Imagine Wanting Only This

Type the word “nothing” into a Google search, and up pops “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” with more than six and a half million results for Robert Frost’s treasured eight-line poem, first published in 1923. Kristen Radtke’s haunting graphic memoir, a melancholic meditation on impermanence, essentially drops the qualifier “gold” from Frost’s assertion.

In Imagine Wanting Only This, Radtke reminds us repeatedly that loss is the only constant the world has to offer. Her mantra is, “We forget that everything will become no longer ours.” It’s a point of view catalyzed by the loss of Radtke’s beloved youngest uncle, who died of a rare congenital heart disorder while she was away at college — a disease she has also inherited.

After her uncle’s death, Radtke, a native of Wisconsin, became obsessed with blighted cities, abandoned mines, and war ruins that reflect the transitory nature of even tarnished things, whether natural or manmade. She’s fascinated by what’s missing and what’s left behind. To her chagrin, she discovers that even memorials don’t last — including the makeshift one she inadvertently transgresses when, as an undergraduate visiting a derelict abandoned cathedral in Gary, Indiana, with her boyfriend, she takes home a pile of ash-strewn photographs — which she later learns were part of a tribute to a young photographer who died at twenty-three when hit by a freight train he was photographing.

In combining a bildungsroman with a record of her ardent pursuit of ruins around the world, Radtke’s debut exemplifies a growing trend in memoir — Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse is one recent example — in which an author’s personal story is interwoven with research and reporting on a subject that has captivated her attention and shaped her life.

Imagine Wanting Only This is also part of another significant trend among memoirists — one that puts the graphic back in autobiographical narrative. Standouts include Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, David Small’s Stitches, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  Although there’s a movement to call these books by the plainspoken term “comics,” I prefer “graphic literature,” since comic strips, with their connection to cartoons and the funnies, imply a form driven by humor — which these memoirs decidedly are not.

Whatever you choose to call it, Imagine Wanting Only This effectively meshes a distilled, starkly confessional, probing text with an equally eloquent visual element. It’s hard to imagine this book without Radtke’s darkly expressive black-and-white ink-washed drawings, through which she often zooms in on telling details — a high-heeled pump when the author is in professional mode, delivering a talk in Iceland on filmmaker Chris Marker; a forlorn bundle of mail awaiting her in Iowa City on her return from a research trip; a fragment of an iPhone screen, old newspaper clipping, or medical report conveying disturbing news.

Radtke’s artwork evokes movie stills more than comic strips, panning cinematographically from full-page landscapes to tightly framed close-ups and intense conversations (often on cellphones). She frequently holds an uncomfortable focus on herself through multiple frames as she struggles with difficult emotions, conveying, for example, her ambivalent feelings after she becomes engaged to her college boyfriend. There are many lovely, pensive self-portraits lit by the glow of a computer or phone screen, while bird’s-eye views of her anxiety-wracked insomniac nights suggest a restless, caged animal.

The overall mood is of brooding loneliness. This is often captured in panoramas of solitary walks in which the author is depicted as a small human presence against a vast backdrop. The strikingly effective cover drawing shows her dark, silhouetted, luggage-toting figure from behind, gazing out the large picture windows in a Detroit airport terminal over dark, abandoned high-rise buildings in the distance, one of several “calcifying rust-belt cities” she tries to fathom.

Radtke acknowledges that “ruinophilia” and “ruin porn” have become hip even as her obsession with deserted, forgotten sites fuels her travels through Europe, Southeast Asia, and the American West. The travelogue portions of her book, while less compelling than her moving evocation of her relationship with her uncle, capture the insatiability of her search. “It felt like I had to see everything, as if it was the only way my life would count or matter,” she writes.

This restless ambition to find answers “or at least information” about the transitory nature of existence defines Radtke’s profoundly contemplative book. “Am I supposed to want children who will mourn me or husbands I will watch lowered into the ground or houses I will endure in their emptiness?” she asks, blatantly demonstrating the kind of failure to stay in the moment that would make a Buddhist cringe. She is a disaster scenarist who, after moving to New York City, pictures its streets and subways flooded. Why? Could it be defensive, to steel herself against further loss? Or a nod to Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées so eloquently reminded us of our minute place in a vast universe?

Radtke doesn’t shy from these big, potentially overwhelming questions. Yet her takeaway offers some measure of comfort: By accepting that “someday there will be nothing left that you have touched,” you may have an easier time accepting that none of us, and none of the losses, are important. After all, in the end, all is ephemeral: Nothing gold can stay. Imagine wanting only what’s here, now. Besides, she adds, “Who knows what will be significant when we have all moved on to whatever is waiting or not waiting?”

The Barnes & Noble Review

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