sperm swimming upstream. I was ready for a week-long business trip during which I’d work hard for eight hours of the day then retreat to the bland sterility of a hotel room where I’d eat a lonely salad, call my wife, take a bath, and wonder if it was time for that emergency bottle of pinot noir.

One thing remained: choosing the stack of books—always too large and over-ambitious—which I’d bring along with me on the trip. I stuffed a bookbag with Dashiell Hammett novels, a biography of the actress Jean Arthur, two poetry collections, four literary journals (Tin House, Ecotone, etc.), a Hardy Boys mystery, and A Little Life (which is awfully thick for a book with the word “little” in its title). I was almost ready. Only one book remained, but it was too big to fit in the bookbag, so I balanced it on top of my suitcase while I started loading my other bags in the car.

On one trip back inside, I found my wife standing in the hallway, staring at the book on top of the suitcase. “What is that, a puzzle?”

“No, honey. It’s not a puzzle. It’s a book which I’ve been meaning to read ever since I bought it at Powell’s three years ago when I was there giving a reading for the Fire and Forget anthology and I don’t know why I’ve been putting off reading it for so long but I figured now would be the best time to read it, sitting in my boring, depressing hotel room, reading a graphic-novel-in-parts about equally lonely and depressed people and I can’t friggin’ wait because I have a feeling it will be one of the best books I read all year.”

That wasn’t actually my answer. All I told my wife was, “No, that’s a book called Building Stories by Chris Ware.”

Like I said (in my head), I don’t know why I’ve put off reading Building Stories. Was I waiting for the rainy day? Did I want to save Building Stories for later, like it was a much-anticipated delectable dessert? Was I worried about having to spread out the box’s contents all over the breakfast nook table and read it in full view of my wife? Not that she’d care, but I wanted my time with Chris Ware to be intimate, solitary, and free from distraction. A hotel room would be perfect.

And now, as I sit here at the end of the week, it has been the ideal homogeneous environment in which to finally explore the lives in Building Stories’ apartments. When I’m reading Ware, I am deep-sea diving into his world and nothing—not the lure of the internet, not the slippery crunch of lettuce from my sad little salad, not even a phone call from my wife (forgive me, honey)—can pull me from that inky universe.

The packaging is indeed shaped like a puzzle box, but instead of holding 1,000 interlocking jigsaw pieces, the reader is greeted with pamphlets, posters, and books (one which resembles a “Little Golden Book” which most of us read as children). When I put out the call on social media a week ago asking, “Where should I start?” the nearly-universal answer was “Anywhere.” It’s true, there’s no “right” order in which to read Building Stories...but being a man of honed habits, obsessive compulsion and an ongoing habit of creating To Do Lists (updated and rearranged daily), I decided to take the materials in the order in which they were stacked inside the box. When I was finished with one piece, I carefully laid it inside the open box top so that I could easily reassemble it into its original shape. I sometimes wonder if the hotel maids took a glance at the dissected book and started browsing Ware’s apartment building as they were vacuuming my room’s carpet.

I’m not quite through Building Stories and I’m still processing what it all means, so this won’t be a full, legitimate review, but I can tell you that it will turn out to be among the best books I read this year (if not the best). Inside this box, not much happens, but at the same time everything happens. Ware distills a life experience down to the confines of a single panel. The thickness of a line, the subtle hint of a new color, a shift in point-of-view can bring about a shock of emotion. Entire two-page spreads like the one above are devoted to silence, and yet each panel speaks a thousand words.

Ware doesn’t just build a story, he makes you feel the lives of his characters—in this case, a single woman with one leg who runs a flower shop, wonders if she’ll ever be fulfilled in life, bathes in regret, eavesdrops on her neighbors, reluctantly goes out to dinners with her friends, spends hours lying in bed staring at the ceiling, navigates the choppy waters of conversations with her mother, hates herself in every self-doubting moment, and loves her cat much too deeply. We also meet some of the noisy neighbors (a husband who may or may not be abusive), a widowed plumber who comes to fix the woman’s toilet (and it turns out he used to live in her very apartment), and the elderly landlady who herself has a very rich backstory. Occasionally, Ware includes a cutaway of the apartment building and when we hear from the hundred-year-old house, its thought-bubbles are some of the most heartbreaking of the entire book.

