Bough Down: Beauty out of sadness

News Section, Reviews

May 24th, 2013

 

(Review) Bough Down

WALL STREET JOURNAL

MARTIN RIKER

 

Part memoir, part artist’s book, “Bough Down” is Karen Green’s chronicle of the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace, and of her own mourning. It is a delicate vellum-covered object, in which narrative scenes are interspersed with abstract collages (most of them not much larger than a postage stamp and some made out of actual stamps). Ms. Green turns out to be a profoundly good writer: “Bough Down” is lovely, smart and funny, in addition to being brutally clear and sad.

The suicide, by hanging, occurs early on, and most of the book concerns its aftermath, including Ms. Green’s time being treated for depression under the care of the same “fallible doctor” who had treated her husband and in the same psychiatric institution, where “no longer do I wear the Visitor’s patch above my heart.” Anonymous characters move ghost-like through her life—the “support guys,” the “doppelganger widow”—but the story always returns to her own grief and loss. Although she does not mention Wallace anywhere by name, Ms. Green draws him with such specificity and care that his presence is everywhere palpable. She did not lose a generic husband or a famous writer; she lost the particular man whose “legs were elegant,” who did, as he called it, “the dumb verb of journaling,” and who said things like, “Honey, you smell agathokakological” (containing both good and evil).

This eye for specificity is one of Ms. Green’s strengths, whether she is depicting the disaffecting mood of the hospital (“In a corner, a cluster of lab coats made lunch plans”) or, bluntly, the scene of her husband’s death (“I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down”). Even when the prose turns impressionistic, it arrives at an image or emotion that is startlingly clear: “There is a church bell in town made out of the mortared skulls of everyone who ever had a migraine. At night I know where the sound comes from, how it was born and where in the body it reverberates. Every hour on the hour it tells me what I did and do wrong: You did not see that cloud or that fluttering lid as portents, you did not decipher the acrostics, you left the house, you live in the past, you left the house.”

Perhaps most impressive about “Bough Down” is that, despite the poetic pitch of its language, it refuses to poeticize its subject. It does not resolve into pure despondency, on the one hand, or redemptive hope, on the other. Instead, Ms. Green registers the complexity of grief and in the process makes something beautiful out of the saddest stuff in the world.

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