At Home in Ruins: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

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Kristen Radtke’s meditative graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This ruminates on ruin and decay—of an abandoned city, of a genetically faulty heart, of love and relationships, and, in the long run, of all things. Through black-and-white images with stark juxtapositions, Radtke braids together the death of her favorite uncle, Dan, the end of her engagement to her college boyfriend, her travels to various ruins around the world, and her own struggle to find a home somewhere that isn’t in the process of deteriorating.

As a college student, Radtke visits Gary, Indiana with her boyfriend Andrew. Once dubbed the “City of the Century,” Gary was founded by US Steel in 1906 but suffered when the steel industry declined in ’60s and ’70s, leaving much of the area abandoned. Radtke and her boyfriend are particularly drawn to the large cathedral near the center of the city. Inside the deserted basilica she finds a plastic bag full of photographs, which turns out to have been a memorial for a dead photographer named Seth Thomas. Radtke is racked with guilt over her inadvertent desecration, but she fails to return the pictures to their proper place. The specter of Seth haunts the rest of the book. Radtke reveals Seth’s story piecemeal, along with the book’s other threads, and the result is a spirited mix of ever-varying ways to contemplate her themes.

One of the book’s most effective techniques is the detail in Radtke’s wonderful images: she uses every inch of the frame to communicate information about the time period, the setting, the characters depicted in the panel, and the tone of the section. Other times the drawings are more abstract, more metaphorical, with pictures overlapping or blending together until it’s impossible to tell where one starts and the other begins. Graphic literature has its advantages over the written word, and Radtke exploits them to the fullest.

There are times, though, when Imagine Wanting Only This falters, when the contrast between essayistic meditation and personal memoir doesn’t quite mesh. Radtke herself sometimes seems superfluous, inasmuch as numerous panels from the book feature nothing more than Radtke wearing a contemplative expression. Instead of feeling personal, these images appear to be filler. The same can be said for the prose: some of it is gorgeous and insightful, like the moment in Reykjavic, Iceland in which the title phrase appears, but there are also instances of vague language that sounds more profound than it is: “What can be made of the spaces that we cannot witness?” And though Radtke pokes fun of her college pretentiousness, lines like “I think it had something to do with knowability, or possession,” and words like “mutability” abound nonetheless. But as soon as her prose seems bogged down by unnecessarily high registers, a gem like this comes along: “Rot is rot, and when I wander around alone waiting for something to happen, rot is the only thing that does.” Lines like that one can knock a reader back.

Imagine Wanting Only This is beautifully poignant, ambitious, and, at times, a bit clunky. In attempting to deconstruct ruin—and to thereby, in a sense, reconstruct it—Radtke succeeds far more than she stumbles, which, come to think of it, seems like the best one can hope for—more life than decay.

Jonathan Russell Clark is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Read It Forward. His work has also appeared in Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Georgia Review, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Scofield, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. He is the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate, 2017), on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

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