“And if you live you can fall to pieces and suffer with my ghost”
My long-standing aversion to autobiographical comics always comes with caveats, as I don’t want to simply throw police tape around all autobiographical comics and never venture into that territory again, so when I read about Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This, I thought it sounded interesting enough to give it a try. The book comes to us from Pantheon and costs $29.95. It’s 278 pages, though, so it’s a nice chunk of reading.
Radtke’s book is technically an autobiography, since she writes about herself and her life, but because she doesn’t focus exclusively on her life, the book is not quite as autobiographical as you might expect. The worst parts of the book, in fact, are the ones where Radtke does focus on herself, and it’s one of the reasons why I don’t love autobiographies. Radtke begins the story by writing about her uncle, Dan, who died young due to a genetic heart problem that Radtke fears she has herself (by the end of the book, there’s no evidence that she does, but I suppose it’s possible she has developed it by now). The heart problem becomes a metaphor throughout the book, which I’ll get back to. Her uncle’s death notwithstanding, the rest of Radtke’s life story in the book is kind of dull. She writes about her time in college, when she and her boyfriend lived together for a time before getting engaged and then splitting up. It’s not terribly interesting because they aren’t terribly interesting when they’re not doing things (they take a trip to Gary, Indiana, another thing I’ll get back to). She gets to go to Iowa for grad school (I don’t know how well-known this is, but the Iowa Writing Program is super-famous among people who care about writing), where she meets a bunch of vapid people who say things like “Ulysses is the longest-running prank ever played on the English language” (I haven’t read Ulysses because I value my time and my sanity, but even if this right, wouldn’t you just want to punch someone who says that?). She breaks up with her fiancé and then mopes about it for a while, which is dull. The nice thing about the book is that these parts take up very little of the book. They seem longer because they’re so ponderous, but Radtke doesn’t spend too much time on her own life, except her potential heart problem, because decay (which is what happens to the hearts of her family members with the disease) is the major theme of the book.
Radtke seems a bit obsessed with ruins. She goes to Gary early in the book and looks around at the ruins (even though I’m not entirely sure if Gary is really as ruined as she and her boyfriend think it is, because looking on-line, it seems … livable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of ruined places around the town), and they find a bunch of photographs in plastic baggies in an abandoned church. Radtke takes them, then finds out they were part of a memorial for a young photographer who was killed by a train, and the people in his life held a service at the church, which was his favorite place to photograph. Radtke keeps the photos until she loses them in Europe somewhere, a loss that seems to haunt her a bit. She spends time in Italy as an English tutor, goes to southeast Asia with a friend from graduate school, goes at length into the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin in 1871 (it started on the same day as the Chicago fire and was much worse, but of course the Chicago fire gets all the press), studies a film about a volcanic island in Iceland, eventually heading to the island herself, and ends up researching a mining town in Colorado that was poisoned by the arsenic in the soil. The book is purposefully disjointed, which is not a criticism, because Radtke arranges it a bit thematically rather than narratively, even though it seems to track her life chronologically. The book is, frankly, horribly depressing as it reaches the end, but it’s, if you’ll bear with me, a false sadness.
The problem with Imagine Wanting Only This is that Radtke is a really good writer, but her thoughts on the subject aren’t terribly insightful. She uses wonderful words and phrases, and the book can be haunting, as she gives her thoughts a gravitas that they don’t really deserve. The idea of ruination and what it does to us as people isn’t a bad topic at all, and Radtke circles around it well in some places, trying not to be too obvious, and she succeeds in many places. The fact of her uncle’s disease and death is a good anchor, as it easily becomes a metaphor without feeling forced, because, after all, we have no reason to think that her uncle didn’t die from his disease (I write this only because we have only Radtke’s word that this book is non-fiction; it could conceivably be complete fiction masquerading as autobiography). So the metaphor of a heart collapsing in on itself, linked to the idea of entropy in a macrocosmic sense, works well. Radtke sees decay around her, either decay from economic disaster (in the case of Gary), environmental disaster (in the case of Gilman, Colorado; Heimaey, Iceland; and Peshtigo, Wisconsin), from the movement of people away from an area (in the case of many of the place she visits in southeast Asia), or even, in the case of Italy, of decay being turned into something revered and frozen in time. But she almost fetishizes the decay, to the point where she loses sight of everything but the ruin. The tension in the book comes from her romantic notions about decay, which she writes about with a self-awareness that is both refreshing and frustrating, because despite knowing that she’s fetishizing it to a degree, she still comes across as a bourgeois observer, taking the photographs from Gary to use “for an installation,” never considering that they’re in the church for a reason, simply seeing them as “found art” (perhaps the most bourgeois of art!) and ignoring the humanity behind them. She flits across continents without making a mark but without, it seems absorbing the lessons of these civilizations. She sees nothing but decay and ruin, which is fine, but it seems to seep into her personal life, beyond her relationship with her uncle and her own heart. Toward the end of the book, she spirals into a rumination on the terrible inevitability of entropy of the universe, but because she herself is so passive and downright inert in her personal life, it makes it difficult to go along with her conclusions. When she interacts with her uncle’s family or meets the people in Gilman who had to leave when their soil became too poisoned, we see indomitable human spirits in the face of tragedy (which is just another word for decay). Radtke can’t see this is her own tragedy, but we do, so when she begins getting wildly philosophical and depressing at the end of the book about the fate of everything, it’s hard to get on board with her because we’ve seen things that negate her premise in the short term. We all live in the short term, so that’s all we have as a frame of reference.
Radtke does a lot of the artwork, it appears, using photo references that she light-boxed or scanned and traced or even simply rendered somehow (I don’t know the ins and outs of digital manipulation, so I can’t really say). She doesn’t do too much with the art, as it simply tells the story, but occasionally, she does some nice things with it. She’s small in a lot of panels, putting her visually in the perspective she feels about herself and the world of ruin in which she lives. There’s a nice sequence with her and her boyfriend where the small bedroom they live in slowly gets darker with rot. She uses blacks quite well, allowing the entropy to creep in subtly. She does a fairly decent job with herself, with deft work with her own expressions as she moves through her life. She does capture the places she visits nicely, giving us a good sense of why she feels the way she does, but again, she doesn’t do too much that’s interesting with the art. It assists in telling the story, but Radtke doesn’t use it as well as she could and seemingly knows how to, based on some of the smaller things she does.
Imagine Wanting Only This is an ambitious work, which both helps it and hinders it. Being ambitious is rarely a bad thing, and Radtke has a lot on her mind and a good medium to tell her story (the book wouldn’t work, I don’t think, without visuals). Her ambition betrays her a bit, however, because she can’t quite make the leap from the personal (her feelings about her uncle’s death and her own decay) to the universal. But her actual writing is beautiful and haunting, and her quiet art style, while not doing too much extra, does contain some powerful images. It’s a meditative comic, and it should make you think, but Radtke doesn’t quite get to where she goes in a convincing fashion. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth riding along with her for a while.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
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