Bough Down

Karen Green's moving book on her husband, David Foster Wallace's suicide and her experiences of grief
June 19, 2013
Bough Down by Karen Green (Siglio Press, £27)

Grief, in the popular imagination, has a reliable trajectory. It’s supposed to begin with unbearable pain and end with some sort of acceptance. “Memories are meant to fade,” as a character says in a Hollywood film. “They’re designed that way for a reason” (go ahead and Google it; you know you’re curious). But in her brave, moving and painfully funny book, Bough Down, Karen Green shows how much less predictable the process really is. Green, a noted visual artist, was married to the novelist David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide on 12th September 2008. In these 188 pages she circles around, touches on, bounces off key moments from that day and the days since, following what one doctor tells her is the “non-linear, inelegant progress” of her grieving. She herself goes to a therapist, moves to a new home, tries to find space for her being when it is no longer with his. Sometimes it works, but “the laws of contagion,” she notes, “affirm that once two objects have been in contact they continue to tease each other even after the contact is severed.” And: “The outline of him lulls and stings…I could love another face, but why?”

Green is an elegant writer, the book a fine, extended prose-poem, and her text is also broken up by pages of complex allusive images—collages of cancelled postage stamps, found phrases, words for different colours—that serve as an alternate peephole into her universe. The combined effect is enormously powerful, and in taking in text and image side-by-side you can’t help but be reminded of your own various times of grieving and their unsatisfactory endings. Green writes: “Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth.” Hardly consolation.