The reader holding Bough Down for the first time will see a collage of text partly blocked by a translucent flap with the texture of thick wax paper on which the title is written in what looks like a scrawny longhand until you notice that the letters look more like wires bent and threaded into shape, or stitches on a wound. The author, Karen Green, was married to David Foster Wallace when he killed himself in 2008, and much of her art for the past five years has been an attempt to make sense of his death and to live alongside it.
This is the aim of Bough Down, as one can tell from the pun in the title. “Bough down”—as in “man down.” As in the unnatural trauma of cutting down her husband, who hanged himself, or the wish that the bar he hanged himself on had not borne his weight and could have saved him. Or “bow down” to her husband, dead, pale like the cover flap; it is almost as if its stitches were intended for him.
The cover’s meanings are clear, or nearly so. The lines of cut and pasted text give the collage the look of a ransom note; the sequence of alphabetized Latinate words with syllable markers and pen marks, one of those words in each sentence, seems like part of a vocabulary assignment; the lines read like notes on her grief, none of which follow from each other and none of which completes its thought.
One can think of various readings. That grief is amorphous, unending; that a way to give form to cycles of thoughts is to impose the arbitrary form of an exercise; that an exercise in Latinate vocabulary is a way for Green to think through her husband’s famously Latinate vocabulary; that she begins at the start of the alphabet, with a long way to go. The reference to a ransom note hints at a wish that her husband had only been kidnapped. What none of this can explain are the absences at the end of each line. “After his ab•squat•u•lation, her garden lost its” what?
Like the layered text on its cover, the book moves from easy answers to unanswerable questions. This is its peculiar strength. It is hard to write well about personal grief without writing either so clearly that you falsify the experience or so cryptically that you perpetuate your former confusion without the consolation of wisdom or art. But the lucid parts of Green’s experience spur us to think through the others, and because her pain and confusion are written and pictured not just with integrity but with a gorgeous sensibility they should give us a feeling of hope. Hope, not just interest or pleasure, because her subject is a suicide. A different approach to his goals can be a kind of challenge to him, and getting there a kind of redemption.
“You are an oil spill,” Green writes to her husband, in plain text. “But from an airplane the catastrophe is gorgeously baroque.” This is all she writes of Wallace the hero, Wallace the icon, aside from the title and a mention of the time some asshole emailed her to say that people know her only through her husband (with which she agrees). She stays far enough from his public life that she doesn’t even include his name and hardly alludes to his work. This is private grief made public, and for her, without anything like the distance to see his death as sublimely complex.
Green does describe the day she returned to her house to find her dogs distraught and her husband hanged. After she called the police, she cut him down herself. “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down,” she writes. “I keep hearing that sound.” The authorities arrived with a therapist with “the first name of a vacuum cleaner or a stain remover: Hoover, Kirby, Comet.” Later, maybe years later, she writes, “The seconds may be important and I run in them, I bear your weight in them. The scissors are too dull. The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.” Maybe she could save him, maybe she still thinks so.
“The doctor,” Green’s therapist, “says people back away instinctively” from people in her situation. “They don’t want to get any on them.” Even one of her dogs, she writes, “[refuses] to sleep with me because of some smell I’ve contracted.” (Was this the dog who “backed away” from the body of her husband or the one who “ran up to kiss the face we loved”?) The book follows Green through less of a plot than a narrative arc. She goes to a memorial service, to therapy, to the market. She goes in and out of mental-health treatment and worries that her doctor wants to get rid of her. After sharing her “glass house” with her dogs and her memories and the eyes of the neighborhood, with “its psychotic manicured peace,” she drives north. The collage on the cover, which ends with “to fly,” reappears with the words “to fly away.” She adopts a new dog and begins to forget things, though only a few.
The details are sketchy, but she needs only a sketch of her life to describe the emotional range of her grief, the anger and shame, the sense of lostness and loss, the phobias and helplessness, the longing, the regret, the spurs to move on and the lingering drive to hold on. You can feel the raw material of Green’s despair as she draws you into its uncertainties, as in the deep-seated panic of this poem:
for the sun to rot
Even at the Zen garden, a scarecrow sways from a tree.
I see it sideways first and I have to make a choice about
should vs. want. The day is glorious and I want to believe
it will remain so. There is something wrong with the
air between the swinging shoes and the dirt. There is a
distance that will never measure up, a movement in its
form that is not breath, not oxygen. I feel straw in my
throat; I regret everything.
Green, who doubts God elsewhere in the book, looks to Zen, and its idea that the self is illusory, for another source of meaning. But still “a scarecrow sways from a tree.” Perhaps she imagines the scarecrow (since when do they hang in Zen gardens?), perhaps because she has no concept other than the soul with which to think of his living on, no other way to save him from the crows.
In the hands of a less self-possessed writer, this kind of breakdown could easily lead to self-pity or sentimentality. Green avoids them by balancing both her emotions and the forms they take, such as when she follows the agonized day in the garden with this diptych of what seems like a calm night:
Like most of her images, it draws you away from the facts of her life even as it draws you into an intimacy with her thoughts. Her images are spare, understated, sometimes as cryptic as a smudge of paint and a broken wax seal—but all the drawings and clippings and fingerprints bear the unmistakable sign of a mind working toward solace. In the case of this image, the phrase that sticks out from the others, “the shape of this night,” comes from Kenneth Patchen’s New Year’s poem, addressed to God the “Father,” which describes “this sorrowful human face in eternity’s window,” with Christ inside and people looking in. The visual “shape of this night” is to see Jesus’s sorrowful face in the moon, rendered as tentatively as Green’s interest in looking for divine consolation.
For all its resonance, the drawing seems somewhat unserious, a bit goofy. But it is the depth of Green’s charm to draw a figure that’s no less a metaphysical conceit for being the man in the moon drawn a bit like a Ziggy cartoon. The humor shows her as bemused and skeptical as well as serious, building layers of ideas and emotions that complement without obscuring each other. You get the sense that the formal layering exists to express an emotional layering that for her is both need and achievement. After a gorgeous paragraph, a section that would maybe seem maudlin if it didn’t follow a collage with lines like “The coroner said ‘not fresh’” and “How do I stop” and “I can’t even do this,” Green describes a main challenge of the book: “to remember tender things tenderly” so as not to lose them, presumably.
Before I went to work we were under the olive tree and
you were doing what you called psych patient smoking
and you said, I don’t want to be Satan but will you join
me and we pulled up our shirts to rub bellies and yours
was so much flatter but filled with garden bread anyway
anyway up went our shirts, solar to solar plexus, and it
was a comforting ritual we daily did and I said, Let’s do
this for the rest of our lives. You said, You look lovely.
It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.
But she does.
Bough Down is the story of Green’s mourning, first and foremost. But a layer of it challenges the sensibility she mourns and may partially blame. “Honey, you smell agathokakological,” she writes, that word meaning made of both good and evil. I think that she cares less to lay blame than to define her husband’s streak of moral absolutism, a sensibility restlessly upset about the dross in himself. Green is both despondent and funny, both hopeful and desperate, both out of control and contained. She is comfortably unsure, and she goes through the vicious cycles that characterize so many Wallace protagonists without pushing the reader away or being undone by her own introspection. She takes apart the pieces of her thought, as does Wallace, but not to fleece herself for bad habits by obsessing over her own motivations. He would “[name] the impulse mistaken or accidental”; she doesn’t. He was famous for the either/or of ironies—either I love you or need you, either I’m selfish or able to care for you not just to make myself feel better, either I’m free or I serve a false god—stretched out from sentences to meganovels. Where his sensibility was either/or, hers is both/and, and a celebration of imperfect life.