THE NOW-FAMILIAR TERM "graphic novel" has a kind of special pleading to it, avoiding as it does the words "comics," thus distancing the work in question from its real historical antecedents (Krazy Kat, Carl Barks), and claiming kinship with a genre whose legitimacy is long-established and secure, even though the work in question is not much like a novel. Is Maus a novel? Fun Home? Persepolis? Great as these books are, why do we feel we can only honor them by calling them something they are not?
Chris Ware's stuff, however, does seem to be in dialogue with the novelistic tradition, in the present instance even more so than was the case with Jimmy Corrigan.
Aside from the obvious point that Building Stories is fiction, it is fiction about ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, the very thing that enables us to discern the novel as distinct from the romance. The (unnamed, so far as I could tell) main character of Building Stories is unusual, true, in having had a leg amputated as a child, but most of what happens to her--an affair that ends abruptly and painfully, anxiety over her abilities, marriage and a child, the loss of her parents, acquiring a house--is as ordinary as it gets. Yet Ware knows, as Defoe, Austen, Flaubert, Woolf, and Wallace knew, that the ordinary well-scrutinized ceases to be ordinary, becomes revelatory, prophetic. The real is stranger, more powerful, more dazzling than anything in romance.
There's the handling of narrative time, in which memory and anticipation, and the awareness of roads not taken, turns every moment into a cross section of geological strata. Since we get the woman's life not in any straightforward chronological order, but in the order in which we happen to pick up the several elements of Building Stories, each panel carries some gravity from panels we have already seen or have not yet seen, with effects almost Proustian when everything works.
And the variety of the elements--some pieces like a newspaper, some like books, some like pamphlets, one like a gameboard--constitutes a kind of Bakhtinian comics heteroglossia. As the novel is a discourse composed of many discourses, so Building Stories is a comic that draws on all the ways comics come to us.
That Ware understands how we come to comics, how they come to us, is the project's greatest triumph. Like Joyce, who did new things with the novel by understanding with extraordinary intimacy how novels worked and where we as readers could be led, Ware knows in his bones how the eye-path of a comics reader works, what the visual logic of comics is, and uses that knowledge to coax us out to places where new illuminations can occur.