MAY 6, 2017
IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS is the debut graphic memoir by Kristen Radtke, an editor at Sarabande. Imagine narrates Radtke’s personal experiences with decay and with the geographical sites of decay in which she becomes absorbed. The book takes readers around the world as well as inside the human body to embrace the exoticism of ruinophilia, an aesthetic fascination with sites of ruin both ancient and modern (and one of the terms, along with “ruin porn,” “dilettantish,” and others, that we see Kristen researching). Svetlana Boym, who coined the term ruinophilia, tells us that “ruins embody anxieties about human aging, commemorating our cultural endeavors and their failures.” The ruins of modernity, in Boym’s words, “make us aware of the vagaries of progressive vision as such.” Thus, ruinophilia provokes us to think about what we hope for, and why, in the world’s creative processes. Radtke presents the origin of her ruinophilia in narrator Kristen’s childhood experience of the death of her uncle. Young Kristen wonders if the human body is itself a kind of preemptive ruin that will inevitably decompose into an artifact of bones. And she asks if, after the body fails, the beloved, or the ruin, is any less beautiful. Building on this question, the book circles around the ethics of why and how we aestheticize something that exists versus something that has crumbled. And it asks readers to consider their capacity to accept their own insignificance before making a final argument about either.
We first meet Radtke in her dedication, “For Danno,” and subsequently meet the narrator Kristen in the book’s first pages as the niece of Uncle Dan. Image one of the book is kiddo Kristen enclosed by a true black page and behind glass, her face and hands pressed on the clear barrier, looking out with serious contemplation on we don’t know what.
This image introduces a book in which close-ups on faces, wordless and in contemplation, signal pivotal narrative moments. We find out in this case that Kristen is looking from inside her family kitchen out to the yard, at Dan. These two share an unfailing human commitment to each other. No matter the decisions Dan makes — wrestling, volunteer firefighting, moving to Colorado to work in a ski resort, falling in love — he involves Kristen both as a peer he loves deeply, and as a child who will one day make her own adult decisions.
Inside the kitchen, Mom tells Kristen that Dan is burdened by the family’s genetic heart defect, but is alright now. Readers again see Kristen’s dialed-in face behind glass, but the dark frame is replaced by a family’s dinnertime ritual. Here, we have a child considering what “better” means for an adult she loves, pressing her curious hands against the glass door that separates both the reader from Kristen and Kristen from Uncle Dan (who is lounging outside in a hammock, the epitome of ease despite his bad heart). This is the first time Kristen feels separated from the uncle who has always included her. Kristen thinks of Dan as a collector of answers for the world’s mysteries, so it makes sense that she would decide what a fixed heart versus a ruined heart means only after asking him. She goes outside. “It’s just like love,” Dan tells her as she lays her tiny hand on his chest. “You can’t see it, but it exists.”
At the outset of Chapter One, we encounter Kristen as a young adult in whose story the words and images from the foreword continue to resonate. True things, perhaps the most true things, are not given to us with empirical evidence, and yet they compel us more often than that which lies before our feet. We can’t see them, but they exist, still. We can aestheticize that which we don’t see as much as that which we can. Of course Dan dies of the heart condition from which he was supposed to recover — but which we suspect, from the contemplation in child Kristen’s face, that he will not. The next time we see Kristen’s face, it is behind glass again, in the passenger seat of a car. We are separated from her as the reflection of abandoned Gary, Indiana, is superimposed on her features. The narrator Kristen can’t see how the buildings embody her preoccupations, but Radtke can, looking back — and thus so can we. A whole narrative is foreshadowed in this image, one in which a human’s life and the world’s ruins are organically bonded like Kristen’s face and the reflection superimposed upon it.
Radtke drives her point home by showing us a dream in which Kristen opens up the chest of a faceless man to find the abandoned cathedral of Gary, Indiana. Inside the cathedral, Seth, an urban explorer from the real world who was hit by a train and died while photographing Gary, points Radtke to a rotting human heart in a plastic baggy amid the rubble. This dream obviously reminds us of Dan’s failed heart, and his body. But it also serves the narrative function of equating ruins with beloveds. Readers are made to consider that people decay just as cities crumble, and to mull over the proposition, found in Kristen’s notebook, that “to abandon something beautiful is where the crime rests.” In this way Radtke counters the potential argument that ruinophilia desensitizes one to suffering and human relatedness. One page includes five panels of the raggedy heart, separated from Kristen’s skin by shiny, eternal plastic, just as she was once separated from Dan by glass. Readers are continually removed from Kristen, on the other side of some clear barrier. This plastic wall will live long after the heart it holds, long after every ruined body and building in the world around it fails. But the plastic also allows — perhaps even insists — that one focus on the decaying, ruined heart.