All in all, Building Stories is a visual feast, an engaging series of linked short stories, and one of the deepest emotional experiences you’re bound to have this year.

But, like I said, this is only a midway-through-the-book review. I’m still processing its many facets.

I thought I’d also take this opportunity to share three of my earlier reviews of Ware’s other books as part of my ongoing quest to make sure everyone on this planet has read Chris Ware at least once. Jesus had his twelve apostles, Chris Ware has me. These reviews were written many years ago for other websites (including January Magazine) and, frankly, they’re dated, occasionally redundant and not my finest hour of literary criticism (not that any of my hours of criticism could properly be called “fine”), but from them I hope you get a sense of my enthusiasm for Ware’s work. Here then, are my reviews (in order of how much I liked them) of Quimby the Mouse, The Acme Novelty Library, and Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.

*     *     *
Chris Ware can do as much with a few lines of ink and delicately-colored shading that writers like Raymond Carver or John Updike can in a few hundred words.

Ware, a graphic novelist whose Fantagraphic books include Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and The Acme Novelty Library, is a masterful genius at describing heartbreak, anger and anguish—especially the kind you find in Updike’s suburbia territory. In the tight confines of his pastel-colored panels (vulgarly called “cartoons”), he captures a universe of pain, drawing us in with the kind of emotions with which we can all identify.

In his newest book, Quimby the Mouse, the titular rodent experiences typical teenage anxiety when he sits up in bed one morning and says, “Oh gross. Today’s the day I have to give that speech in class. It makes my wiener feel funny...My stomach hurts, I bet I really am sick.” Later, sitting at his school desk, he grumbles, “If I’d barfed, I could’ve stayed home.”

In another sequence, a juvenile Quimby discovers he has super-powers, which enable him to fly, turn his arms to rubber and shrink down to “insect size.” He uses his powers to escape the every-adolescent’s-nightmare game of dodge ball, play hooky, and peer into the girls’ locker room. In the end, though, he’s still saddled with living the life of a worrisome, hormonal boy.

Quimby the Mouse is full of these quick, brilliant peeks at human nature. Some episodes are titled, “Empty Stomach,” “I’ll Do Anything, Just Please Let Me Stay,” and “I Am a Sickness That Infects My Friends.”

The “quick peeks” might be the book’s only shortcoming—the oversized volume (11-by-14 inches) is little more than a scrapbook of Ware’s existential doodlings. Brilliant as they are, these bits of miscellany never add up to the kind of narrative flow we found in Jimmy Corrigan where we suffer through all of Jimmy’s ups and downs as he reunites with his long-lost father. Quimby, by contrast, is all over the place, a wondrous jumble of what Ware calls “Self-Conscious Text Pages, Advertisements, and Space-Filling Nonsense.” The mind boggles and the eyes cross as we strain to take it all in. [Ed.: The same could be said for Building Stories, but I guess I got used to it.]

Ware of course, knows this and even labels one page “Incomprehensible Cartoon Strips.” Quimby the Mouse won’t be everyone’s slice of cheese. The panels are laid out in such a way that it’s hard to follow the flow and we often wonder if Ware’s train of thought has jumped the tracks. Eventually, by staring at the page long enough, we’re able to absorb a sense of the abstract emotions Ware is driving at: the loneliness, the regret, the mortality, the you-can-try-and-go-home-again-but-it’ll-never-be-the-same feelings that well up in most of us around the time we hit age 35. [Ed.: Or 52.]

I guess you could say Quimby the Mouse is a journey of the senses, a maze-like trip into the self-conscious subconscious. The most appealing, and accessible, portions of the book are when Ware draws his mouse during that turbulent, transitional period of adolescence, back when we thought life had definite answers (“When I was really young, I asked my mom why all old movies were in black and white. She said that back then, everything was in black and white. I took her really literally, and until I was six or seven, I thought color was some weird modern invention.”).

