Imagine Wanting Only This
by Kristen Radtke
Published 2017 by Pantheon
$29.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1101870839

By Noah Sanders

When we look at physical ruins—an abandoned city, a former military barrack, Cambodia’s killing fields—there is the illusion of permanence. The idea that these destitute structures announce not only the end of a place and all the humanity inherent to that place, but also a capturing of a moment. As if the vine-covered concrete, the broken windows and human detritus contained within them are vessels for the eternal imprint of whatever sliver of life once dwelled there. In Imagine Wanting Only This, Kristen Radtke’s debut graphic memoir, the author’s own obsession with physical ruins leads her down an internal rabbit hole, where the truth of the matter rears its ugly head: there is no such thing as a captured moment. Instead, everything changes, everything disappears, and all that can be hoped for is a fleeting glimpse out the rearview mirror and the hope that the image that lingers does so forever.

In the wake of the death of her favorite Uncle Dan from a genetic heart condition, Radtke, a struggling artist in Chicago, becomes unmoored, in need of escape. The event shatters the illusion for Radtke that things exist forever, Dan’s existence suddenly only accessible through photos, recollections and her own memories. “I’d been consumed by the question of how something that is,” she writes, “can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” The author abandons her live-in boyfriend, Andrew, and departs for Italy, a country where the ruins of ancient civilization, the memories of what came before, are kept behind velvet ropes. Where society once ran rampant, now stand empty stones, facades that give hint to what once existed there, but are now nothing more than decaying destinations for emotional tourism.

The idea of disintegration and decay permeates much of the book. The first apartment Radtke shares with Andrew, her boyfriend-turned-fiance-turned-spurned-lover, has floorboards that disintegrate into lairs of silverfish; a mold problem that in a series of 8 panels slowly subsumes the bucolic routine of their life together. Radtke is a talented illustrator, and the panels are nearly identical, snapshots of key moments in the fledgling relationship—a new kitten, sharing a bed, paying bills. A hint of mold in one corner ends up filling the walls, Andrew and Radtke trapped within it. These moments, small as they may be, like all others, degrade, rot, and eventually fall away altogether. They are, to hit the obvious point, emotional ruins, snapshots of our inner self, worn down by the forward progress of being alive. This isn’t a bad thing, it seems that Radtke is saying, but instead the natural way of living: we grow out of the dust of what came before, and something else will grow out of the dust that we become.

Throughout Imagine Wanting Only This, Radtke seeks meaning in physical ruin. She wants the relics of the past to contain the proof that emotion, memory, life itself are immutable. That we can at any time return to previous experiences, previous lives even, and in retrospect they’ll remain the same. The author seems to want to push back on the tenuousness of life, by chaining herself to the facade of permanence. Quickly, conflict arises; Radtke’s search for answers in the past unhinges her from her presence. She becomes emotionally ethereal, slipping away from the foundations of her own life. Radtke’s delicate art buoys the sense of perpetual limbo, her images often skewing into the surreal, her grasp on the form helping to better invoke her quiet loneliness.

Near the end of the book, Radtke visits a resident of Gilman, Colorado—a town entirely abandoned when a silver mine poisoned its water supply. Lois, the first survivor, describes the time there as “the happiest in her life” but when the water is found to be poisoned, she picks up and leaves, her life moving onwards to whatever comes next, happy or sad. It rattles Radtke, “I wanted her to say that they’d lost something irreclaimable, as if it’d show me that maybe someday I could claim anything with as much ferocity.” Permanence is a facade—concrete, skin or otherwise—Lois seems to say, happy as we are, things won’t always be the same. “When one mine closed,” Lois tells Radtke, “we went to another. There will always be new places to dig.” In this, Radtke finds if not an answer, a sense of temporary meaning: her obsession with connecting with the past, is robbing her of a meaningful present. “The floors will rot, the carpet will be torn,” she writes, “and someday there will be nothing left that you have touched.” Eventually everything about us will be gone, it’s inevitable, and dragging our heels as the future pulls us forward, will leave us nowhere but lost in the past.