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Seek You

A Journey Through American Loneliness

by Kristen Radtke

Seek You by Kristen Radtke X
Seek You by Kristen Radtke
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  • Published:
    Jul 2021, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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A graphic work of nonfiction that explores the concept of loneliness through a panoply of lenses.

In the first pages of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke's sophomore work, she explains that radio operators call out across frequencies with what is known as a "CQ call," named as such because "CQ" sounds like the first syllable of sécurité, or "pay attention," in French. In English, radio users took to calling it "seek you." In this graphic work of nonfiction, Kristen Radtke explores this concept of reaching outward, turning the CQ call into a metaphorical representation of 21st century American existence.

With a muted palette of mostly blues, greens and oranges, Radtke illustrates a series of graphic essays, each devoted to a different sociological study or phenomenon or observation on loneliness. She writes about social media and technology; the artist Yayoi Kusama, known for her installations of empty rooms; the development of laugh tracks in radio and television broadcasts; the lower life expectancies of people who live alone; and, in a particularly harrowing section, Harry Harlow's cruel and controversial experiments raising baby monkeys in isolation.

Given the huge array of subjects, most of these essays only scratch the surface, but the detail in Radtke's research is still readily apparent — scientific studies are cited where relevant, multiple perspectives on the same subject are often given. The whole book coheres into a distillation of a very recognizable phenomenon: that loneliness is an epidemic in the U.S., and the stigma of shame around the emotion can lead to an even stronger feeling of isolation.

The artwork in Seek You suits the subject matter beautifully. Radtke's figures often lack expression and she uses blank space very effectively, giving the book an almost drab, dreary mood, which feels tonally appropriate given the topic. "But loneliness isn't necessarily tied to whether you have a partner or a best friend or an aspirationally active social life in which you're laughing all the time. It's a variance that rests in the space between the relationships you have and the relationships you want," she writes, and in the background, a woman sits alone on a fire escape while a group stands off to the side, chatting without her. Radtke's illustrations are often like this; it's a generic scene, not depicted with a strong specificity. There's no sense of which city the woman is in or what her relationship is to the people who are standing near her. Instead, the genericism feeds into the universality of the subject matter: she could be any woman, in any city, feeling isolated from any group of people. Thus, it represents a sensation that every reader has likely experienced at some point.

Seek You is an ambitious project, and consequently, it does become unfocused on occasion. Take the section where Radtke discusses how loneliness is often the scapegoat when there's a mass shooting — headlines focus on how the perpetrator was always "a loner," maligning a perfectly commonplace feeling. However, Radtke then derails her point by allowing the memoirist slant to take over, devoting several pages to a rant about how her husband owns a gun, which is fundamentally incompatible with her own beliefs. The balance between research and personal anecdotes is typically handled well throughout, but in some cases, Radtke's tangential experiences start to disrupt the flow of her project.

On the whole, it's a well-crafted, thought-provoking work that successfully seeks to destigmatize an emotion that plagues so many different facets of 21st-century American life.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

This review first ran in the September 8, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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