At other times in the book, Ware draws Quimby as a two-headed mouse—either a pair of Siamese twins or a dual personality. One half of Quimby is always imagining the other half meets with a violent end: decapitation, deflation (like a balloon-head), starvation, and so on. The episodes, bizarre and full of black-and-white cartoon blood, aren’t the book’s strongest moments, but they do serve to remind us that Ware is a tortured soul struggling to understand the all-too-real world outside his hand-drawn boxes. Just like the rest of us.

*     *     *

Those of you who have been holding your breath waiting for Chris Ware’s next great graphic novel can release at least a tiny puff of oxygen. He’s back in fine fettle with a new volume of contemporary angst in the signature pen-and-pastel world he’s created over the years.

While The ACME Novelty Library #16 may not be as full and complete as Ware’s earlier masterpiece from 2000, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, it’s at least a satisfying hors d’oeuvre to snack on until the main meal arrives. If nothing else, it’s more tantalizing and thought-provoking than the majority of contemporary novels out there, graphic or otherwise.

In the time since Jimmy Corrigan came out, Ware hasn’t released very much new material. Instead, Fantagraphics Books has been issuing collections of his Acme Novelty Library compendiums from the series of the 1990s, which include short vignettes about baby boomers mulling over their troubled childhoods, short gag strips, and complex, intricately-worded advertisements which graphically and textually resemble pages from the Sears and Roebuck catalogs of the early 20th century.

This is all well and good, but what die-hard fans really long for is something meaty like Jimmy Corrigan, a deep probe into worlds normally described by the likes of Raymond Carver or John Updike. In an earlier review, I wrote that the 380-page book contains vivid passages of “pain, desire, hope, humiliation and the sweet surprise of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Though smaller in scope and page-length, The Acme Novelty Library No. 16 follows similar suit. The graphic novel is more like a novella with a couple of short stories.

The main narrative follows Rusty Brown, a fat grade-schooler with a halo of orange hair, and his terminally-depressed father, Woody Brown, a schoolteacher who is “sleeping through his life” in Omaha, Nebraska.

On the surface, nothing much “happens" in “Rusty Brown”—the kid and his father go to school where they are separately picked on by bullies and plagued by suicidal thoughts. But scratch beneath the pastel exterior of Ware’s world and you’ll find a universe of raw emotion. This is literature in its finest hour. I just wish the hour weren’t so short.

Running simultaneously with Rusty’s story, along the bottom of the page we see Alice White and her little brother Chalky getting ready for their first day at a new school which turns out to be the one where Woody and Rusty are already having their bad days. Eventually, the lives of the characters intersect and nearly connect. The rest of their story will have to wait for the full-length version of “Rusty Brown,” I suppose.

The Acme Novelty Library No. 16 also contains a one-page episode of a stick-figure version of Ware himself babysitting his daughter while fretting over whether or not readers will appreciate his metaphors and allusions.

And, oh yeah, there’s a brief treatise on the life cycle of snowflakes. This is a mixed stew of ingredients, but Ware brings everything to a full, delicious simmer.

The final pages are further proof of Ware’s talent as he illustrates the lives of tenants in an apartment building. The entire section is done with nothing more than cutaway diagrams and wordless panels showing the residents going about their daily routines. [Ed.: Obviously, a preview of Building Stories.]  And yet, his pictures really are worth a thousand words. There are few better chroniclers of contemporary American life than Chris Ware.

*     *     *

The only thing separating Chris Ware from William Faulkner is the fact that Ware draws his characters with ink and uses little balloons for dialogue to tell his story of one dysfunctional family’s sound and fury.

To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Yoknapatawpha never drew a comic strip; but if he had, the results surely would have been as powerful as what’s on the 380 pages of Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.

