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Arts & Life

Wanting More From 'Imagine Wanting Only This'

Imagine Wanting Only This is both a puzzle and a letdown. It may be a debut graphic novel, but its author has no shortage of experience as a writer and artist — she's contributed to, among others, the New Yorker, the Oxford American and the Daily Beast, besides serving as the film and video editor at TriQuarterly magazine and the managing editor of Sarabande Books. And yet in this work, Radtke gropes for something to say and fills her pages with rudimentary, schematic art. The puzzle is to what extent these weaknesses are acts of deliberation, part of a sophisticated effort to imbue the reader with Radtke's own sense of alienation, and to what extent they're merely failures of storytelling. The letdown is the realization that it's mostly the latter.

Still, Radtke does have a complex project in mind here. She's interested in loneliness and ruin — both the emotional ruin of personal loss and the world's literal ruins, the broken-down and abandoned places she visits all over the globe. She's traveled obsessively. Buoyed by educational stipends and teaching fees, she's visited a dozen European countries, Iceland, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. She's also confronted a kind of ruin in her own body; she has the same genetic heart problem that killed a beloved uncle. After his death, she writes, "every few months I found myself looking again into the inscrutable heart defect that threaded through my family ... I couldn't comprehend why the dead couldn't be made undead. Why a heart that caved couldn't be filled out again."

... at a certain point, when someone says so little, you have to conclude they have little to say.

With these themes in mind, it's somewhat understandable that Radtke would employ the graphical style she uses here, but that doesn't make it any more likable. Her drawings are cold and rejecting. The people are collections of outlines that haven't been filled in, while the muddy grayscale brings little impact to anything else. One critic has compared her drawings to coloring book illustrations, and they also look like clip art: basic forms that exist only to do their jobs. Though her people occasionally strike interesting poses, Radtke mostly shrugs off the possibilities of the human form.

She's more attracted to problems of composition, especially how to convey the loneliness of a space that doesn't have anyone in it. (Or, rather, that has one person in it: Radtke.) She draws the empty streets of nighttime Iowa, the plains of Iceland, her parents' garage and — imagining the future — a subway platform awash in the surf of global warming. Interestingly, the literal ruins she visits are the most crowded of all her locales. An abandoned cathedral in Gary, Ind. seems to huddle rather than soar, and she describes it as crammed with stuff: "thick chunks of plaster" and "ivy ... covering the slated stone with spindles of earthly web."

The latter is one of the few examples of lyrical writing in the book. Usually, Radtke goes with artful affectlessness. This works fairly well given her topic, harmonizing with the glum illustrations and making their aridity seem pointed. But Radtke's reflections are enervating. Of course, given that her story is about looking fruitlessly for meaning, she can't very well roll out tidy homilies about life, the universe and everything. But at a certain point, when someone says so little, you have to conclude they have little to say.

Ultimately this seems to be a problem of Radtke's circumstances, not her skill. Like countless young, white, middle-class Americans, she faces a vista of possibility and doesn't know what to do about it. Her international jaunts are pointless exercises in artificial self-discovery — no different from the neatly circumscribed quests thousands of college students take every year — so it's no surprise when she doesn't find anything new waiting out there. She doesn't mine the emotions her heart condition must inspire, and responds to her uncle's death not with open grief, but with more numbness. This book would be better off with a dose of desperation. As it stands, it's a puzzle that's not worth solving.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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