Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke
By Kana Coonce
Imagine Wanting Only This is an autobiographical coming-of-age graphic memoir with themes that echo Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Beginning with her childhood in Green Bay, this graphic novel follows Kristen Radtke through a young adulthood spent battling listlessness and the fears that plague so many of us, not only at that age, but throughout our lives: a fear of the passage of time, of the uncaring universe, of the inevitability of death. They’re heavy topics that Radtke understandably struggles to juggle, but this only makes it hit harder when the pieces finally fall into place, not through Radtke’s own accomplishments, but by the understanding and maturity that comes with time.
“I understood logically why we cannot live forever. But I couldn’t comprehend why the dead couldn’t be made undead. Why a heart that caved couldn’t be filled out again.” This passage, about the death of Radtke’s uncle from a congenital heart defect, comes to define Radtke’s battle with listlessness and discontent throughout her college years.
Like me — and many people of our generation — Radtke is also a compulsive Googler. I found myself learning more tangentially related information throughout the course of this book than I thought possible for a memoir. Radtke covers topics like the oft-overlooked Peshtigo fire of 1871, the deadliest fire in U.S. history; Sans-Soleil, a French “pseudo-travel” documentary told in letters” that Ratdke watched in college; the gene mutation that runs in her family, giving her and her family members an increased risk of heart failure; and the different locales she has visited across the globe in pursuit of “seeing everything” before she dies.
Radtke presents her life very matter-of-factly, neither shying away from the uglier truths of her life nor leaning too heavily into them. You begin to notice patterns across her excerpts, things that don’t mean anything on their own or may have flown under the radar as they happened, but which begin to tell a story when considered alongside the other bits and pieces we learn about her life. One gets the sense that the writing of this memoir was as much a cathartic experience for Radtke as it becomes for the reader by the end. As with most early-adulthood revelations, the disjointed puzzle pieces of Radtke’s anecdotes gradually click into place in a way that feels accidental.
Imagine Wanting Only This is not an easy read, nor is it necessarily a fun one. Radtke’s art is stark, simultaneously lifelike and cartoonish in a way that can only be achieved by rotoscoping. This lends to the memoir’s feel as a journal of sorts, a struggling young woman’s hope for connecting with the world at large, even if she’s unsure of who will actually read it. The sentiment is so timely that this book serves as an unflinching time capsule, one that might be pored over by future generations the way Radtke pores over Wikipedia articles and her family’s historical documents. In this sense, Radtke captures one of the many things that make us human: the desire to know and to be known.
This book is for: uncertain young adults, fans of experimental storytelling
This book is not for: those who prefer a fast-paced narrative, someone looking for a happy tale