Actually, the term “comic book” cheapens Ware’s magnificent artistry. Calling Jimmy Corrigan a comic strip reduces it to the dime digests of our childhood. This is about as far from Archie and Jughead as you can get. Some people call Ware and other artists like Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Ben Katchor (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer) “graphic novelists.” That’s fine, but when it comes to something as profound as Jimmy Corrigan, I think I prefer the term “illustrated novel.”

As you hold this volume of “comic strips” in your hand for the first time, you may not realize it, but you’ve got something as deep and genuinely moving as anything you’ll find in the words of John Updike, Raymond Carver [Ed.: Him again?!] or any other contemporary scribe bound by the rigid, old-fashioned black-and-white prison of text. The story here is complex and multi-layered in ways that “traditional” American literature often aspires to (and just as often fails). Once you step inside Jimmy’s pastel world, don’t be surprised if you have a hard time finding your way out again. In fact, this book is the kind that can’t be adequately described (though I’ll try). It must be experienced.

So, let’s start with the experience...The hardcover edition of Jimmy Corrigan has the strangest and cleverest dust jacket I’ve ever seen—it looks like the aftermath of a horrible paper-folding accident at the bindery. Unfold it and you’ll discover a collage of seemingly-random panels showing what looks like a family tree of sorts, a doctor’s report of a patient (“36-year-old male who has arrived with acute muscular sprain to right foot following a fall”) and instructions for making paper dolls. You can read the microscopic text now if you like (“With the many recent technological breakthroughs in pictorial linguistics [as exemplified by airline safety cards, battery diagrams and feminine protection directions], such heretofore-dormant skills of Comic Strip Apprehension [or CSA] are being reawakened in the adult mind,” etc.), but you’ll really appreciate it when you return after finishing what’s inside. (By the way, Ware’s tiny-print writing is as smart and funny as anything you’d find in Dave Eggers’ copyright page disclaimers).

Look on the front cover, lower right corner, and you’ll find these words: “A bold experiment in reader tolerance, disguised as a gaily-colored illustrated romance in which TINY PICTURES seem to COME ALIVE, DANCE, SING and WEEP.” Dancing, singing and weeping—yep, that’s what I was doing by the end of my Jimmy Corrigan experience. Well okay, I’m not exactly what you’d call a “weeping man,” but if I was, then I’d be a sobbing wreck by the end of the book. In these 380 pages, you’ll find pain, desire, hope, humiliation and the sweet surprise of forgiveness and reconciliation. Ware’s satiric tone on the dustjacket and inside covers is a bit misleading—there’s nothing riotously funny about the pathetic, boring life of Jimmy Corrigan. Sure, there are moments of great humor, but overall this is the serious stuff of the most intense Oprah show you can imagine.

Ware knowingly juxtaposes the soul-scraping agony of Jimmy’s family history with the “gaily-colored illustrations” and while it took me some time to adjust to the fact that this is not a “Sunday funnies” yuk-it-up, I was soon immersed in Jimmy’s world.

And here’s what you’ll find in Jimmy’s world…

The book tells the tale of three generations of Corrigans—all of them named James: James Reed Corrigan (b. 1883), who is beaten and neglected by his father, a crippled, bitter Civil War veteran; James William Corrigan (b. 1921), a Marine vet, bartender and deadbeat dad; and our “hero,” Jimmy (b. 1941), a virginal Chicago office worker who is terrified of women. Jimmy is a therapist’s dream come true: he’s painfully shy, tongue-tied, full of neuroses and has a set of “mother issues” that would make Norman Bates look like a patsy. Jimmy lives by himself, talks to his mother every day on the phone whether he wants to or not (he usually doesn’t), eats Cap’n Crunch for breakfast and either picks his nose or bites his nails (it’s hard to tell from Ware’s depiction). He rarely speaks in complete sentences; most of his word balloons are filled with just the nervous “Ha ha” or “Uh.”

