Among the ruins

Jessica Mooney

October 04, 2017

As a teenager, I developed an obsession with estate sales. I partially attribute this fascination to growing up not knowing my father. I have never met anyone from his side of the family. For a long time, I felt like a half-formed thing. I often still do. I would wander through dusty basements that smelled of Pine Sol and mothballs, turning over wristwatches and ashtrays in my hands, using the mementos of strangers to construct images of the family I never knew. The objects that held my attention were often tarnished and weathered, cracked and chipped, heavily marked of their own possession. I built my father out of a small green bowl mottled with amber stains from chew spit. I constructed uncles out of silver belt buckles and John Deere hats; aunts from dresses patterned with large bright flowers and patent leather purses on slinky gold chains. I created my grandmother out of a perfumed pair of white opera gloves.

Of course, these objects did not reflect who I actually imagined these missing relatives to be — they were more like stand-ins, like putting artificial branches on a family tree. Fake limbs onto which my imagination could process, at a safe distance, the unsettling riddle of not knowing half of where I come from. I do not know all the diseases and genetic disorders for which I am at risk. I do not know what I’ve inherited. Who knows what runs through my mongrel blood? As a person, I am unresolved, a mystery to myself. In the everyday objects of recently departed strangers, I found the personal.

Reading Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This conjured this familiar feeling, a sense of intimacy only capable of expression through distance and projection — a space where virtual and literal realities intersect. Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic memoir that navigates personal loss through an examination of abandoned and scarred landscapes. Part Bildungsroman, part ecological exploration of ruin, this debut book by Radtke depicts loss against the backdrop of structural disintegration. From war-ravaged cities to the crumbling façade of deserted neighborhoods, Radtke reflects on these experiences — the death of a beloved family member, the end of a relationship run its course — and interrogates the relationship between her own grieving process and her obsession with ruin in the world.

Early in the book, Radtke and her boyfriend take a road trip to Gary, Indiana, lured by art school rumors of its postapocalyptic atmosphere and “ruin porn” potential. It's a premise that risks inducing eye-rolls in less capable hands, but Radtke displays relatable vulnerability in capturing a fundamental phase of youth: the fragile search for creative inspiration and identity, a cringeworthy juvenile exploration rife with cliché in its artistic ambitions.

When Radtke and her boyfriend discover old photographs in an abandoned cathedral, and proceed to take them, the story veers into exploitation territory, where young, white art school kids fetishize a formerly industrialized city more than a little past its prime, and pocket artifacts as souvenirs of its decline. Often referred to as “ruin porn,” the desire to capture images of structural degradation originated in the context of photography but has expanded into other visual art forms. Critics of ruin porn highlight the trend’s failure to take into account sociopolitical and historical factors (colonialism, war, deindustrialization) and how decontextualized images aestheticize poverty and decay without consideration of the space or the lives of its former inhabitants.

But what is behind the desire to gawk at and glamorize decline? What is Radtke looking for through her obsession with ruin? Beyond Radtke’s book, ruin porn has preoccupied and captivated the contemporary aesthetic. From the recession-era fascination with Detroit, to Robert Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic photographs, to the Ruin Lust exhibit at the Tate, the allure of Rust Belt cities and scarred landscapes persist in the modern psyche, galleries and magazines filled with ghost town relics of deindustrialization that linger like the last guests at a party.

Radtke seeks out former residents of an old abandoned mining town in Colorado, visits a deserted military base in the Philippines, travels to the killing fields in Cambodia. Ruins are depicted on the page in segmented yet detailed form, more symbolic in their collective significance than individually representational. The drawings are often framed in rapid succession, and call attention to the chaos of their own incompleteness through collage, the images a hybrid of illustrations and photographs — the real and the imagined in collaboration to form a reality. The illustrations almost fill in the missing parts of the photographs, the effect simulating how the mind works to create a whole. These drawings are often sparse with text, offering little more than a single sentence to note the coordinates. The space intimates a question, similar to the kind of question summoned when stumbling upon a crime scene: What happened here?

