A Graphic Memoir Looks for Meaning in Abandoned Places

Kristen Radtke on resisting nihilism and finding a space where the Archie crew and Joan Didion can thrive together

A confession: before reading Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This — which I won’t wait another sentence to declare a miracle and a masterpiece — I’d read exactly zero graphic novels and only three graphic memoirs: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Dominique Goblet’s Pretending is Lying. I thoroughly enjoyed all three, but had, throughout my reading experience, the sense that I somehow wasn’t doing it right. I did not grow up on comic books; I grew up on Ally McBeal. The pages of these aforementioned graphic memoirs were lousy with beauty and poignance, wit and wisdom, but I’d be lying if I said that they didn’t also defamiliarize and disorient me. What order was I supposed to read the squares — which I’d later learn were in fact referred to as panels — in? Vertically? Horizontally? In whatever way struck me? Every time I came across a panel with multiple dialogue bubbles — that there is actually a proper term for this I’m not privy to is something I do not doubt — I’d have to read it a few times before understanding enough to move on. This was not a case of “the book didn’t teach me how to read it.” It was a case of “probably everyone in the world who isn’t me knows how to read these, but I do have a wealth of useless trivia when it comes to the trials and tribulations of a fictional lawyer played by Calista Flockhart.”

All this to say that I was reticent, when I received a galley of Imagine Wanting Only This, to so much as crack the spine. I thought, I’m not going to be any good at making sense of this. This was, as it turns out, a terrific attitude with which to enter the text, as so much of Radtke’s phenomenal memoir is about unknowability and the impulses that attend our being met with it, namely an impulse toward narrativizing — that which we think we know enough to understand, as well as those hinterlands we can’t bear to leave unstoried. Sundered by the sudden passing of a cherished uncle — his death the result of an inscrutable and genetically inherited heart defect — Radtke develops an acute awareness of impermanence twinned with an interest in the ways in which abstractions like decay, rot, and ruin are made actual in deserted cities and abandoned mining towns. Imagine Wanting Only This adumbrates Radtke’s literal expeditions — from the once thriving and now eerily deteriorating Gary, Indiana to the kinder side of a village in Iceland, the other side of which remains buried by volcanic ash — while concurrently allowing the reader to witness the crossings and passages and navigations Radtke herself is making in her pilgrimage toward a place where she might reach an understanding of what is and is not reconstitutable in one short life.

Kristen Radtke is a thrilling cartographer of curiosity, grief, and grace, and Imagine Wanting Only This announces, like a siren in a sleeping city, the arrival of an unforgettable, undeniable talent.

As this (perhaps overlong) introduction and my (perhaps overlong, certainly rhapsodic) questions likely testify to, I was delighted to speak with Radtke by email about untenability, disaster, nihilism, and tomato plants.

Author Kristen Radtke. Photo by Greg Salvatori.

Vincent Scarpa: In your essay “‘identification’/identification,” which was published in 2010 — an essay that tracks, among other things, the seasonal activity of the cicada — you write, “They will not show themselves clearly, pulling their bodies from the dirt. Rather, they will surface outside your knowing.” This concept of something surfacing outside one’s knowing really resonated with me and with my reading of Imagine Wanting Only This, insofar as it seems to posit a kind of imperative in nonfiction writing: to write what one knows, surely, but also to be alert, as much as one can be, to that which is outside of one’s present knowing. I wonder if you could talk a bit about this, if it strikes you, in the context of how and when you knew that what you were working on was coalescing, perhaps outside of your knowledge, into the book we have before us, with its myriad interests.

Kristen Radtke: First of all, I’m embarrassed you read something I wrote when I was twenty-one and very serious (insufferable) about “The Essay,” but thank you for using it to construct such an interesting idea. I think so much of working on any project, especially one of some length, is spending a lot of time in that place of unknowing, taking every small win you can when something finally fits, and using that to push you forward toward the next piece. I’m always amazed when something starts coming together in front of me, because every time I sit down to make it I’m certain that I can’t. And, yeah, I couldn’t when I sat down, but then I sat there for a while. I love it when a transition finally clicks, or when I understand the relationship between two different ideas, or when I begin with four empty squares on a page and suddenly one is filled and I know what I’m going to draw in the other three, too.

