I am lonely.
My wife and children, too. We’re lonely individually and we’re lonely as a unit. We all struggle with this fact.
We blame it on the Seattle Freeze, which is real, y’all. Or our own inadequacies as humans. Those are real, too.
The truth is we’re all pretty lonely, and getting more so every day.
If you listen to gifted author and artist Kristen Radtke, you’ll learn that loneliness has pretty much been programmed into the modern American. This is her conclusion in “Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness,” her new graphic novel that is both unsettling and unsurprising, the kind of deep meditation that makes you want to sit all alone in an empty room. For a long time.
Radtke says she started “Seek You” in 2016, before the coronavirus shut us down. But it’s the perfect pandemic companion, almost like reading about yourself reading about yourself in a fun house mirror kind of way that’s not very fun after all.
Loneliness, she said, had been rising exponentially over the decades, but we failed to notice.
We seemed to discover something about ourselves as we cowered in our holes, hiding from the virus and, especially, each other.
“Loneliness is often exacerbated by a perception that one is lonely while everyone else is connected,” she writes. “It’s exaggerated by a sensation of being outside something that others seem to be in on: a family, a couple, a friendship, a joke.
“Perhaps now we can learn how flawed that kind of thinking is, because loneliness is one of the universal things any person can feel.”
Her words are accompanied by stark, spare drawings. A desperately redundant Las Vegas suburban row that really could be … anywhere. A series of disconnected pedestrians, with sad looks, standing several feet apart.
She goes on to describe many of the ways we’re made to feel lonely as Americans — and be prepared, it’s going to sound familiar. Turns out our archetypes are made with the idea of loneliness hard-baked into the clay.
Take the cowboy, that long-gone bastion of independence that still resonates so strongly. “He doesn’t need government or township, or even civilization,” Radtke writes over a picture of a man with a broad-brimmed hat and three days of stubble. “His home is the broadest sweep of a sepia-tinged American West. … Boot-strap-pulling, frontier-conquering, make-it-on-your-own ideologies are at the foundation of what it is to be ‘American.’ In America we do things ourselves.”
That way of thinking has left all kinds of space between us. And we fill it in strange ways. Take the seemingly benign sitcom laugh track. In Radtke’s hands, it becomes a conspiracy to keep us isolated and in front of a speaker or screen, a simulation of human contact in an ultimately sterile environment.
“The goal was to create the sounds of a room that the viewer wanted to be inside,” Radtke writes. “A fabrication designed to make the unreal more real, or at least recognizable.” Turns out the brain releases endorphins when you hear laughter, so we’re all sitting alone in front of the screen, surfing for the feeling of connection when we should just get up out of the chair and go find some.
The little investigations like these that she peppers throughout the book are both fascinating and dispiriting. (The part about the monkey research is going to bum you out, fair warning.) Combined with drawings that seem inked with monochromatic melancholia, “Seek You” is unrelenting in its loneliness.
It left me feeling much like I did as the days ticked down to my vaccination appointment — ready to get out and about. Ready to escape. I think Radtke gets that, too.
“I want us to use loneliness — yours, and mine, to find our way back to each other,” she writes in the book’s final pages. “I want us to play songs for each other on the radio. Or when we call out … I want us each to hear, miraculously, a voice calling back.”