In this way, Radtke seeks to reassure readers inclined to conflate ruinophilia with ruin porn, with an attitude that aestheticizes places like post-industrial Detroit or post-Katrina New Orleans while effacing the human cost required to produce them. When Radtke makes one of her characteristic second-person arguments to readers, such as, “so tell me then what is so perverse about these empty high rises. In these calcifying rust-belt cities. Tell me what in these rotting hallways. Tell me what in these bedrooms that look too much like your own,” readers who reject ruinophilia as ruin porn are placed in the position of also rejecting something like the value of individual lives themselves. Seth and Dan were real people who died, for example. But this is an odd sort of trap to find oneself in when taking into account the loss of human life that occurs when a city’s relationship to capitalism crumbles — consider, for instance, that Gary, formerly the City of the Century, was rocked by a failed steel industry, and is now known as an excellent place to dump a body. Look at what will soon be gone, not what is gone forever, Radtke suggests.
Crucially, while we aren’t given access to Kristen’s subjectivity when we see her silent in a panel, alone and provoked, the next panel almost always consists of her taking action to depart. Kristen travels to places as old as the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia, finding similarities between these older ruins and modern cities such as Detroit, or the many abandoned mining towns scattered across the western United States. While Kristen’s motivations are hard to trace, every time she travels to a new geographic location, it is because she has been unnerved by something: a dream, an upcoming move, an image she can’t stop thinking about — something. Is she thus following Dan’s advice that the most important thing is to “believe what you know and not what anyone says you should”? If so, then perhaps we can understand her ruinophilia as a representation of the deeply personal thought processes that Radtke purposefully hides from the reader — in order, we might speculate, to represent urgency as a state of being rather than a cause that leads to an obvious effect in the world.
Kristen’s inaccessibility also makes readers aware that we aren’t given access to others’ thought process either. Imagine Wanting Only This often presents us with characters who, in their most riveting and detached moments, remain wordless. This memoir’s realization of urgency expresses itself in human beings’ silence, which might frustrate readers of prose memoir. But here it is an opportunity for Radtke’s readers to focus, stare, wonder — to remain within urgency itself. These moments are more compelling than the times Radtke cycles through her nihilist arguments. The firm second-person argument, “you will have touched nothing on the earth,” melts down in these visual moments, as all arguments do when intimacy overtakes the intellectual. Readers confront a real person represented in an image, staring back, with nothing that text is able to add. In these moments, the nihilist arguments of the book fade away, and readers become viewers of this more alluring and ambiguous mode of representing subjectivity as constituted by its very opacity, in every shade of gray that can be painted.
In one scene that seems designed to draw out and complicate this notion, Kristen interviews a woman who left Gilman, Colorado, with her husband when the town’s mine closed. In the woman’s own words, she doesn’t seem to have a sentimental attachment to leaving. But Radtke’s drawing of the interviewee indicates that Kristen reads into the woman’s indifference something significant yet private. A close-up of the woman’s hands is folded into silence, turned in to her own body. Kristen tells us that she wants to learn about the men of Gilman to provide them with “something like permanence … but what is permanence? The ridges in Battle Mountain are still ridges.” Just as we find ourselves inclined to argue against Radtke’s narrow arguments, Kristen finds herself stuck in similar non-conversations with others characters such as this woman.
The book is full of moments like this one. In one series of three panels we see Dan’s wife, Sonia, after his death, a television blaring while Kristen sits in a chair. Sonia looks at the television blankly in the first two panels, then in the third looks with the same wordless blankness at the viewer, or perhaps Kristen. The close-up of Sonia’s face makes the question of whose eyes she’s meeting intentionally ambiguous. Elsewhere, in one of the book’s most poignant non-conversations, Kristen goes to see a healer in Siquijor in the Philippines. Kristen gestures to her heart to explain her possible condition, but the healer takes her to mean heartbreak, and advises “a good man” and an herb that will soften the heart. This reminds us of a scene earlier in the book in which Kristen calls a doctor and asks him what exactly happens when the heart fails from the genetic mutation that burdens her family. “The heart beats itself to mush,” he says. While we don’t know for sure if this will happen to Kristen (she never finishes the diagnostic work necessary to determine if she carries the gene), the subsequent scene of failed cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communication hinges on our knowing that she means heartsick in a literal rather than a metaphorical sense.