VS: It doesn’t occupy a great amount of real estate in the book, but I found myself fascinated by the ways in which your being attuned to and captivated by processes of decay and ruin — which is to say ephemerality, essentially — calibrated the dynamics of intimacy in your relationship with Andrew. You write, of your travels with him, “Every city we visited afterward began to feel like the stock backdrop for some stagnant future, our imaginary kids stomping up the stairs next to photos of us twenty years younger, holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.” This struck me as the kind of observation only one who’s keenly aware of fleetingness could make. What does a personal preoccupation with impermanence bring to bear on interpersonal relationships? How does one acknowledge the untenability of the world while simultaneously attempting to make something tenable with another?

KR: Ha! I think a personal preoccupation with impermanence brings impermanence to interpersonal relationships. At least it always did for me when I was really focused on these themes. I’m still interested in them (decay, ruin) but I do feel done with them for a little while — or perhaps I’m just exploring them in a different way. Throughout the process of writing and drawing the book, I became resigned to ephemerality, but it didn’t lead to any kind of nihilism — probably the opposite. I wanted to write for a long time about things on a grand scale — declining civilization! the apocalypse! death! love! — but now I’m much more interested in small, even banal pieces, and what I can build with them. I’m writing and drawing about regular, everyday people, up close. I want to write dialogue that’s exactly how people actually talk. I don’t know if it has something to do with the fact that I’m coming out of my twenties and reaching a point where I want to make things that are a little more lasting in my own life, beyond my work, whether it be hanging art that I love in my apartment or planting a garden with my boyfriend or drawing something just for fun to see where it goes. I never would have allowed myself the time to do those things when I was working on this book. I’m well into another project, I feel like the person making that book is very different from the person who made Imagine Wanting Only This. So, I don’t know. I’m not suggesting we really outgrow anything, but I think we can come to terms, and I think those preoccupations can become quieter when we allow larger spaces to build something with another person. I could be completely wrong, but I hope I’m not. Check back in with me in a year and I’ll let you know how our tomato plants are doing.

VS: In reading the book, I had these two disparate lines from others hovering around my mind. One is a lyric from a Lucinda Williams song: “The temporary nature of any precious thing/just makes it more precious.” The other comes from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, in which he writes, “Short-lived are both the praiser and praised, and the rememberer and the remembered: and all this in a nook of this part of the world.” I was interested in what the Williams lyric is doing — ascribing increased value to that which is temporary — and then what I perceive in the Aurelius, though I may be reading pessimism into it, as a kind of negation of what Williams is proposing. He seems to be reminding us of our inconsequentiality. Which was a note that I felt Imagine Wanting Only This striking, too — or, at least, flirting with striking. Is there a way to acknowledge both our fundamental ephemerality and our fundamental inconsequentiality and still not call that nihilism?

KR: YES. What’s the point of making a book if you’re a nihilist? Why do it at all? There doesn’t have to be anything inherently terrible or demoralizing about the impermanence of our own lives. I still believe that everything we do matters — the way we treat each other, the things we write, what we put into the world. I will always think that. I’m not one of those people who hopes someday there’ll be a Radtke scholar at some university in a small American town. I’m not really that interested in making work that lasts much beyond my lifetime. I just want to make something for now.

“What’s the point of making a book if you’re a nihilist? Why do it at all?”

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VS: This is a long, labyrinthine, rhapsodic question, for which I apologize, though I hope you’ll take it as a compliment that reading Imagine Wanting Only This activated all these firing neurons. It requires some context for those who haven’t yet read the book, but I’ll try to be brief and non-spoiler-y: Early in the book, we watch as you wander through an abandoned cathedral in Gary, Indiana where you, without foreknowledge, find and keep a set of photographs scattered on the church’s floor. After doing some research, you learn that these were in fact photographs taken by a man called Seth who’d died after having been hit by a train in Gary; the photographs were what his friends left in the cathedral as a memorial to him. This, understandably, becomes a point of friction, as it produces a set of concerns about ethicality and allo-narrativizing that echo in other contexts throughout the book. Eventually, you decide to leave the photographs behind on a trip to Europe. I truly admired that you showcased in the text your unease and your uncertainty regarding this, where another writer might have been less willing to do so. There is something ineluctable in us, I think, that yearns to fit — or, and here’s the operative distinction, force — narrative onto that which we perceive as having been, in one way or another, razed of its capacity to tell us something about itself. I think here of what you relay to us about the discovery of Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea: that when archaeologists began to uncover what had been preserved for centuries, they were simultaneously putting into motion a system of structural decay. In which case a well-intentioned pursuit for knowledge and understanding — not unlike what you’re engaged in with Seth and his photographs — can actually signal a species of violence. You arrive, toward the end of the book, at a space of hard-won awareness: “But mostly, when I thought about Seth, I tried to invent significance in my finding of him or the relics of him. As if taking his pictures to Europe and leaving them there had released him somehow, set him free from the corner of Indiana I had no evidence he actually felt stuck in.”

