Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness’

“All these years I have wandered and wherever I roamed, I was never alone or forsaken I know”

The last time I read a widely praised book by Kristen Radtke, it was Imagine Wanting Only This, which was her first comic. It was okay, but not great. Now she’s done her second comic, and the praise is coming in. Will I have a different opinion?!?!? Pantheon Books certainly hopes for praise, as they published it and have a vested interest in it doing well!

I’m having a hard time with Seek You, for a number of reasons. Radtke’s artwork is fine, because while she might not be the greatest draughtsperson in the world, she builds pages very well. She uses the motif on the cover, of single and isolated illuminated windows in a sea of darker rectangles, quite well in a few places, and in a book about loneliness, she shoves figures to the bottom or sides of panels, uses a lot of blacks to separate people, and uses light as a good stark contrast to the sadness that many people feel. It’s a haunting book visually, because Radtke doesn’t overwhelm the reader with images, using a minimalist approach on many pages, which creates a feeling of isolation in those reading it, and occasionally switching to a more packed visual field, which mirrors when she writes about lonely people suddenly being confronted with more people than they can handle. This push-and-pull in the artwork, with long periods of placid images and then staccato bursts of information, is interesting, because it doesn’t necessarily coincide with Radtke’s writing on these kinds of poles with regard to lonely people, but it does echo those thoughts, and helps bring those ideas to life. Radtke’s generally melancholy color palette works, too – it’s not too dark, but because she uses cooler tones, we read a book on loneliness feeling a bit lonely ourselves. Reading these days is a solitary activity (unless you’re in a book club, I suppose, but that’s more of a discussion after the fact) and Radtke hints at that with the way she presents her material visually. It’s a clever way to do it.

As for what Radtke is writing about … that’s a bit more difficult to parse. Radtke examines loneliness, which is particularly relevant in the age of COVID (she began the book in 2016, but didn’t finish it until the pandemic had struck), and she demystifies it a bit, using research into loneliness to show how common it is, how hard-wired we are to seek human contact, and what happens to us, psychologically, when we don’t get it. She writes a bit about her own life to examine her own feelings of detachment and what she did about it and what she continues to do about it. She looks at the way society has changed, not blaming it necessarily for the rise in loneliness but simply how the world changed in ways that people might not have been ready for. She also brings in social media, as she must, to look at how that has warped the way we view the world. People, she says, don’t talk about loneliness because it’s not an “American” feeling to have – cowboys, as Radtke points out, are the most “American” thing going, and the whole point of cowboys is that they’re happier being alone – and there’s a sense that people who are lonely in a world with such connectivity are somehow defective. Radtke challenges the reader to face their own prejudices, their own latent loneliness (if it exists), and the way they interact with the world. It’s not really an uplifting book, but it’s a positive one, for the most part. Even when Radtke writes about Harry Harlow’s famous (and infamous) experiments with monkeys, she points out that he changed the way parents related to their children, because prior to the experiments (which were really, really horrible), people thought parents needed to starve their kids of affection, but Harlow proved that children need affection or they’ll grow up a bit warped. So Radtke can find hope in the worst places, and she doesn’t think that loneliness itself is the worst thing to feel. It’s just a thing in life we need to deal with.

