His magnum opus, “Building Stories”, is a triumph of writing, drawing, imagination and empathy. Simon Willis goes to Chicago to meet him

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2013

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, 1990. A lady named Clara lies dying in a nursing home. As she declines, she has strange dreams and hallucinations. Fragments of her life come back to her in snatches. She sees herself in her old house in Omaha, Nebraska. All the furniture is gone. She sees rain falling through a hatch in the ceiling and freezing into icicles. One day she sees a newspaper unroll on a screen above her, and all the news is of tiny fleeting momentssomeone finding a penny, or doing the dishes, or picking up a coaster from a table. "I thought there was something so strangely beautiful about that," Chris Ware says. "There’s no telling what one will remember. It makes no sense, but there will be these moments that glow in our memories." Clara was his grandmother, and he has been thinking about this ever since.

Ware is America’s most subtle and original graphic novelist, but for the sake of simplicity he often calls himself a cartoonist. "Being a cartoonist", he once said, "means you don’t consider yourself too fancy." It doesn’t stop others describing him as a genius. In 2005 Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic of the New Yorker, called him the "Picasso/Braque and young Eliot" of the graphic novel. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Books of academic criticism are written about his comics, and conferences convened. The novelist Rick Moody has written that "the American novel has a lot to learn" from Chris Ware. He was talking specifically about "Building Stories", Ware’s second graphic novel, which was published last year and which the New York Times chose as one of its ten best books of 2012. Almost all his work has been about the warp and weft of his characters' inner livestheir mix of reality, fantasy, dream and memorybut "Building Stories" was his most inventive attempt yet to capture the feeling of everyday experience.

It doesn’t look like a book. It comes in a large flat box, containing 14 items in no discernible order: hardbacks and paperbacks, pamphlets and booklets, thin fold-out strips and huge broadsheets, a board like a game. You are not told where to start. You might begin with a wordless booklet of meticulous panels showing scenes from the life of a mother and her daughter, now a new-born baby, now a girl getting the hem of her pink dress stitched at Hallowe'en. Then you might pick up a thin strip, in which that woman, younger now, is walking alone and depressed in the snow. "I can’t live with this awful feeling," she thinks, "I can’t bear it any longer." In one of the hardbacks there are pages describing the drudgery of her life on the top floor of a three-storey apartment building in Chicago, and her job in a flower shop, pages laid out in a repetitive grid of square panels, the routine of her days built into the strip’s architecture. Later in the same book are pages built around large images of the woman’s body, one of her legs amputated below the knee. Other panels telling related stories fit around that main picture, connected by arrows. You don’t read these pages left to right, as in a conventional strip. The flow of panels circles the central image, so that your eye reads down one side of the page and back up the other. On one page she lies with her eyes closed, and thinks about how she’s always had a fragile heart, and how when she was a little girl she would get tired easily and sometimes played a game where she stopped breathing. Her heartbeat would slow down, “as if it was getting worried that I’d gone somewhere, and left it all alone”. You open a broadsheet where the woman, spreading into middle age, is living in the suburbs with her family, having abandoned her ambition to be a writer or artist. Slowly the fragments cohere into a story about that woman looking back on her life, from her childhood to her lonely 20s and on into the resentments and joys of marriage and motherhood.

You notice odd repetitions and discrepancies. In one of the broadsheets the woman remembers the day her friend Stephanie died, how a memorial service was organised for which she volunteered to do the flowers, only to miss the service because her cat had to be put down. But elsewhere she remembers going to the service and giving a eulogy. You see her daughter in the same pink dress at Hallowe’en in four parts of the story, combined with one set of memories and then with another. There are sections about a depressed bee named Branford, which at first seem anomalous. Elsewhere you notice the woman reading a story to her daughter about a bee called Branford, and you wonder if Branford’s place in the box is about the magnitude of bedtime stories in the lives of a parent and child. Tiny details trip you up and send you back to other sections where you think you’ve seen them before. You might see the green-shaded lamp on a table in the young woman's apartment and swear that it faced the other way in another book. At one point she buys a rose lapel pin from an antique store, hoping it will inspire stories for a creative-writing class. The pin appears in the middle of another page, when her elderly landlady remembers the death of her mother, memories which seemed real the first time you saw them. Now you aren’t so sure.

"Building Stories" is a work of intricate simplicity. It captures an ordinary life in a structure so complex that  reading it feels like living that life from the inside, with all the darting variety and fallibility of human thought. As you read about the woman remembering her life, you share the hazy, fragmentary feeling of memory itself. It is a box of fleeting episodes that return to us unbidden, just as they do in real time. The New York Review of Books called it a "triumph of the comic-book novel", the New Republic "one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced".

On the inside of the box are two epigraphs. One is from Picasso, the other from "Clara Louise Ware (1905-1990)".

Above Chris Ware working in his studio in Oak Park