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Shaping, Containing, and Dissecting Emotion in Kristen Radtke’s SEEK YOU

 

By Stephanie Trott •

I learned to love long-form graphic narratives during a time often associated with loneliness: college. Neither wunderkind nor department darling, I often felt an imposter in my undergraduate English classes and struggled to determine one area in which I could squarely focus my literary studies. In taking breaks from the books that I originally thought would support my senior thesis, I turned to the works of Charles Burns, Alison Bechdel, and Art Spiegelman as reprieve; I knew how to read comics, how to make sense of captions and panel sequences, how color could lend a supporting voice or determine tone, where theme and content were not only complemented by the illustrated form but uniquely and intrinsically tied to it. The more I read, the more I began to feel like I could be a part of these conversations because they echoed my own lived experiences. They were at once organic and mechanical, painstakingly constructed, deeply introspective, and embracing of their flaws. Put simply, I felt less alone.

Against the notion that loneliness is an emotion endured in isolation, Kristen Radtke’s Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness clarifies that this emotion instead connects us more than any other, as separate as we may be in our experience of it. A salve that at once validates and educates, Seek You is equal parts analysis and reflection in its exploration of our universal desire to connect with others. From its clever title—a phrase derived from the CQ calls utilized by ham radio operators searching the airwaves for the presence of others—to the tender renderings of communal grieving in the digital era, Radtke assumes the role of a knowledgeable yet ever-humble guide. Her narrative balance of personal anecdote, historical research, and cultural reporting become their own radio call, patterning out a message that begs us to respond simply by listening and witnessing.

Of particular note is Radtke’s direct address to the reader in her introductory author’s note and concluding section, a bracketed breaking of the fourth wall that feels much like a hand being placed softly on the reader’s shoulder. “I don’t know what loneliness will look like for you when you’re holding this book,” Radtke writes in acknowledgment of the ongoing pandemic, which stretched into the book’s summertime publication. We are shown renderings of the pandemic’s earliest moments: stacks of The New York Times’s front pages, hand-scrawled posters announcing the indefinite postponement of religious services, empty airport terminals with not a soul in sight. These artifact-like reminders are reminiscent of touching a bruise thought to be healed but discovered, with surprise, to be much deeper. Remember when? they seem to say. I was there too; I also saw that.

The body of Seek You, however, leans not toward our collective COVID-era loneliness but instead into a more timeless probing of this American identity. The internalized aching, yearning, and heaviness often associated with loneliness aren’t always something one can physically see, and Seek You allows us to stare, gaze, recognize, and confront it. Amassing found objects, recreated photographs, familiar online spaces, and pop culture iconography, Seek You presents the reader with a veritable set of icons the reader might also recognize from appearances in their own lives. Even the faces of the people Radtke depicts—seen most often in a midlevel stare—mimic the way we generalize the faces of those we pass by in our daily comings and goings. They are abstracted, simplified, boiled down to their essential bits so that we see more clearly the ways in which we are similar rather than different. In our own lives, strangers become neighbors, commuters become friends. We find common ground through surface interactions that allow us the possibility of forging deeper bonds. And from the safety of our three-dimensional reader’s perspective, this vacillating collection of paper faces is somewhat forgettable until we are asked to focus not on the group but on one face, one life.

Radtke’s choice to slow down time, to examine an object or subtheme and extend the intricacies of a scene as it unfolds, is both a literal and figurative drawing of focused emotion. So easily can we swipe our screens to view a different thread, feed, or channel; so quickly can we turn to the glow and flash of blue light to find something we want to connect with, something that makes us feel less alone, before the algorithm takes over and determines how we find a new type of longing. As a printed work of graphic literature, Seek You practically demands that we strip ourselves of this customizable, split-second gratification and sit with the discomfort we have made for ourselves over time. Graphic works such as this let us visualize the world on a macro and micro level in a manner that’s accessible regardless of one’s previously acquired knowledge; we are asked to come as we are but to be fully present in our page-by-page wanderings, to quietly reflect and converse with ourselves honestly as the panels progress.

With the inclusion of unique reflections on events such as childbirth, leaving home, mass shootings, coming out, gaining sobriety, and more, Radtke forms something of a two-dimensional choir to which the reader is silently invited to lend their voice. We are nudged like fledglings to engage in the power of our own autonomy when experiencing sequential tweets and escalating newspaper headlines, which serve to strengthen this background chorus in a way that can only be done with graphic forms; as René Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” is not truly a painting of a pipe, these are not real (i.e., original) social media posts or printed headlines. They are renderings and recreations, reminders of what once was, icons imbued with differing levels of power and meaning based on the reader’s familiarity with and relationship to them.

It is Radke’s depiction of her own personal space that anchors a firm and foundational sense of trust with the reader: intimate, private, and yet still recognizable, we hover over views of her apartment as an exclusive guest after the author expressly notes the pride she once took in living alone. “I imagined an audience even when no one was there,” she writes, “and especially when I decided how the rooms would be filled.” Drawing throughout the text from her own photographs as well as archival images and preexisting works, Radtke establishes a system of belief and enables us to trust that the images we see depicted are as accurately and painstakingly portrayed on the page as they once were positioned in reality, thus further fostering confidence in her authority and ability to take us out of domestic familiarity and comfort and into the shared spaces of a more public, communal trauma.

Emotion colors the lenses we place on our memories and interactions with others, and it is no different in considering this text’s composition; with high-contrast pigmentation and a duotone scheme, Radtke’s choice of color invokes the earlier-mentioned sense of bruising through its peaches, periwinkles, ochres, and mauves. Staying within these varying degrees of coolness and warmth, we are fully immersed in the experience of feeling much as Radtke describes her own experiences with loneliness: “[L]ike being underwater, fumbling against a muted world in which the sound of your own body is loud against the quiet of everything else.” One especially pertinent example of how Seek You’s pigmentation affects the interpretation of this text pertains to a foundational American study of loneliness. In multiple sections, we follow notorious psychologist Harry Harlow and his arguably sadistic infatuation with isolating newborn rhesus monkeys. Initially, these scenes are presented in oranges and ambers, and the intensity of these scenes ignites the attention of the reader while stoking our investment in continuing to read about a difficult topic from which we might otherwise turn away.

But as the spiral of Harlow’s discoveries deepens and we learn further about the man behind the madness, hues of tangerine burn and singe to become shadows and tans. We are ultimately deposited in a world nearly devoid of color, unable to provide the warmth of touch to our page-bound evolutionary cousins. These small beings once craved it to the point of mortality, and the continued impossibility of touch now reminds us of our own need for comfort and connection. Well-known and long-since deceased, the primates’ humanoid stare is at first cast pleadingly past the reader, then muted and defeated as it fades in a rendering of their inevitable fate; most readers will know how their story ends before they are shown its specifics when Radtke lays out the facts bare, acknowledging Harlow’s findings as ultimately abusive yet catalytic for changing the colored lens on our inherent need for affection: “The ways in which most of us are taught from infancy how to reach out and feel someone reaching back are due in large part to those monkeys, clinging to wire wrapped in cloth, stroking the sides of a plastic face,” Radtke states, juxtaposing this captioned text with a drawing of a sleeping baby holding Harlow’s cloth monkey monster.

With an understanding of the importance behind the variables, methods, and outcomes common to experimentation, Radtke concludes Seek You with a comprehensive notes section that bolsters her findings as part reference guide, part treasure map. We see many of these components depicted as we read—from a full-page inclusion of the UCLA Loneliness Scale to line-drawn renderings of Rockwell paintings and fifties-era stills of I Love Lucy—but accumulated they become a reading list to support Radtke’s crash course in loneliness, a guide to understanding one person’s approach at unraveling a thread of our humanity, a reminder that we are considering facts and events founded in reality rather than fiction.

If literature is meant to connect us across minutes and miles, Radtke is broadcasting a critical message to all who are willing to hear it: we are more connected than we know, even when the opposite seems truer. Is Seek You something the lonely will gravitate toward? Undoubtedly. But we are all lonely in some way, and reaching out to touch this must-read book is not only an admission of that loneliness but also an aid in identifying it across our communities, of taking stock of our more isolating memories so that we might feel a sense of belonging begotten of that separation. We read, consider, and wonder in hope of understanding our humanity, much in the way that a ham radio operator taps a sequence of five dashes and three dots to determine who is out there, who is waiting, who might be lonely too.

 


STEPHANIE C. TROTT is a writer and editor based in southeastern Massachusetts. She is the editor in chief of Longleaf Review and holds an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her writing additionally appears in Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Hobart, THE BOILER, and elsewhere.