So what’s my damned problem, you might think. Well, it’s kind of the way Radtke approaches the issue of loneliness, and it’s mostly a “me” problem, as it usually is. The concept of loneliness is interesting, and Radtke does a nice job writing about it, but I, personally, feel detached from it. As I’ve often written, I have been incredibly lucky in my life, and part of that is that I don’t recall a time when I was lonely, as least not for long and not to a crippling degree. I have been lucky to have a community of people I can rely on to a large degree, and even when I’ve been alone for brief times (which, Radtke points out, is different from “loneliness”), it hasn’t bothered me a lot. Yes, social media is a time suck, and I probably spend too much time on it, but I don’t spend a lot of time at once (meaning I tend to check Facebook many times a day, but only for a few minutes at a time, and I hardly ever go on Twitter, and those are the only social media platforms I use … well, except for this blog, I guess), but I recognize that it’s not a true representation of a person’s life and that I shouldn’t get in a “competition” with the people I see there. (I work with someone who seems to be a walking social media app, and it’s somewhat annoying.) So using social media doesn’t make me “lonely” because I don’t have contact with most of the people on it. It’s just a nice way to keep up with what’s going on in people’s lives. Similarly, I’m not in a relationship that makes me lonely, as Radtke implies hers was earlier in it. She gets angry at her husband because he bought two guns before they even met, and it seems like an impediment to her completely committing to him because she can’t conceive of how someone could own a gun. I love when people live in a bubble like that – Radtke doesn’t seem to be someone who grew up in a liberal biodome where guns were never mentioned, so why can’t she conceive of someone owning a gun? Radtke implies, and from what we see of popular culture, many writers agree, that even if you find someone to love, you can still be lonely. I get that, but that’s also something that it seems a lot of people have no interest in working on. We want to be independent, we don’t like to compromise, but then we get upset when we’re lonely. I mean, something has to give. I got lucky, true, but I have compromised a bit to be in a working relationship … but so has my wife. It’s not easy, but it’s not terribly hard, either. Radtke implies that it’s almost cripplingly difficult, but that’s silly. It seems like much of what she writes about is people not understanding themselves, which, I guess, but that’s their problem, isn’t it?

I don’t mean to be dismissive of the thesis. My younger daughter is almost pathologically lonely, and I hate seeing her like that and we try to help her every damned day. She is the kind of person Radtke often writes about – she has a good family, a stable home life, she doesn’t have to worry about money … but she has a hard time making and keeping friends, and some of it’s on her, but some of it’s on the people she becomes friends with. We work hard to give her help and advice, but she’s still having a lot of issues. It breaks my heart, and it’s why I don’t dismiss Radtke’s book even though some of it makes me think that the problem with loneliness is that some people are dicks. But Radtke doesn’t really reveal anything that we don’t already know. Yes, the Harlow experiments might not be common knowledge (although of course there’s a comic book about them!), but a lot of what Radtke discusses kind of falls under the category of “self-evident,” at least to me. Maybe it’s a surprise to some. It’s frustrating, because Radtke seems to be building to some kind of radical idea for combating loneliness … but she doesn’t. Again, that’s my problem, that I began to expect it, but it’s still a disappointment. It’s a foolish thing to expect, of course, because everyone reacts to loneliness differently, but to sketch out the problem and then just leave feels incomplete, somehow. Radtke does a pretty decent job showing us this problem, and then she walks away. “If that’s all there is,” you might think, “then let’s keep dancing.” It would solve as many problems as not.

So this is another interesting comic that I’m conflicted about. Oh, there are so many! It’s an interesting read, and Radtke organizes it well, and it looks beautiful in many places, but in the end, I felt a bit empty. Not because it made me lonely, but because it felt like Radtke points out some obvious things but offers only the most basic of platitudes to make the world a better place. As I’ve repeated throughout, it’s not really her job to offer a solution, but it feels like she should have. And that makes me think I’m being a dick, because that wasn’t her purpose, and that’s why I’m conflicted. Oh, the conflict! So I recommend this book, because it’s interesting, but I don’t love it. Americans are lonely because their moms didn’t hug them enough and Facebook sucks. I mean, that seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

One comment

  1. Peter

    I just finished reading this a few days ago. I thought it was a very good comic, but I would agree with you a bit regarding the writing – if you distilled the text into an Atlantic article (for instance), it wouldn’t be anything life-changing. I do really think Radtke’s illustrations added a lot and did so in a unique way – they complemented the text rather than just reiterating it, and the illustration by itself sort of told a story without really being true “sequential art” – no panels, no action-to-action or even that many subject-to-subject transitions. Unique stuff.

    Overall, though, I did enjoy this book a bit more because, while I found the writing operated without a real thesis (this may be a “journey through American loneliness,” but there’s not really a destination), was pretty empathetic to the subject matter. I think I do have a pretty close group of friends and a wonderful family. Furthermore, I’m pretty happy to just be solitary – sometimes I wonder if I’m too much like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. And yet… once in a while I’ll still find myself experiencing a bit of loneliness that kind of defies logic. A lot of the anecdotes in this book were comforting because of how true they rang.

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