Considering BOUGH DOWN, by Karen Green: An annotation
Green, Karen. Bough Down. Los Angeles: Siglio Press, 2013. Print.
Regarding the suicide of her husband, novelist David Foster Wallace, Karen Green writes that people “talk about him like he’s meant to be dead and that makes me mad…” (175). While Green doesn’t explicitly state why people talk about his death in this manner, the link between creativity and mental illness has long been romanticized, contributing to the inevitability and glorification of Wallace’s death. This is a notion, however, that Green actively avoids in Bough Down, including no references to his writing life but instead intimate scenes of Wallace’s illness and death. “Death excites people but [only] from a distance,” Green writes, and thus she seeks to lessen this distance through intimacy, neither glorifying nor dramatizing the suicide of her husband but instead humanizing his death so that its tragic weight may be felt (175).
The title of this work both references and rejects the romanticization of Wallace’s suicide. “Bough” sonically resembles “bow,” the title thus bearing within it the image of someone lying prostrate in adoration or worship, offering one possible reaction to Wallace’s suicide wherein it is glorified and causes him to become all the more famous. And yet a “bough” is also one of the main branches of a tree, supporting the more minor offshoots, providing structure to the tree as a whole—falling to the ground it crushes what is below and the fall itself is unnatural, caused only by some extreme external force. This fallen bough is an image of irreversible destruction, and I cannot help but associate this major tree limb with the limbs of Wallace, hanging in the air and cut down by Green: “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing the sound….Your legs were elegant, and you crossed them elegantly” (29). Here Green is not physically crushed by these falling limbs but is certainly affected emotionally, the structure of her life forever changed. The near-rhyme between “sound” and “down” also lends to the power of this scene; the musicality between these words creates a sound for the reader and thus a visceral connection to the scene since the actual sound of his kneecaps hitting the ground can only be heard by Green.
This scene is later repeated but from the perspective of their two dogs, the first to sense that something is wrong: “The dogs smelled their dinner. They smelled his dinner, untouched on the stove, and they smelled a new kind of fear. The new smell worried them so they followed him around, waiting for the word walk” (77). The point of view then switches to first person, allowing the reader an intimate encounter with Wallace’s death via its only witnesses:
Is he crying? Say the word. Something smells wrong in the yard; it smells like revenge. His voice is gentle but the fur on my back is up. Are we in trouble? He is up too high, and we pledge our allegiance, so bite at the tennis shoes. But we are not allowed to eat shoes anymore. Pull down. Strong square jaws are designed to pull down. (77)
The combined switch to first person and present tense makes his death feel more immediate, less distant, and the reader feels the bewilderment and confusion of the dogs—their instincts conflict with how they have been taught to behave, the severity of this event being enough to disrupt even the fierce loyalty and obedience of his dogs.
In addition to scenes of his death, Green also includes references to Wallace’s time spent in mental hospitals, presenting a stark contrast to the romanticized image of the prolific mentally ill writer at his or her desk. In the hospital there is no sense of autonomy or control but rather “provisions, wheeled chairs, paper cups of water doled out one at a time to prevent self-drowning” (58). Medications meant to help instead also contribute to the loss of self: “caveman implements to the brain…. Drugs that give the well-insured tremors, look at my hands, how they shake, drugs that make patients speak in incomplete” (59). The opposite of a prolific, creative genius, here the reader is presented with the image of patient unable to fully speak, a sentiment that is more clearly felt because of Green’s own incomplete sentence, enacting a loss that the reader may also experience.