Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
Review: 'Seek You,' by Kristen Radtke
AP

Review: 'Seek You,' by Kristen Radtke

"Seek You," by Kristen Radtke.

"Seek You," by Kristen Radtke. (Pantheon/TNS)

GRAPHIC NOVEL: Kristen Radtke explores the need for human attachment and the terror of its absence.

"Seek You" by Kristen Radtke; Pantheon (352 pages, $30)

———

In Jim Shepard's recent bio-noir "Phase Six," a character mockingly defines loneliness as "solitude with self-pity thrown in." That line's chilly dismissiveness would not play well in Kristen Radtke's immersive, novelistic and intensely humanistic book-length graphic essay on the subject.

Taking its title from the term "CQ," a ham radio operator's general call seeking contact, "Seek You" is ostensibly an investigation of loneliness in an ever-more-fractured America. In that hunt, Radtke does pull in at some of the expected stops, like the studies finding that isolation is a deadly public health crisis or Robert ("Bowling Alone") Putnam's writing on the collapse of American community.

But she pivots from seeking easy finger-wagging answers ("technology is an easy scapegoat") in favor of a bolder argument: "It seems to me quite possible that we have always been a very lonely people."

Broken up into enigmatically titled chapters like "Watch," the book curls through autobiographical episodes ranging from her Wisconsin suburban childhood to New York adulthood in which Radtke illustrates both the loneliness of physical solitude and of crowds. These make up some of the book's lovelier sections with Radtke's enigmatic text contrasting with her richly precise, Chris Ware-ian illustrations of darkened buildings illuminated by bright rectangular windows framing people in solitude.

Knitting those moments together are a skein of historical, cultural and psychological reflections on the nature of loneliness, in which Radtke connects everything from the history of the sitcom laugh track to how the advent of the modern "cuddle industry" indicates the primal need for human touch.

Radtke's debut, "Imagine Wanting Only This," was a wistful and wispy graphic memoir whose well researched "This American Life"-esque lyrical solipsism rears its head in this work, as well. Some of the more personal moments in "Seek You" feel only tenuously connected. (A dispute over her husband's gun ownership doesn't really link to her discourse on the poisonous solitude of the American cowboy myth.)

But most help to illustrate the wider and richer geography of disconnection that she explores in a work whose aching, keening sense of humanity is almost as powerful as its evocative artwork.

There is so much empathy in Radtke's approach, she can even muster up sympathy for Harry Harlow. A scientist who most would call a monster, Harlow spent years at the University of Wisconsin torturing monkeys in diabolical ways, including depriving them of a mother's contact, to study the effects of isolation. Despite her harrowing depictions of Harlow's work — which will be difficult for some readers to stomach — Radtke finds room not only to note his mental illness ("perhaps he replicated in these animals what he held within himself") but to suggest that the findings of his sadistic research helped American parents finally break away from the belief that too much affection stunted babies.

In her attempt to understand even the likes of Harlow, Radtke's approach here purposefully mirrors that of those ham radio operators sending CQ signals out into the void, not necessarily with anything to say but just wanting to connect.

———

Chris Barsanti is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and contributor to Publishers Weekly. He lives in St. Paul.

0
0
0
0
0

Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

"Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol," a series that premiered on Peacock last week featuring ace symbologist Robert Langdon, represents another high point in the lucrative career of one of the bestselling mystery authors of all time. But it also serves as a clue in someone else's quest — that of his ex-wife, Blythe Brown. The show is among several projects embroiled in a court battle over the ...

NONFICTION: An ornery, broken-down, used-up man and an ornery, broken-down, used-up dog find each other. "The Speckled Beauty" by Rick Bragg; Alfred A. Knopf (238 pages, $26) ——— Those of us with city dogs (what Rick Bragg calls "fancy dog people") might be aghast to read about the life of Speck, the rambunctious, mostly untrained, free-ranging and always-spoiling-for-a-fight rescue dog that ...

MIAMI — When South Florida writer Brad Meltzer learned that a Pennsylvania school board had banned his books “I am Rosa Parks” and “I am Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he knew he couldn’t ignore it. “If you’re taking the lessons of Rosa Parks, you have to fight back,” said the creator of the Ordinary People Change the World series, which profiles historic figures including Abraham Lincoln, Frida ...

Her new book, "The Beatryce Prophecy," sprang from a rediscovered draft that she had abandoned after the death of her beloved mother. MINNEAPOLIS — In August 2018, Kate DiCamillo was in the office of her Minneapolis home, sorting through a decade's worth of old papers and manuscripts, when she happened upon a stunning discovery — the first 40 pages of a long-abandoned, long-forgotten novel. ...

FICTION: A deeply moving story about an astrobiologist and his young son, anguished by the state of the planet. "Bewilderment" by Richard Powers; W.W. Norton (288 pages, $27.95) ——— As he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Overstory" — which the Financial Times called a "Great American Eco-Novel" — Richard Powers takes up the life of the natural world and its suffering at human hands in ...

Nothing says spooky season like a new memoir from Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, which contains a major revelation about her real-life identity. In “Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark,” Peterson details a 19-year relationship with a woman named Teresa “T” Wierson — officially joining the LGBTQ+ community that had already long embraced her as a gay icon. Released Tuesday, ...

FICTION: The second novel in Sarah Stonich's planned trilogy tells a tender tale of fishing, fresh air and grief. "Reeling" by Sarah Stonich; University of Minnesota Press (276 pages, $15.95) ——— After reading a Sarah Stonich novel, I want to go fishing. I want to sit in a boat at dawn and plop a surface Rapala between fallen logs and reel it in across calm water. In her latest novel, "Reeling" ...

NONFICTION: A timely chance to think about freedom not as a state but a practice. "On Freedom" by Maggie Nelson; Graywolf Press (288 pages, $27) ——— Given that Maggie Nelson is known for expanding categories and defying the expectations of genre, it's little wonder, perhaps, that her latest book, the subtle yet wide-ranging "On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint," would take as its ...

Poet Amanda Gorman had her sights set on the White House long before it tapped her to help inaugurate President Joe Biden. Her own presidential aspirations started when she was just a hair into her second decade. “I remember being around 11 years old, and I was in class talking very passionately as I do about things I wanted to change in the world,” the nation’s first youth poet laureate, 23, ...

Believe it or not, there’s a lot more “Real Housewives” drama that is seen on television. And now there’s a book about it. On Wednesday, Andy Cohen Books, an imprint of Henry Holt, announced it will publish “Not All Diamonds and Rose: The Inside Story of The Real Housewives From the People Who Lived It,” written by entertainment journalist Dave Quinn. The 496-page hardcover is set for release ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News