Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This explores the literal and figurative ruins of loss and mourning in a graphic narrative poised on the nonfiction boundary between memoir and essay. After the long-anticipated death of a beloved uncle, Radtke looks outward at the remains of abandoned towns and ancient cities as she inwardly copes with the same inherited heart condition that killed her uncle.
The premise is artful in a way more typical of fiction, since Radtke’s attention to her literal heart parallels her emotional life as her mourning isolates her from meaningful relationships. Yet after depicting her break up with her boyfriend in an early chapter, Radtke abandons that personal plot for nonfiction reportage of historical locations and events, an approach that undercuts the expected coming-of-age closure.
The turn away from memoir, while still an indirect portrait of her emotional state, is narratively peculiar. When graphic novelist Anya Ulinich reviewed Imagine Wanting Only This for The New York Times, she felt “a lack of personal stake, of narrative tension” when the work “thins out into a travelogue” in chapter four. But that’s arguably the point. Radtke’s travels in Asia illustrate her escape from the personal.
After leaving her boyfriend in the previous chapter for the “distractions” of brief sexual relationships with graduate school men she identifies only by their cigarette brands, she responds to her ambiguous heart diagnosis and disturbing autopsy dreams by organizing a desperate travel itinerary with her “best friend”, a character seemingly invented for the trip which contrasts Radtke’s previous European travels with her now ex-boyfriend. The chapter’s dwindling personal stakes and tensions are the inevitable product of her impossible goal: “to see as many countries as possible and be away from home for as long as possible. It felt like I had to see everything, as if it was the only way my life would count or matter.” Of course it fails. She is trying to flee herself.
Radtke next deepens her flight from the personal with another subtle formal shift. Where chapter four reduces the opening chapters’ intimate plot with the outward-focus of a traveler’s journal, chapter five steps further away by exploring incidents in the remote past. Radtke’s narration turns from travel guide to history guide. Her accounts of obscure sightings of the Virgin Mary, the explosive burning of a Wisconsin town in 1871, the WWII bombing of Dresden, and the invention of napalm are only sparsely punctuated with interactions with other living characters and memories of her uncle.
Chapter 6 then opens with Radtke again in flight, now leaving “Marlboro Reds” in bed as she plans her next trip, this time to the yet-more-remote regions of Iceland on a nominal quest to research a yet-more-obscure topic, “a pseudo-travel documentary told in letters.” In addition to providing Radtke her title, the film and the peculiarity of its genre echoes the peculiarities of her own. Though she longs to describe her latest travel experience with “someone I loved”, her trip culminates anti-climatically with a thinly attended conference panel presentation in which the words in her speech bubbles literally devolve into scribbles.
Next she’s researching an abandoned mining town, one she glimpsed years earlier while still with her not-quite-forgotten boyfriend. Of course traveling to interview one of its former residents provides no comfort, personally or narratively. Radtke’s briefly details how “Sometimes I met very polite boys with very neat hair who asked me to take walks with them along the river.” Her explanation is revealing in the nearness of its inaccuracy: “It’s not that I didn’t want to stand in a field and watch the air get dark around us as the sun moved across and beneath the Ohio River. It’s that I didn’t want there to be an Ohio River.” Radtke’s subsequent litany of the river’s faults cannot obscure her not-quite-articulated death wish as its unacknowledged influence continues to push her into greater isolation.
In the final sequence, Radtke lives alone in New York, imagining it empty and flooded as she evokes a universal but visually absent “we”, drawing together the intentionally disparate threads of her not-quite-a-memoir memoir. Though the anti-climax is appropriate, her plot and portrait remain incomplete, as if she has reached the end of her book but not its narrative. There’s also ambiguity in whether her faulty narrator—a troubled young women incapable of recognizing her downward spiral and its cause let alone cure—is a brilliantly crafted construction of the author or an accidentally revealing self-portrait.
Though her final sequence does not communicate the self-knowledge implied by the work overall, I choose to read Radtke as fully aware of the qualities of her drawn character, and therefore her actual character. The choice is justified by her skill in the comics form. Imagine Wanting Only This is no illustrated memoir, but a graphic narrative inseparable from its visual telling. Page after page exploit the nuanced relationships between text and image and the subtly disrupting closure effects of sequence.
In terms of style, Radtke’s computer-generated lines are always precise, and when not overtly photo-based, evocative of photographic content reduced to minimal detail. Her backgrounds and interior shapes are typically solid shapes with no crosshatching, and she surrounds her limited graytones with wide white margins. The overall effect is a stark realism well-suited to her topic of death, both past and anticipated.
But Radtke’s topic is also herself, both narratively and visually, and so as the chapters follow her travels and reveries, her self-portraits people almost every page. As a result, her nearly constant visual presence contrasts her character’s expanding emotional remoteness. Also, aside from childhood flashbacks, her drawn representations do not change or evolve, creating a constancy that parallels her plot’s anti-climax. If the work is, as one of her back cover blurbers claims, a bildungsroman, it is one that reverses the coming-of-age genre’s most defining trait: personal growth.
The abundance of self-portraits also makes her author photo on the back flap oddly unsettling because it both clearly resembles and yet subtly contradicts the character in her artwork. The effect isn’t due to a lack of artistic skill, but highlights the nature of drawing in general. Radtke’s style inherently alters what it depicts, including and perhaps most especially her most central subject, herself. This is true of any graphic memoirist, but Allison Bechdel’s mildly cartoonish self-portraits in Fun Home and Julie Doucet self-parodically cartoonish self-portraits in My New York Diary emphasize differences between the drawn world and the actual. Radtke’s computerized naturalism instead travels the borders of the unreal valley’s not-quite-ness. It’s a fitting stylistic location for her not-quite narrative.
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