Radtke does her due diligence in trying to temper a socially conscientious reader’s potential objections to ruin porn, mainly through humor and throwing-self-under-bus honesty, but it isn’t until the death of her favorite uncle from a genetic heart condition — which she may have also inherited — that she really begins to examine her relationship to it. She researches the genetic heart disease to better understand its etiology; she goes to the doctor for tests and is fine (for now), but wonders if the affliction is a ticking bomb waiting to go off. A cardiologist articulates the genetic disorder in lay terms as “the heart beats itself to mush.”

While her uncle’s death is not the catalyst for Radtke’s fascination with ruin, the event transforms and complicates it, steering the narrative into a more deeply nuanced account of grief. Rather than witnessing ruin through an external objectification of it, Radtke starts to integrate herself into its decline, a radical empathy where the self is transposed onto the decaying environment, falling apart, abandoned. For the reader, the effect is arresting and intimate. Radtke acknowledges her privilege candidly but also positions it in tenuous balance to external consequences out of human control. After all, the origin of privilege is made and unmade by luck, a flip of fate’s coin. What you are given depends upon the winds of cosmic dust, geospatial coordinates orbiting a dartboard. The bull’s-eye is where you land. From there, the years form a twisted ladder of interlocking consequences, a secondary DNA whose double helix marks you with inherited advantages and disadvantages. Where you were and were not born. What you do and do not have. Who did and did not love you.

In Imagine Wanting Only This, it is not the shock of acute grief that Radtke chooses to grapple with, but instead the long game of grief, elusive yet persistent, which lingers in the wake of loss. A latent mourning that follows for years, camouflaged in the ongoingness of daily life. Family members reminisce less and less about the departed at holiday gatherings, a new love turns into an old flame. People move on in the slow-fade of forgetting, a process which is devastating precisely because it lacks sentimentality. Radtke describes the aftermath of a relationship: “My cat still felt like our cat; my dishes felt like our dishes, until they didn’t.”

Grief mutates in the brain, seeks out new places to go, new ruins. Radtke’s restless searching for decaying landscapes is an attempt to give shape to loss, proof of its existence. Shattered windows, condemned houses, old photographs pilfered from a makeshift memorial in an abandoned church (literally weeping with mildew) — these images call to mind Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. “In photography,” he says, “I can never deny that the thing has been there.” In Radtke’s illustrations and prose, there is a yearning for a kind of tangibility that can be fixed in the amber of time. A confirmation of a permanent reality, and yet there is no such thing as permanence. A desolate refrain repeats throughout the book, “We forget that everything will become no longer ours.”

It’s no wonder that Radtke chose to center her graphic memoir around ruins. The visual imagery of ruined landscapes contains hidden narratives, a seductive pathos into which the reader can project her own stories of loss. Ruins are apocryphal, possessing their own hermeneutics. Decaying structures contain mystery, and each crumbling parapet or abandoned plot serves as a clue. Ruins are physical reminders that life is a dimmer switch gradually turning to dark.

Sustaining a book-length piece of work with this trope could grow exhausting for the reader, but the graphic form reduces the opportunity for navel-gazing. The illustrations speak for themselves and prevent thematic overexposure in their ability to say so much through Radtke’s expert hand — facial expressions contain complex multitudes; blurred silhouettes capture the tenuousness of all we hold onto. Radtke also offers a glimpse, however briefly, of the other side of ruins — they don’t just memorialize degradation and loss, their perseverance is also evidence of stubborn survival.

In Radtke’s world of ruins, there is stunted endurance, half-beating hearts that manage to persist, albeit in amputized and atrophic forms. Here, ruin porn feels less like exploitation and more like a trauma ritual. It is a comfort to take the pain of loss and project it onto structures that physically mirror incompleteness. While Radtke doesn’t offer much solace, she manages to avoid leaving the reader with a leaden sense of melancholy. Instead, the book reads as a quiet gift, a visual landscape for navigating a universal human experience: how we must all carry on through the negative space of grief, missing brick by missing brick.

Books in this review:
  • Imagine Wanting Only This
    by Kristen Radtke
    Pantheon Books
    April 18, 2017
    288 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Seattle-based prose writer and global health civil servant

Follow Jessica Mooney on Twitter: @jessleimoon

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