While in college, Kristen Radtke lost her favorite uncle to a rare genetic heart disease that runs in her family. A trip to the nearly totally abandoned Gary, Indiana not long after his funeral sparked an interest and then obsession with abandoned properties all over the world. Traveling all over the world in search of abandoned properties while also looking for meaning, Radtke struggles to make sense of her own illness while also looking for why she feels so alienated from the world.
Radtke’s graphic memoir is part narrative about her search for meaning, and part historical construct of empty, abandoned places. Her drawings are sparse and her figures, in particular, are fairly hollow. This stylistic choice is clearly intentional, and it’s also a style that won’t work for every reader. But it’s effective in conveying its meaning.
This is not a book for every reader. Radtke is heavy on the existentialism as well as the ennui, and these things can be alienating, to be sure. But Radtke’s struggles with finding meaning, and with finding connection, both to the people in her life as well as the spaces she inhabits, is an interesting and at times frustrating thing to watch. There are no easy answers here, and it’s not even clear if Radtke feels like she’s accomplished anything by the end.
The book is strongest when Radtke marries the concept of decay both literally and figuratively: there’s a moment where she portrays her disintegrating relationship with her boyfriend with a toxic sort of mold that begins to climb the walls of their tiny apartment, taking over their shared space. It’s moving and powerful and one of the book’s best illustrations.
It won’t work for everyone, but this one worked for me. Radtke’s illustrations are interesting and arresting, and the book hit me at a time when I was feeling the ennui, too. Recommended for fans of travel, of abandoned place porn, and of graphic memoirs.
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke. Pantheon: 2017. Library copy.