Review: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

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Cover courtesy of Pantheon

Agggh! This book has sat on the floor of my bedroom since September of last yearbasically for my entire senior year thus fargoing unread! I made one cursory pass at it sometime during the fall semester, wasn’t really hooked by it, was kind of put off by the art style, and then abandoned it. Well, good thing I didn’t just return it to the library, because now I have read it, and it’s fantastic. (SIDENOTE: I am not a monster. Although my honors student status allows me to check out books for the entire school year without having to renew them, I normally don’t do so unless the book a. is incredibly obscure and clearly not in any demand or b. has multiple copies available. Radtke’s book [probably because she got her MFA here] has multiple copies at the UI library.)

Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic novel memoir mainly focusing on a period of Kristen’s life starting with her undergrad career and ending shortly after leaving graduate school and moving to Louisville, Kentucky—the “stuck in them 20-somethings” period of life, to borrow a phrase from SZA. As the book moves between major decisions and life events in these years—moves, break-ups, illnesses—Radtke returns again and again to the themes of loss, deterioration, decay, the desire for something more, something new—and the way all these things conflict within her. Is it possible to hold onto the old and gain new relationships, new experiences? Is it possible to hold onto anything at all, when everything is so transitory? What is the value of preserving a ruin versus letting it fall into rot? The strongest through-line of the book is ruins. The urban decay of Gary, Indiana, the devastation of the Peshtigo fire, the volcanic destruction of a town in Iceland, even the mold and water damage in Kristen’s sad college apartment. These images hold the book together, link one event with another, and keep the book feeling cohesive despite the lack of any straight-shot plotline throughout the whole story.

I think one of the things that initially put me off about the book was Kristen and her boyfriend Andrew acting like such creeps (“Really, you can’t say the word ‘yes’ without invoking James Joyce,” Andrew opines at one point), and being unsure whether or not I was supposed to relate to them and feel like their grody behavior was romantic. Because I know these students, anyone getting a liberal arts education knows these students, and they’re the kind of students who I don’t care to be around because I can’t connect with them through their wall of irony and aggressively performed insightfulness. That said, it pretty quickly becomes clear that no, Radtke is not trying to romanticize (for example) the way these two descend on Gary, Indiana in the most exploitative, ruin-pornographer manner. It also becomes clear that a lot of their pretension and surety about the world is covering deep insecurities and internal tensions, which allowed me to relate to them in a way I’m sure I could never, I’m sure they would never let me, if I met them when they were that age at UIowa.

Those fears and internal conflicts are what ultimately drew me into the book. There’s a two-page sequence near the beginning, composed of eight square panels, each with the same overhead view of the bedroom of Kristen and Andrew’s apartment, an impossible perspective that allows us to see all four walls of the dingy room. The progression of time, as each panel jumps forward by weeks or months, is only evident by the growth of mold climbing up and spreading over all the walls. From this point on, it feels like Radtke really begins to expose what is hidden beneath the rot. Although she’s commented on the superficial nature of certain aspects of this period of her life before, now she shows what’s below the surface. And what it is is them 20-somethings. Worries about mortality, worries about the future, a desire for something new and exciting which traveling to Italy inexplicably cannot fill. At one point Radtke writes, on deciding whether to move after graduating from her master’s program, “I didn’t want to sit still, but I didn’t want to lose anything either. I wanted to gather more without giving anything up.” And, as a senior undergrad living in the same city that Radtke lived in as a grad student, with graduation rrrrrrapidly approaching, that is some relatable_content.txt, let me tell you.

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Excerpt from Imagine Wanting Only This courtesy of Pantheon

And look, these aren’t groundbreaking ideas, they are so relatable because they are so common, but Radtke does a superb job of putting them in writing. That’s something that really stood out to me about Imagine Wanting Only This—the writing is phenomenal. I think writing is kind of, maybe, okay don’t throw anything at me, but … undervalued … in autobio comics. More specifically, I think lots of comic artists lean on the artwork to do all the heavy-lifting of symbolism and metaphor and striking images, and don’t really tap the potential of the writing to do the same. Like, I dunno, just because this is a visual medium does not mean the writing itself can’t be imagistic too! And while I love a book with really paired down language that just lets the reader absolutely swim in the artwork, I’m also delighted to read a book with sentences like “The ceilings were vaulted high and white, a crooked and cold kind of rehabbed interior that looked expensive until you touched it”, and “I never slept in Kentucky, because every night airplanes that I wasn’t in flew over my apartment.”

And, what’s more, I think the writing in this book is better than most other straight-prose memoirs of its ilk—that is, memoirs that are heavily essayic, memoirs that use lots of outside research and more standard non-fiction trappings as part of their narrative. It’s better than a lot of those books (repeat: a lot, not all—Gay’s Hunger jumps to mind as an incredibly concise exception to what I’m saying) because the medium of the graphic novel forces Radtke to only include what is absolutely essential, to cut down the text as much as possible so it can fit in the panels and not disrupt the flow of the comic. What remains are only the clearest, most insightful parts of the memoir—those sentences, phrases, images that are the essence of the narrative, which, in a text memoir, you sometimes have to go hunting for between blocks of exposition and throat-clearing.

As far as the art style, I at first found it a bit uncanny—the people looked almost like people on a government-issued infographic. It’s hard to describe, because they certainly don’t look stiff or lifeless. They’re just a shade too close to reality, without being photo-realistic (the effect isn’t helped by the handwriting font, which inexplicably has letters that slant forward and backward and ones that aren’t slanted at all, making it instantly recognizable as not handwriting and kind of irritating to read.) Regardless, style is easy enough to adjust to, and after I actually started reading the book it became a non-issue. What I was struck by most with Radtke’s art was the sense of flow, the pacing—that bedroom sequence I mentioned earlier for instance, or the subtle shifts in perspective during a conversation. I was also struck by her control of value—the book is all in grayscale, so everything has to be conveyed with different levels of value (darkness or lightness.) So when she uses a pure black, a 0% gray, it really stands out, and she does this to terrific effect—mold is black, blood is black, a cellphone image of her uncle after undergoing surgery is portrayed almost entirely in black and white.

So, don’t be like me. If you have a chance to read this book, do it. Especially if you are stuck in them 20-somethings yourself. Or if you’ve enjoyed my past two comics about coming to the end of my college career (I seriously did not plan to read this book at the same time as I was thinking about all this kind of stuff, it just happened.) The book is stupendously written, and despite  being heavier on text than many graphic novel memoirs, it has that wonderful, irresistible pull of a well-paced comic.

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