All these characters experience something emotionally weighty for them, something that we might want to see as universal — but only in the sense that while everyone feels it, this feeling is unique to each of us, and therefore alienating. Here is perhaps where Radtke’s strategy breaks down, and we are forced to ask whether and how much the book is really committed to the idea that, if we all die, it’s okay to find the beauty in decay. If this isn’t the authentic argument of the work, and is meant to be played against something more richly ambiguous, I think Radtke needs to make sharper visual or narrative contrasts between the argument of her book and arguments in her book, between the universalizing assertion that we all die versus the radically individualizing one that we all die in different ways, between the merely vague and the truly ambiguous.
But perhaps it’s incorrect to worry about the argument so much. Consider, in this regard, Walter Benn Michaels’s assertion that, in thinking about contemporary art,
autonomy’s indifference may be politically helpful. In one way, the work of art that declares its separation from the world also declares the irrelevance of our feelings. But in another, it makes its appeal to a different set of feelings, our feelings, as Brecht says, for beauty. Today, we might speculate, it’s only insofar as art seeks to be beautiful — seeks, that is, to achieve the formal perfection imaginable in works of art but not in anything else — that it can also function as a picture not of how, if we behaved better, we might manage capitalism’s problems, but rather of capitalism as itself the problem.
Imagine Wanting Only This treats aspects of Kristen’s life that readers would consider incredible economic and personal successes — getting into a top-notch graduate program for writing; immediately getting a tenure-track job out of grad school; experiencing a sturdy enough love to consider marriage and then abandoning that plan without any seemingly debilitating heartbreak; leaving an academic job for what is presumably a better one in a tremendously expensive city; being able to travel the world to explore one’s feelings, future, and past, or simply because one experiences a desire; completing and publishing a book with a large press — merely as transitions in the memoir to get us from one physical location to the next. The life events on which many writers would focus are treated with little interest here, and Radtke is also radically uninterested in readers’ sympathies or judgments. We are told, over and over in this work, that feelings don’t matter and emotional cause and effect is irrelevant. The argument we are provided to account for these omissions is that “we forget that everything we become will no longer be ours.” Under these conditions, the most important thing to remember is that “you will have touched nothing on the earth.”
This published artifact of a life, like any artifact, doesn’t fix or break anything. Art can, however, represent. Imagine cannot be accused of failing to represent beautifully the many places and time periods it navigates, and the most thrilling pages, for me, show Kristen happily by herself, engrossed in a landscape. The black-and-white watercolors Radtke uses to represent Iceland are ethereal, limitless in scope, and looks exactly like a gorgeous decay. The scratchy circles imagined in the Peshtigo Fire are so sharp they almost have a sound — like a crow’s cawing, obsessive and surreal. The summer light of Iowa shows us again the wide, open circles that fade into a dream. And the moments we see characters, wordless, confronting something that is pivotal only to themselves speak to Radtke’s generosity as a participant in the world, and as an author to her subjects. The nihilism spelled out in Radtke’s prose falls like a ruin, and in its place we have urgency painted out in a million shades of black — gorgeous, wordless moments of watercolor and pencil-fisted lines. She represents with her drawing, and leaves the critique for others.
I think one of the great pleasures in reading Imagine Wanting Only This is that the work is as easy to be engrossed by as it is to dismiss. Readers can take the arguments seriously, or consider them ephemeral testimonial. While the book traverses many time periods, locations, and ages of the narrator, we are never lost as readers about what is happening, and where. The clarity of the book revels in location, and not character. This is a riveting use of memoir. This is as alienating as it is universal, smug as it is generous, a conclusion as much as an opportunity. Imagine Wanting Only This’s deeply personal aesthetic doesn’t concern itself with others’ points of view. Each reader must decide for herself how successful the work is, and to what degree that success is beautiful.
Sarah Heston’s memoir-in-progress, Daughter of Endtimes, is a true-crime, survivalist memoir that details a daughter-father relationship built on apocalyptic end-of-days scenarios in Los Angeles. Her nonfiction can be found in Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, Entropy, American Literary Review, and Hotel Amerika.