Karen Green, David Foster Wallace’s widow, has written a memoir that, according to the Los Angeles Review of Books, “is an astonishment. It is one of the most moving, strange, original, harrowing, and beautiful documents of grief and reckoning I’ve read.”
Upon first read, Bough Down feels disorienting and surreal — like entering a drugged wormhole of grief, pills, and barely tolerable engrams and emotions, which appear via allegory, hallucination, synecdoche, and blur. Upon rereading, however, the bones of the book’s structure become admirably clear. “June, black // Does it begin like this?” Green hovers at the start, before plunging into the day of Wallace’s death, her experience of finding his body, her dealings with the police, and the haze of public commemorations. (I’m feeling free in this review to use “Green” and “Wallace” instead of the more formalist/distanced “the speaker” and “her husband,” even though the text of the book avoids proper names.)
As the “support guys” become scarce, as they eventually must, we stay with Green — now alone, and haunted — in her house, her garden, her “village,” her mind, her body, her heart. We also bear witness to her own deepening relationship with psychiatrists and pharmaceuticals, which takes place in something of an echo chamber left by her husband, who struggled mightily to treat the depression which precipitated his suicide. The book charts the passage of time by moving through the seasons and stations of Green’s “non-linear, inelegant progress” of grief. Green smartly ends the book (spoiler alert!) “I can’t wrap this up” (how could she?), but nonetheless there is a real sense of progression and resolution in Bough Down, one that feels earned and wise, never cheap.