about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Imagine Wanting Only This
A Review of Imagine Wanting Only This
by Kristen Radtke

Spencer Dew

This remarkable graphic memoir reflects on time and our existence within it, on memory and the ubiquitous condition of loss it entails, on the illusory dream of “permanence” and yet also that simultaneous something like transcendence located in the very ruins of experience in which we, as transient beings, find ourselves always mired.

Our obsession, as a species, with ruins—the “ruin lust” of European romantics, the “ruin value” cherished in Nazi architecture, the “ruin porn” of photographs touring contemporary Detroit—is approached here as part of a deeper concern with how “everything will become no longer ours.” Radtke jars us afresh into thinking about how easily, really, we go on living after a loss, be it a death, a breakup, a relocation. She contrasts this reality of moving-on (“I don’t know what I expected,” she writes, of the family of a beloved uncle who passed away, “that they’d have moved away from the place they lived with the person they loved who was gone now, or replaced the couch where he watched the news each evening. But instead, he just died, and they kept living around it.”) with her own wanderlust (“Feeling stuck in one place probably always makes you think about another,” she writes, though this mindset extends beyond physical travel to daydreams of cataclysm, dreamingly imagined here in page after page of a New York City underwater) and with an insistence that love means—or should mean—“remembering forever.”

In one scene, on an airplane, Radtke’s inebriated seat-mate decides that she—Radtke—is writing a book about “that feeling when you go away, and then you come home, but you’re not really there, because you know how they say you can’t ever come home again?” That is, of course, the book she has written, abandoned cities representing part of the broader abandonment that comes with moving on, places you can never return to because they are, ultimately, experiences, times. Yet the book is neither “ruin porn” nor some downer meditation on time’s voraciousness; it is a celebration of everything we briefly touch and then abandon, a commemoration of moments and their power.

The visuals here—the images with which Radtke tells, in part, her story—serve as commemorations of moments, of aesthetic wonder in unlikely places and perspectives: fireflies and cityscapes, weather maps, the plastic sets of broken pillars people put in the bottoms of their fish tanks.

It speaks to both the themes and the affective force of this book that, as I read it, I kept wanting to travel back in time and show this to my younger self, to my younger friends. The books speaks of and from a moment of such sparkling possibility, its attention to loss or to boredom or to dissatisfied restlessness all part of a broader sense of being on a cusp of something always more magical, more full of unexpected wonder.

In one of the most pang-inducing moments in this often breathtaking book, we are shown panel after panel, nearly identical, of a computer screen, going from active to half-tone to alive again with a dancing screensaver, flickering and flickering, like the image of a fire, an image of time in its passing, consumed and yet glorious, evocative and yet blank.

Interwoven storylines about Midwestern martyrs and saints, mix-tapes and love letters, corner bars and airport departure lounges, moldering old photographs carted around the globe and a lecture on a film about a village buried by lava. All of these echo each other, one image becoming a metaphor for another aspect of this book.

Comparisons to Adrian Tomine are inevitable—especially in scenes such as an engagement and the immediate disappointment and heightened isolation that follows, or in scenes where we watch Radtke wander around, after dark, hands sunk in pockets, consciousness sunk deep inside her labyrinthine entanglement of memories. Yet at times this book reminded me of certain panels and pages and moods from Jessica Abel’s Art Babe comics, where the neon of an old-school beer logo can set a heart on fire, where urban landscape is also always a road into the future. The past, as Radtke describes it, is always with us, and death is an unavoidable eventuality, but our lives, by definition, remain always ahead of us, a source of anxiety at times, to be sure, but also, always, of possibility. The riddle, then, is how to balance the pain of leaving with the ecstasy of always moving on. Or, as Radtke puts it: “I didn’t want to sit still, but I didn’t want to lose anything, either. I wanted to gather more without giving anything up.”

Official Kristen Radtke Web Site
Official Pantheon Books Web Site

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