Lessons in Grief: David Foster Wallace and Karen Green’s Bough Down

Most of us already know the outline of David Foster Wallace’s life. The brilliant and critically acclaimed author, exhausted after a long struggle to control his depression, hung himself on the patio of his Claremont, California home in September 2008, at what many of his adoring readers considered the height of his literary career, one spent producing original, irony-fueled fiction and essays. Six years earlier, following the completion of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” the then forty-year-old Wallace was appointed as the first ever Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College, a position he held until the time of his death. He was just forty-six, with another manuscript in the works, a life that felt bitterly unfinished.

But as artist Karen Green writes in what is unbelievably her first book, Bough Down (Siglio Press 2013), “There is the thing itself and then there is the cavity.” Erased from this myth of the great felled writer is the detritus of what Wallace left behind: a flourishing home life with Green, his wife of scarcely four years, and their two beloved dogs, Bella and Werner. Indeed, this is the empty hollow where Bough Down uncomfortably resides.

Equal parts memoir and artist’s book, Green’s Bough Down has been aptly compared to the musical laments of the Portugese fado, communicating the painful and confusing aftermath of suicide through a series of harrowing, strange, moving, and curiously wry prose poems interspersed with mixed media collages the size of several postage stamps. In fact, just reading Bough Down feels intensely disorienting and surreal. There are thoughts left unfinished, characters and images left unexplained, as though what we are actually reading are the fragments of one of Green’s fleeting dreams. Many times I struggled to regain footing once caught in the narrative’s grip, submerged in its otherworldliness, and I can only assume that Green must have felt something similar in the wake of her husband’s death: completely underwater.

Charting messily the months following Wallace’s suicide, Bough Down is firstly a memoir of grief and loss, a record of the most interior kind of breaking. Readers witness Green check herself into the same psychiatric hospital where she once visited her husband, and where the same faceless “support guys” (psychiatrists) ironically attempt to medicate her sadness in the same way they failed to heal Wallace’s just a year or two before. Yet, concerning her own state of mourning, Green incredibly manages to inject a level of self-awareness that is refreshing (“I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need.”) and often funny (“I don’t need a shrink anymore; I have a pretty Czech dentist.”) Furthermore, Green’s revelation of her experience as Wallace’s widow succeeds, somehow, in being at once brutally honest and intensely private, like a diary written in code. Namely, though Green openly admits to her anger with Wallace (“I want him looking for his glasses, trying not to come, doing the dumb verb of journaling, getting spinach caught between canine and gum… I don’t want him at peace.”), it is not always clear whom her prose is describing—herself or someone else necessarily more distant and imagined, a more able “doppelgänger widow,” though I suspect in her suffering it is a little bit of both.

Also working to elevate this level of interiority are Green’s collages, where fragments of found text collected from poems, medical documents, newspapers, and letters are layered so many times over they become virtually unreadable. There is a lack of meaning in their language, and anyone seeking to decode them will come up empty-handed, which is frustrating; again we are excluded from total comprehension of Green’s grief. For all that, the collages seem like the perfect complement to the labyrinth Green has built through her prose, which though evocative remains shrouded, as if to say the experience of a loss so great, and so personal, can never rightly be parsed out into words. Green ends her book on a related note as well, confessing (spoiler alert!) “I can’t wrap this up.” Still, Green’s grief is there, pulsating through her pages, and all we can do is simply feel it.

David Foster Wallace said he believed the difference between great art and mediocre art is having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, rather than the part that wants to be loved. In her memoir, Green writes of instances where strangers accuse her of being just another unknown, unremarkable artist before her husband took his life, and even Green acknowledges that this might be true. What becomes clear upon reading Bough Down, however, is that Green’s endeavor to publicly and artistically convey this chapter of her life is one made out of love. It is not something that seeks attention or pity. And perhaps expectedly, Green seems hesitant to admit this quality of her feat, writing “It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.” But ultimately what Green has created is a gracious, truthful elegy for a husband she cared for and whose pain she sadly couldn’t cure, an expression of the most difficult and forgiving kind of love, and the most impressive kind of art to behold.

Adriana Widdoes is a writer currently living in Los Angeles. She is a coastal hybrid of sorts.