IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS
by Kristen Radtke
Pantheon Books, 288 pages
reviewed by Jenny Blair
If we felt attached to and invested in the ground beneath our feet, how would the world be different? What’s the difference between feeling rooted in a place and feeling stuck there? And how is one to face the facts of geographic and human impermanence?
These are among the questions Kristen Radtke explores in her lonely, restless memoir Imagine Wanting Only This. The book blends stories of abandoned ruins and disaster locations with personal memories of death in the family, inherited heart disease, and the author’s search for love and belonging. It is an attempt to come to terms with the impermanence of human works, and of humans themselves.
Though the book is inviting, its wealth of detail and many digressions sometimes illustrate and sometimes crowd out larger themes. The author never fully comes to terms with her own obsessions, making the reader wish she had marinated her ideas a little longer. The drawing is skillful but flat. And the language is sometimes confusing. Despite these frustrations, Imagine Wanting Only This remains compelling and sometimes transcendent.
Ruined places make up the backbone of the book. Radtke is fascinated by them, as are many of us. We’ve all clicked on “ruin porn”: photographs of Chernobyl, Detroit, ghost towns of the West. Decaying buildings are a potent metaphor of death—and attachment to place as well as grief at the loss of place are deeply felt needs we scarcely have language for. Radtke is at her best when she explores those needs, when she delves into what it means to really be somewhere, and how a specific place—especially if it’s abandoned—can make us feel a specific way.
Early in the book, we visit Gary, Indiana, where the awed author and her boyfriend explore the crumbling city center as young Chicago art students. (I bristled when Radtke’s younger self calls the city “almost completely abandoned,” a description Gary’s eighty-plus thousand residents would dispute.) Next come reminiscences of art school and a carefree existence in a shabby Chicago apartment. A series of near-compulsive travels bring Radtke to military ruins in the Philippines, a series of Southeast Asian countries, Italy, Iowa, Iceland, Kentucky, and, at last, New York City. She is fearful of getting stuck in place, yet the reader senses a longing to be rooted, too.
“It felt like I had to see everything, as if it was the only way my life would count or matter. I didn’t care where we were going as long as it was someplace new,” she writes.
Clicking on photos of ruined places, Radtke muses, “It was just unreal that so much of the world could be empty like that….Since Gary I’d been consumed by the question of how something that is can become, very quickly, something that isn’t.
In Louisville, Kentucky, Radtke gets at something interesting—placelessness—when she describes the state as “full of interstates where I took exit after exit to get to more interstate.” Hinting at the unnameable pain many of us feel upon seeing desecrated nature, she describes not wanting the Ohio River even to exist because it is “brown and thick and full of trash.”
Radtke discovers she has an ancestor who played a role in the horrific Peshtigo, Wisconsin firestorm of 1871. She follows a fascinating history and analysis of the fire with an account of how World War II tacticians worked to reproduce its conditions in firebombing Germany and Japan. Then it’s on to the Dugway sheep incident, in which thousands of sheep lay down and died on an army proving ground. Once again, she is fascinated with physical ruins, detailing the buildings the Army built for test-bombing: their dormered attics, their lack of plumbing, their tongue-and-groove floors, and their 18 pieces of furniture each.
She herself wonders why this research matters to her.
The fire happened, and the bombs that made more fire happened, too….And when you love and then cannot continue that loving? And when the walls of a heart designed for protection turn in on themselves? What can be made of the spaces that we cannot witness?
Radtke has a better reason than many of us to dwell on the riddle of destruction and decay. A genetic form of heart disease kills Radtke’s beloved young uncle. She appears to have inherited it as well, and she frequently treats the disease and ruined places as metaphors for each other. Yet it’s never very clear how she feels about the condition, nor how it turns out for her; nor whether her reticence is related to self-neglect, a desire for privacy, or perhaps a mild version of the disease.
The book’s most hair-raising and powerful moment comes as Radtke visits Iceland, led there by a documentary about the island of Heimaey, whose residents evacuated in 1973 during a volcanic eruption. She ponders the Icelandic filmmaker, who left Heimaey and returned forty years later. She ponders a photographer back in Gary who died, hit by a train, as he captured it on film, part of a long-term project to photograph the struggling town. And she considers how some people wander restlessly, others move when necessary, and still others remain in one place without ever feeling stuck.
It is then that she looks around Iceland and thinks, Imagine wanting only this. What does it mean to be so rooted to a place, even if that place is troubled, decaying Gary, Indiana, or volcano-stricken Heimaey? How might that feel? If we knew, we might take better care of our lands, our cities, our rivers. It may be the question of our time.
Jenny Blair writes about science, medicine, and other neat things. Formerly an emergency physician, she practiced in ERs large and small and taught young physicians with an NGO in Indonesia before switching to full-time writing and editing. Her passions include cartooning and graphic novels, permaculture, and improv comedy, as well as the importance of place. As a fan of alternative housing and kinship models, she makes her home in Michigan with several friends.
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