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.