Lisa Olstein, a former professor of mine, writes in a forthcoming essay, “Epiphanic revelation (a form of mental creation) most often comes through distraction, slant association, accidental juxtaposition — that is to say, swerve.” I’ve always been so moved by this concept of swerve; that it might be the thing that delivers us, unexpectedly, into a state of profound comprehension. And I was thinking about it when I came upon that moment of recognition above; a moment in which you recognize “there’s nothing to understand except that I have no business understanding what I cannot feel.” All of this seems to be undergirded by the knots between intention, empathy, imagination, and assumption; knots which I think you navigate so beautifully throughout the book as you remain alive to the possibility that misstep and error — and swerve! — can often be more instructive and edifying than untroubled motion.

So I wondered if you might ricochet off of anything I’ve laid out above. Specifically I wondered if you could talk about the process of navigating those knots and how that maneuvering might have brought about something like epiphanic revelation, either in your lived experience or in the writing of it.

KR: I think we all have to be ready to admit when we’ve been totally wrong, and be willing to change course if we need to. I had a drawing teacher in high school who would say if you see something that isn’t right — if you put too much space between the big vase and the little vase in the still life, or drew the model’s fingers too short — don’t try to work around it and cover it up, or you’ll just get deeper and deeper into the mistake. The drawing won’t recover. I think all creative work is like that. It’s really easy to talk yourself into some lapse in logic you’ve written, or to a ignore structural problem, or to keep a character around whose function you don’t totally understand. You don’t know how to fix it, or you know how much work it’ll be to fix so you just don’t want to. But you have to erase the hand and draw it again.

VS: In the final chapter, you bring us to a vision of New York City underwater; something that’s not terribly difficult to believe could be a reality. “We all do it. Fantasize disaster,” you write. “We forget that everything will become no longer ours.” It seems to me that disaster fantasies are often functioning as a prophylactic; as though to imagine the contours of the fantasies would be to construct a parapet against their coming true. But, at the risk of sounding like a fatalist, it does feel like the disaster fantasies of twenty years ago have gained a startling sense of plausibility — maybe probability is the more appropriate word, when you have a political party actively seeking to gut what is literally called the Environmental Protection Agency and thereby grease the skids of doom. In Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster, a book that’s very dear to me, he writes, “The disaster is what escapes the very possibility of experience — it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes.” This had an uncanny echo with the book’s closing words: “You will have touched nothing on the earth.” I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about Imagine Wanting Only This entering the world in such a distressing, cataclysm-courting climate.

KR: Donald Trump is president, and I didn’t write this book when Donald Trump was president, and now that Donald Trump is president it feels ridiculous to me that I wrote a book at all. I hope we’re wrong and that global warming isn’t real (it is) and that it’s not going to kill us all (it is) and that all the progress we’ve made isn’t being undone at a rapid pace, but it is. I’ll still keep writing books. But I also think there are a lot of voices that are more important than mine right now, and on most days I’d rather listen than put my own noise out there.

VS: Well, in the spirit of ending on a note that doesn’t bring about a sense of existential dread, a final question, two-parted. The first part: I’d love to know who are the writers you most cherish, whose books you foist on friends; as in, who should we not fail to read? And, finally: although your book has barely yet entered the world — a world that eroticizes production and content creating, a world forever asking after the next thing — because I found Imagine Wanting Only This to be such a thrilling, accomplished work — a reaction I feel quite certain will be shared by anyone in whose lap it lands — I can’t resist asking if you might give us an inkling of what you’re working on next.

KR: I hate having to pick the writers and books that have influenced me most, because I feel pressure to be cool and pick obscure stuff so people will be impressed by my coolness, and also because I’ve never taken a literature course in my life so the early stuff I read was all junk, and I loved that junk. So I’ll say: The reason I love comics is because I read over 100 issues of Archie comics in middle school, and I was first introduced to Joan Didion around the same time via a quote in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I cherish every book and writer I’ve ever read, even those I hate (we can talk about those later). Right now, I’m working on a book project about urban loneliness and a graphic novel about terrible men (in color!). I hope I finish them before the world is underwater.

“The reason I love comics is because I read over 100 issues of Archie comics in middle school, and I was first introduced to Joan Didion around the same time via a quote in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

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