One day, he gets a letter in the mail which begins “Dear Son, I think it’s about time we fellas get to know each other, what do you say?” Jimmy’s life turns into a Tilt-o-Whirl. He hasn’t seen his father since he was 6, and his vague memories get the man confused with, alternately, Superman or a serial killer. Eventually, the two men do meet and the story turns into an excruciating inward journey toward healing wounds. As they work through their issues, Ware delves back into the Corrigan family history and we witness 9-year-old James I’s rough childhood which has a glorious and heartbreaking climax at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition.

[Note: Jimmy Corrigan is not for young eyes—profanity, sex and lots of toilet-sitting all have a place in the narrative.]

The tale unfolds like a surreal Walter Mitty, only this time Jimmy’s daydreams are filled with lurid images of cruelty and humiliation. In one sequence, he imagines he has a son, a gigantic Superman shows up and plucks their house out of the neighborhood, his son is killed, he realizes he’s on a theater stage and then there’s some business about a horse he must kill. Symbolism abounds as Ware gives subtle weight to the simplest objects: a peach, a crutch and most especially the Columbian Exposition, a fair which was designed in honor of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. The exposition celebrated where America had come from and looked ahead to where it was going; and the same goes for the Corrigans—though Jimmy has absolutely no idea what’s ahead on his perilously icy road.

Visually, Ware is at the opposite end of the spectrum from R. Crumb. Ware’s panels are light, airy and simple while Crumb’s are thick and heavy (though Ware and Crumb do explore the same themes of dysfunction). In Jimmy Corrigan, you might be reminded of the “clear line” artistry you see in The Adventures of Tin-Tin. Jimmy III, in fact, reminds me a bit of Henry, the bulbous-headed comic strip kid who never said a word—except, of course, Jimmy’s an older version of Henry, one with jowls and a Prozac prescription.

Ware, whose work has appeared in Raw magazine and was previously collected by Fantagraphic Books in a series called The ACME Novelty Library, is an artist of the highest caliber, using simple lines and muted colors to present a world that leaps off the page. At one point, James I is on his way to see the Columbian Exposition for the first time, but he wonders whether this is just another of his father’s broken promises. These worries are cramped into tiny, postage-stamp-sized panels. Then suddenly there’s a bird’s-eye view of the palatial exposition grounds filling the entire next page. To call it “breathtaking” is a gross understatement.

Another thing I liked about Jimmy Corrigan was the use of sound effects. Ware shows he’s really listened to the world around him and he transcribes that music onto the page. Here, for instance, is the sound of a man nervously playing with the pop top of a soda can: pk pk pk; or, turning on a faucet: tsssssh; or inserting a set of keys into the door: chngle chng. Details like these set Jimmy Corrigan apart from anything else you’ll read this year.

My one and only quibble with the novel is that it’s sometimes hard to follow the flow of the action. Ware crowds your vision with panels of varying sizes, occasionally guiding you with arrows, but there are times when I got them out of sequence and had to backtrack to the start of the page. But that’s such a minor quibble in the face of the big picture. There is far too much beauty at stake here—both visually and textually—to be nitpicking.

Ah yes, the text—another quality of Ware’s to admire. Every so often, especially in the 1890s story, the panels are scripted with a narration composed of obsolete language. Just listen to some of the poetry Ware employs:
on this humid morning, [the city] shimmers with the smell of cattle, chocolate and garbage
and, when James I, anticipating another beating from his father, is sitting alone on the back porch with his head on his knees:
A distant roll of thunder and cooling breeze bearing the slur of neighborhood voices emerging from the stale house heat. Crickets, fireflies…all ruined by a stomach-turning sense of dread. It makes his toes hurt (and the familiar sniff of his own kneecaps which always precedes any punishment). SOMETIMES if he pushes on his eyeballs hard enough he sees pictures—red splotches and patterns of purple green sparkles, silvery smears.
Now you see what I mean about Faulkner?

It’s rare that literature as deep and moving as this comes along and I hope that by now I’ve convinced you to at least consider running out to your neighborhood Books-R-Us to hunt down Jimmy Corrigan. In the space of three panels, Ware is able to convey what some novelists struggle to describe in entire books: the heartbreak, the struggle and, finally, the glimmer of hope in our dark, dull lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment