The title of Kristen Radtke’s remarkable graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This almost reads as a riddle. On one hand, it seems to ask a somewhat disgruntled question: “Could you imagine wanting just this, and nothing more?” On the other, the phrasing suggests, temptingly: “What if this is all you needed?” What if life, ephemeral and fleeting, could be devoid of ambition, of any desire for more? Either reading offers both gratification and emptiness, beauty as well as boredom. It’s a paradox rooted in the simple yet unanswerable question of what it means to live a meaningful life, and it’s the question at the heart of Radtke’s exploration, one that she tackles with a breathtaking mix of prose and illustration.

There is little linear plot in Imagine Wanting Only This, even though each of the eight chapters finds Radtke at a slightly different stage of her life: at art school in Chicago, coping with a family member’s death, traveling abroad and ending up at graduate school in Iowa, becoming obsessed with the history of ruins and disasters. At each point, she seeks answers to her nagging life questions while also attempting to escape her reality. Radtke, an editor at Sarabande Books, uses delicately drawn panels and the occasional full-page spread to move seamlessly through memories and geographies, creating an elastic sense of time that pulls the reader into her interminably restless mind.

Radtke is a familiar sort of narrator: someone seemingly compelled to search for everything that’s not in front of her. She’s driven to seek out new experiences that push her away from family, friends, and her fiancé: She leaves Chicago to adventure through Italy but feels acutely alone there, backpacks around Europe yet wants to go somewhere more dangerous or exciting, plans to marry and then vacillates, finds a rare employment opportunity after graduate school but feels trapped in Kentucky, where she becomes an insomniac. At one point she admits, “Being stuck in one place probably always makes you think about another”—perhaps a typical statement for someone in their 20s who doesn’t know what she wants. But Radtke connects her ennui to a wider landscape, finding a counterpoint to her disquietude in the world of ruins: abandoned towns, crumbling monuments, and cities destroyed by natural disasters or economic downturn.

About halfway through the book, Radtke seems to diagnose herself with what the scholar and artist Svetlana Boym referred to as “ruinophilia,” a fascination with the destruction and decay of physical structures. Boym considered this obsession with ruins not merely a form of modern malaise but also an active source of meaning-making, an exploration of what she called “the riddles of human freedom.”

For Radtke, whose life has been punctuated with the passing of loved ones—from her grandmother to her beloved Uncle Dan, whose death from congenital heart failure serves as a worrying backdrop to her own occasional palpitations—empty mining towns and contaminated environmental zones provide an inexplicable form of comfort. They are historical markers of mortality, of how everything must eventually bend under the weight of time. In the same way that her family’s memory of her uncle begins to fade as the years go by, so disintegrating structures move on from what they once were. The military ruins on the Filipino island of Corregidor or the abandoned city of Angkor Wat, for example, which once promised progress and brimmed with civilization, are, she writes, like “the edge of something new against the edge of something old, and both just as empty.”

To many a painter and poet, decay has provided artistic inspiration, and Radtke renders it beautifully too, shading the walls of an old, gutted theater in gradients to depict moisture; sketching over archival photographs as if to revitalize them; and, in one particularly moving two-page sequence, capturing her stagnating relationship with her partner by showing a thick film of toxic-looking dirt slowly climbing up their bedroom walls and enveloping them in darkness. Documenting nighttime walks along Iowa’s railroad tracks and trips to Icelandic volcanoes that threaten to wipe out all proximate life, Radtke is able to create beautiful if odious universes out of the potential of ruin, finding infinitesimal shades of nuance within a soft, greyscale palette.

Pantheon

Radtke also recognizes that all ruins, while captivating to peer at, are in some capacity predicated on destruction. She seems wary of turning her ruinophilia into “ruin porn” by glorifying the aesthetic value of disrepair and ignoring the human suffering that often accompanies it. Still, she writes, over a series of Biblical images showing New York City being submerged underwater, “We all do it … fantasize disaster.”

These dark ruminations lead her down an almost monomaniacal path to uncover how lives were forever altered by disaster, and “how something that is, can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” She feels compelled to pore over her connections to an almost mythologized ancestor who is said to have saved her congregation from the great fire of 1871 in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Or, to investigate how the U.S. wiped out over 6,000 sheep in two days in Utah because of chemical weapons-testing during World War II. Or, to ruminate over the life of a deceased young photographer named Seth, whose images of abandoned buildings she discovers in a vacant church in Gary, Indiana, and which haunt her throughout the course of the story.

Pantheon

What Radtke ultimately finds, by way of her exploration of disintegration, is an antidote to her restlessness—cold, physical evidence that human ambition, indeed, may be futile. Why keep wanting, when history will eventually dissolve everything that we call ours? “Am I supposed to want children who will mourn me or husbands I will watch lowered into the ground or houses I will endure in their emptiness?” she asks. These are heavy and often unsubtle questions that can at times feel too broad-stroke, but Imagine Wanting Only This knows when to pull back on the pathos and offer negative space for such weighty questions to expand into. (In that, it’s reminiscent of Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel masterpiece Fun Home.) Radtke deploys humor sparingly, but when it appears you can’t help but laugh and hold onto it—from the way she diagrams her MFA cohort by the brand of cigarettes they each smoke to her sketch of a screensaver dancing across a monitor as she stares back in boredom.

There are few definitive discoveries in Imagine Wanting Only This, which is frustrating at times, and by its end, it’s unclear whether Radtke has found a solution to the riddle of the book’s title (although the stunning sequence of final frames, which I won’t spoil by trying to describe, does offer a dramatic form of resolution). Her story doesn’t feel resigned to a hard fatalism though, and joy comes in some of its smallest moments, suggesting that the brevity of human time on earth may almost be a liberating thing.