Chris Ware, Random House,
Oct. 2, 260 pp.
Chris Ware’s new Building Stories confirms his place alongside Nabokov and David Foster Wallace in the pantheon of masterful mindfuck writers. It’s hard to know where to start with Building Stories: Once you open the board-game-style box, you need to spread out its 14 pieces on a desk or the floor and just kind of wing it. The guide on the back of the box only suggests where in your house you should “dismiss” each piece (under the coffee table?). Like your own memories, this is meant to intrude on your life.
The size and binding of the pieces — one of which is a mock Little Golden Book — might hints at a hierarchy of importance, but it all feels equally meaningful as we learn about our one-and-a-half-legged heroine and the two major male characters: Branford (a bee) and the eponymous building that serves as setting for most of the stories, the content of which — images of mammorific fruit and penile peaches, the sexual life of a drone bee, discourses on loneliness and motherhood — is enough to launch a hundred gender-studies dissertations. Ware’s artistic skills are unmatched. The most remarkable panel, printed twice, shows the female protagonist standing sad and naked while her also-naked husband looks at an iPad, fully unresponsive. If the New Yorker showed genitals, this would be the cover of our times.
The ultimate takeaway, though, is that Building Stories is a work where form and function play with each other, suggesting hidden meanings nestled within powerful storytelling, while questioning just what “reading” means.
[ comics ]
Charles Burns, Pantheon, Oct. 9, 56 pp.
Charles Burns’ new book is the second in a trilogy that has a lot in common, structurally and tonally, with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It gradually becomes clear that what appears to be the main plot, with a confused cartoon protagonist who wakes up in a frightening, ugly fantasy world, is a dream of the similar but more realistic-looking art-school student Doug. The reader’s task is then to puzzle out the real story — whatever trauma is being interpreted as aggro lizard-men and horrible things to eat by Doug’s subconscious — by working backwards from occasional flashes of the real world.
The Hive has a lot more hints and context to offer than the first in the trilogy, X’ed Out, where the connection between the two worlds was less clear. Here, we get larger chunks of real-life Doug and begin to see common themes between his now-over art-school romance with messed-up photographer Sarah and the adventures of Nitnit, his Tintin-esque avatar in nightmare land. Though we don’t get enough of either world to get a clear picture, we can watch for significance in the things that appear in both— a bandage on the protagonist’s head, things belonging to Doug’s dead father, images in the Polaroids he takes.
Pregnancy is only touched on in real life, but seems to be a big deal. Horror-infused fetal imagery pops up everywhere in the dream, and Nitnit is now employed at “The Hive,” where bedridden human “queens” or “breeders” look about 20 times too pregnant, occasionally scream all night and have to be cleaned up by hazmat crews afterwards as bins of huge eggs are shipped out the back. Nitnit visits a Sarah-doppelganger queen, who gripes about the two missing issues of a series she’s reading: “It’s pretty obvious that something really, really awful happened, but what? It’s driving me nuts!”
I know, right? As enjoyable as puzzling is, it does make you wish the slim books had been released as a single volume — it’ll be another two years before the set of clues is complete with Sugar Skull. As is, the series is like one of Doug’s half-developed Polaroids: You can make out shapes, but no details.
[ fiction ]
John Banville, Knopf, Oct. 2, 304 pp.
A mediation on the unreliability of memory, John Banville’s Ancient Light is both regal and despondent. Narrated by 60-something actor Alex Cleave, the plot has two strands: One is Alex recounting the affair his 15-year-old self had with his best friend’s 35-year-old mother, and the other revolves around an out-of-the-blue movie role Alex gets offered.
Banville’s style is a thick brocade. On a seaside vacation, the world beneath the water’s surface is described as “glaucous, turbid, sluggishly asway.” Characters’ actions and reactions can seem unlikely: “Shaking hands always gives me the shivers, the unwarranted clammy intimacy of it and that awful sense of having something pumped out of one.” The shivers? Really? Certain descriptions and metaphors are marvelous, such as this one of a father at a tween-girl birthday party: “Tall, thin, angular, he stood in the kitchen amidst a pool of little girls, like one of those poles that stick up crookedly out of the lagoon at Venice.” But while a gesture or a setting might get described at great length, basics often remain vague, as if it were beneath Banville to tell us, say, a character’s age. Some will find Banville’s Nabokov-aspiring style to be beautifully evocative (he’s won plenty of awards, including the Man Booker Prize), but it kept me at arm’s length, as did several of the more improbable aspects of the illicit affair.
The main characters here have appeared in two previous Banville novels, which I haven’t read. After I finished Ancient Light I took a look at several synopses of those books and became dismayed at the heavily plotted coincidences that Banville has built up. (Alex’s movie role is based on the biography of a man who, unknown to Alex, actually impregnated Alex’s daughter.) Ancient Light is preoccupied with the search for meaning and order: “Why should I not allow of a secret and sly arranger of seemingly chance events?” Alex wonders. Obviously that arranger — an overly forceful one — exists.
[ fiction ]
Michael Chabon, HarperCollins, Sept. 11, 480 pp.
A failing record store, its owners — a couple of embittered audiophiles clinging to the regal but sinking ship that is retail vinyl in the 21st century — this is the world into which Telegraph Avenue first deposits us. Snap diagnosis: a 50-50 chance that this’ll be a more literary version of High Fidelity.
But then, it is a Michael Chabon novel we’re talking about — progeny of the man who spawned a million fanboys with Wonder Boys and the Pulitzer-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In his hands, the tale of Brokeland Records evolves into something much larger: the fates of marriages, race relations, the record industry and the entire long-suffering neighborhood of Brokeland — straddling the Berkeley-Oakland border — all on the line. If Chabon is looking to create the modern, American answer to the Greek tragedy, the sins of the deadbeat father revisited on generations to come, he achieves it in this chronicle of the long, slow strangulation of dreams.
Chabon is a writer’s writer, riddling his text with startlingly fresh metaphors, shards of efficiently funny dialogue and fragments of plain brilliance — like describing former blaxploitation siren Valletta Moore (catch phrase: “Do what you got to do, and stay fly”) as “on the fatal side of fifty.” And as record-store owners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe navigate their fraying partnership, fraught home lives and the impending arrival of a much-hyped superstore, their world — populated with outsize, quirky characters, toned sepia (and disco-era neon) with nostalgia and sprawling uneasily between white and black, crunchy Berkeley and blighted Oakland — comes into cinematic focus.