“Seek You”, a graphic memoir by Kristen Radtke on loneliness


On the bookshelf

Seek You: a journey through American solitude

By Kristen Radtke
Pantheon: 352 pages, $ 30

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Kristen Radtke is an incubator; few would call it a joyful spirit. (I can understand.) His first book, a thoughtful graphic memoir titled “Imagine Wanting Only This” (2017), was motivated by her determination to wrap her head around the impermanence of things, whether bright and beautiful or withered. She returns this month with “Seek You, an exploration of loneliness in America, a topic that has become increasingly relevant in the five years since she began her project. The result is another sonorous and haunting volume of graphic non-fiction written and drawn in the key of Edward Hopper.

The title of the book offers a window into the layered depth of Radtke’s work. “Seek You” is a sound piece about CQ calls with which amateur radio operators – like the author’s father – reach strangers across frequencies with a series of monotonous beeps. Radtke explains that the first two syllables of the French telecommunications alert attracted attention, “security, ”Have been abbreviated to CQ in English. “Over time, English speakers took it for ‘Seek You’,” she writes. Choosing this for his title, Radtke warns us that his memoir on loneliness is also about finding others across wavelengths and asking them to listen – in other words, on the human impulse to connect. .

His topic may be topical, but Radtke, artistic director and associate editor of Believer magazine, is never superficial or fleeting. As she also demonstrated in “Imagine,” she is not afraid of big, potentially overwhelming questions.

The juxtaposition of carefully researched and tightly composed text with the emotional immediacy of Radtke’s art amplifies the impact of “Seek You”.

(© 2021 Kristen Radtke / Pantheon)

” You look for “ is part of a growing trend of graphic narratives that hybridize memories with social history rendered both verbally and visually. (“Belonging” by Nora Krug and “The The secret of superhuman strength “are examples.) It encompasses personal and cultural history, journalism, social science, and scientific research in psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. References include Emily Dickinson, who called loneliness “the horror not to be examined” and Hannah Arendt, who pointed out this sentiment as “the common ground for terror” in “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. But it is the juxtaposition of Radtke’s carefully researched and closely composed text with the emotional immediacy of his art that amplifies the impact of the book.

To merge its various strands, Radtke overlays hand-written informative text over full-page illustrations washed in brown, orange or charcoal. They range from sober, moody nighttime cityscapes to an intricate set of graphic pages teeming with accounts from friends about their most lonely experiences. There are collages of things like blatant political signs, Twitter feeds, or tabloid headlines about mass shooters labeled lonely. The word “graphic” is a much more apt descriptor of his work than “comic strip”.

Radtke cites studies that indicate isolation is a common health problem associated with an increased risk of death. But she also considers the role of televised laughter lines in alleviating loneliness, as well as a UK helpline for lonely seniors that receives more than 10,000 calls a week. She notes that isolation is in our national DNA, dating back to the idealization of lone cowboys in old Western movies.

Radtke is careful to distinguish between being alone (isolation) and feeling alone (loneliness), and to point out that one can feel alone even when surrounded by loved ones. Loneliness, she writes with impressive precision, “doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether you have a partner or a best friend … it’s a gap that lies in the space between the relationships you have and the relationships you have. that you wish. Loneliness lives in the gap.

A page taken from

In “Seek You”, Radtke is careful to distinguish between being alone (loneliness) and feeling alone (loneliness).

(© 2021 Kristen Radtke / Pantheon)

” I’m looking for you “, like Radtke’s first book, is filled with drawings of people looking at their shiny cell phones – on subways, buses and sidewalks; in bed. “Technology is an easy scapegoat,” she writes, “with the disconnect attributed as the byproduct of a digital age matured by America’s growing narcissism.” But, she notes, “academics of all eras lament the perceived downfall of their collective cultures” – whether they attribute it to radio, television, phones, or Facebook. She comments: “It seems entirely possible to me that we have always been a very lonely people. “

In a book divided into sections titled Listen, Watch, Click and Touch, the most disturbing examples of isolation involve the terrible repercussions of limited physical contact. Radtke writes how the parents of the first half of the 20e century have been ordered not to pamper their babies too much, lest they become “sissies”. She dives deep into psychologist Harry Harlow’s outrageously cruel experiences of maternal and social deprivation with rhesus monkeys, paint a frightening portrait of this emotionally cauterized man. Yet Radtke also acknowledges that his sadistic experiences proved the importance of love and changed the way children were raised.

“Seek You” isn’t the most depressing one might expect, given its sobering subject matter. If you accept that loneliness – like impermanence at the heart of Radtke’s first book – is a fact of life, you might be reassured to remember that you are not alone in this widely shared condition. There is also comfort in the learned elegance with which the author conveys his ideas.

A page taken from

In “Seek You,” Radtke calls technology “an easy scapegoat” for loneliness.

(© 2021 Kristen Radtke / Pantheon)

In one of the most striking sequences of “Seek You”, Radtke beautifully blends words and images to capture how loneliness makes her feel: as if she is submerged under water and “scary against a muted world in. which your own body sound is loud. against the comforter of everything else. Her study of loneliness, she says, was motivated by the desire not to drown in such feelings, but rather to find “a way for each of us to swim to a once invisible ledge and reach it.” .

” I’m looking for you “ is indeed for researchers.

McAlpin regularly reviews books for NPR.org, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.

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