Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This is a book about abandonment. Through Radtke’s beautiful and bruising images, we consider the ways we leave places and people, and the ways they leave us. We feel these departures deeply because of Radtke’s painstaking drawings, which allow us to experience the story for ourselves with an immediacy that narrative alone often struggles to achieve.
As someone who had no inherent interest in abandoned landscapes, I was surprised to find myself so drawn in by Radtke’s renderings of them on the page. When the book begins, she and her college boyfriend, Andrew, go on a trip to the defunct town of Gary, Indiana, to explore, and we discover with them its disrepair. I was especially struck by a depiction of an abandoned movie theater. There was something savage about it, something wild. How could society allow such decay to exist? In my too-suburban mind, cities are tidy. What doesn’t work out is bulldozed to the ground and resurrected as high-rise condos. These black and white images, therefore, provide one of the first encounters I’d ever had with a full-on departure—the decision of a community to simply pack up and go.
As the narration moves on, we also experience abandonment through Radtke’s relationships. The death of her Uncle Danno is her first true loss, and one she explores powerfully through words and visual images. Months after Danno dies of complications due to heart surgery, Radtke discovers a cassette tape of an interview she conducted with him when she was in elementary school. She heads to the garage, climbs into a truck, and presses play. Her uncle’s voice begins blaring from the player, his words stabbing at the reader and Radtke’s heart when he joyfully proclaims: “I mean…look at me—I beat heart disease!”
Many of Radtke’s images and stories express the desire for and illusion of permanence. The interview with her uncle preserved a piece of him; his voice is still present on the tape; she can access it whenever she presses play. But this experience makes her and the reader feel her uncle’s absence even more poignantly, knowing that’s he’s gone. When Danno proclaims his triumph over the disease we know eventually killed him, we confront the fleeting nature of life.
The book’s most engaging moments deal with her only concerted attempt to commit to a person or place: her relationship with Andrew and their house in Chicago. Together they undertake what she calls “a first pass at adulthood”—getting a kitten; paying utility bills—in essence, playing house. This partnership is an important sojourn in the trajectory of her life, but not the destination. Radtke becomes restless and leaves the country. Andrew clings to their love, eventually proposing to her in Europe. The proposal is the stuff of fairytale; the ring is beautiful; the backdrop an idyllic European town along a river. Radtke accepts, and immediately finds herself staring at the ring warily. After the engagement, she tells us “Every city we visited…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.”
Radtke’s account of her relationship with and engagement to Andrew ring especially true for me: my own college relationship culminated in a move to Iowa with a boyfriend I too tried to play house with. When he proposed, I cried, nodded yes, let him put the ring on my finger, then walked in a daze to the bathroom, where I stared at the stone, feeling the same mounting pressure Radtke felt. I too pictured our future children, and myself as a soccer mom. I knew the engagement would keep me stuck in one place, when I wanted to experience all of them. Like Radtke, I knew I had to move on.
Both Radtke and I indicted ourselves for leaving those loves. She makes statements throughout the book like “To abandon something beautiful is where the crime rests,” and laments her lack of “…ability to claim something with ferocity.” This capacity to grab hold of a love, a land, a home, is something she praises in others and questions in herself, asking: “Am I supposed to want children who will mourn me or husbands I will watch lowered into the ground or houses I will endure in their emptiness?”
She sees the end in the beginning, her brain always fast-forwarding to ruin, abandonment, and decay. Radtke concludes the book by envisioning the prophesied flooding of New York City, telling us “we forget that everything will become no longer ours”–a pronouncement that asks us to question the stability of our everyday surroundings. The book, finally, is Radtke’s desire to hold on to what she cannot bring herself to believe will remain.
Emily Heiden is pursuing a Ph.D. in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Long River Review, and Juked Magazine.