In “Bough Down,” published this spring, Karen Green blends prose, poetry, and visual images to grapple with the suicide of her husband, the writer David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself in 2008. In one of the book’s blurbs, the fiction writer George Saunders called it, “one of the most beautiful expressions of love and loss you will ever read.” Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, poet Maggie Nelson said it “feels like an instant classic, but without any of the aggrandizement that can attend such a thing.”
Avoiding aggrandizement, sentimentality, sensationalism, exploitation: these are the challenges when writing about grief. Death has long been the purview of poetry, but increasingly memoir is the literary form in which writers reckon with their losses and their survival. Those that will endure are books in which a private pain is somehow transformed into a kind of public service: a road map for the rest of us, when our time of grief arrives.
The last few years have seen several, among the most notable Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” in 2005, which followed the death of her husband, and “Blue Nights” in 2011, after her daughter died. Joyce Carol Oates’s “A Widow’s Story,” also published in 2011, chronicled the aftermath of her husband’s unexpected death, when pneumonia gave way to massive infection. And poet Donald Hall’s 2006 memoir of his wife Jane Kenyon’s illness and death, “The Best Day the Worst Day,” limned the details – awful, beautiful, singular, universal – of her pain and their love.
All of the above are literary lions; each had written many books before taking up the subject of a beloved’s death. For Karen Green, a visual artist and writer, “Bough Down” is a debut, one that both announces a new talent and helps readers mourn another.