“The New Yorker” on Kristen Radtke’s “Seek You”

Where Loneliness Comes From

In “Seek You,” Kristen Radtke studies the long arc — and surprising causes — of American isolation.

By Katy Waldman

Loneliness is a poetic feeling, as agreeably melancholic to behold from a distance as it is terrible to experience up close. By one account, it is even the first feeling — and the first thing, in the entire universe, to be deemed bad. Adam’s loneliness prompts God to create Eve: “it is not good for man to be alone.” When Milton picks up the story, in “Paradise Lost,” Satan tempts the pair after he is cast out of Heaven. (Loneliness correlates with aggression, some studies show.) And yet, for all the shame of being lonely — the scars of exclusion at school or rejection in love — other people’s solitude is often beautiful to us. This may be because most people don’t usually imagine loneliness to be deserved. Or perhaps it’s just that, by marking loneliness in others, we feel a little less alone ourselves.

After the pandemic hit, the yearning for connection registered more as an emergency than as an inducement to lyrical reflection. “Isolation was imposed on all of us at once,” Kristen Radtke writes in “Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness,” her new work of graphic nonfiction. The condition—“like being underwater,” Radtke writes, “fumbling against a muted world in which the sound of your own body is loud against the quiet of everything else”—was suddenly collective, synchronous. Even our shared desire to be together was not enough to surmount it. “Seek You” was mostly composed before covid, but quarantine may have exposed something for Radtke. She portrays loneliness not as innate or natural so much as socialized, filtered through and irradiated by culture, politics, and media. For her, the feeling is shaped by the imperfect conditions in which we live. Perhaps there was loneliness in Eden, but Radtke’s version is postlapsarian, partially cracked. Like a weed, it sprouts in gaps.

Radtke’s previous book, “Imagine Wanting Only This,” wove text and image, memoir and criticism, into a reverie on the theme of abandoned physical spaces. Something about the quality of her attention — a quickness to light on metaphors — seemed to sublime even concrete into longing. “Seek You,” which Radtke began in 2016, is swathed in a similar atmosphere. It wants to synthesize various evocative strands — loneliness’s tropes and ambassadors, relevant research, and her own and others’ memories — into a mood, an aesthetic. (The comic could be compared to other art, such as “Inside,” by Bo Burnham, that tries to represent quarantine less as a historical phenomenon than as a vibe.) In both of her books, Radtke integrates disparate materials, and yet the structures that result aren’t solid or sharply defined. “Seek You” is full of ghostly hatch marks, thin lines, and muffled scenes washed in shadowy reds, blues, and purples. There are empty classrooms, bars with the stools upside down, and vacant lots. The human figures, many of them unnamed, hunch their shoulders and thrust their hands into pockets; they seem to be waiting to be told what to do. Read the full review at The New Yorker.

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