Our own Emily St. John Mandel guest judged Electric Literature’s Critical Hit Awards this month. She discussed what she looks for in a book review in an interview with Brian Hurley. “I prefer reviews that go beyond talking about literature, so that the book under review is considered in the context of the surrounding world,” she said. The winners are Andrew Winer’s review of The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen, Rachel Monroe’s review of The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins by Brenda Stevenson, and our own review of Karen Green’s Bough Down by Suzanne Scanlon.
1. The Paradox: I don’t want to discuss Karen Green’s Bough Down in the shadow of her husband’s death; if it is impossible not to, this condition replicates another mode of cultural violence, namely, subsuming a woman’s texts to her more famous, more serious, male writer counterpart.
2. Because Green’s book is an achievement in that it resists such closure — resists naming her dead husband, the author, or his texts — making him, instead, her own shadow figure, one haunting the text and her life endlessly.
3. And yet if Green refuses to name the Dead Author, I have yet to read a review of Bough Down that hasn’t named him, or, indeed, identified her as his widow. That this is inevitable does not make it less complicated. That Green, a visual artist, was a writer long before she met said husband, and certainly long before his death — and that this is the first we’ve heard from her — is no less insignificant. That her text, like her life, is marked by an awareness of suffering — loss, grief, psychic alienation — makes Bough Down, as excruciating as it is, if you are of a certain persuasion, which I’d argue we all are at one point or another, deeply satisfying.
Because if Bough Down is a love story, it is also a documentation of a very specific trauma, that of loss — a documentation which a scholar could read as positively valued, as something able to provide many things, not least of all the removal of artifice.
If the Public Widow and the Memorial Ceremonies (Green’s references to the post-suicide ceremony) are rendered as alienating public displays — that is, Artifice — then Green’s book can be described in terms of lamentation, antidote to the artificial, lyric revealing something of the language (and silence) of loss, inextricably linked to love.
4. Anticipating this, the text includes a call from her son: “Happy Birthday Hag Widow,” a moment which marks both Green’s sense of humor and her willingness to de-mystify her plight. Her plight (she won’t elevate it to Fate and neither will this review): to live in the shadow of her husband’s death, to become his symptoms, to embody the taboo of suicide yet resist it. To create art — to write a book — which resists.
5. So if our reading of the book inevitably invokes the loss of the writer, one reading of its function is to provide psychological witness, cultural artifact, gendered performance, and political tool. Political because it is dangerous to be ill in this country, not to speak of within a larger system or paradigm, which makes individuals into “consumers” of mental health care. Dangerous because it is maddening to be an artist under capitalism, a spiritual seeker within a dominant psychopharmamedical complex where they take “drugs that give the well-insured tremors” that “make patients speak in incomplete” (It is here that Green’s line breaks off, a moment, like many in the book, pointing to the failure of language to represent grief, or anything else, with accuracy.)
Interlude for Memoir
6. 1992: I’m in the classroom for the first day of Death in Modern Fiction; my professor explains the focus of the course and its title this way: “I had to admit to myself — all of my favorite books are about death.”
Now I am able to put something important into words: All of my favorite books are about death.
7. 2013: My dad’s only sister, my beloved Aunt Mimi, dies on the first day of the year; one year earlier my dad suffers a near fatal heart attack. I hold his hand as a former priest administers last rites. I find myself reading what I can now identify as an important genre, which I begin to term Grief Memoirs: David Rieff on Susan Sontag, Manguso on a friend who jumped in front of a train, Meghan O’Rourke on her mother, de Beauvoir on her mother — books written by, for lack of a better word, survivors: children, parents, spouses, friends. Books written through or beyond grief.
How Literature Didn’t Save My Life
8. Not so many weeks later, I read a galley copy of David Shields’s collage text, How Literature Saved My Life, also about death — which is to say, about life. I begin to wonder: who isn’t a survivor? Who isn’t doomed?
I think: We are all doomed
9. Bough Down is a collage of text and image surrounding life and death and the ways in which Art or Literature fail to save us collectively. If Green’s book feels inevitable, it is also surprisingly confessional, painfully vital in its affirmation: Nothing will save a life, not even suicide. Not even the constant refrain of “What If?”: What if I had come home earlier that day? What if I hadn’t left him alone?
Bough Down is, perhaps, the book Shields is calling for in his latest texts — a book which avoids the obfuscations of fiction, of the novel form. A book whose hybrid qualities -whose refusal to occupy one definite genre — and yet insistence on invoking a multitude of forms — lends urgency to it.
10. My aunt’s death casts a pall over the start of the year, but that isn’t why I read these books. I would have read them anyway.
11. In “Room and a Half,” Brodsky writes that our parents teach us how to die — but what a messy process that is, where no one wants to be the teacher and the lessons lack both structure and objective.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
12. Bough Down recalls Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in structure: a hybrid text of images, prose, conversations, images. Like Rankine, Green posits a shifting “I” voice, there and not there, painfully present and yet refusing to participate in public ceremony — and when she does, it is decidedly performative: she is “the widow” but not the Public Widow. There are others ready for the public displays: the Romantics, the Support Guys — all prepared to run the industry devoted to our latest favorite Dead Author.
13. Green’s text proffers — and refuses — to give voice to the howl of grief; to the self that will not Get Over It, that will not find solace in death’s beautiful tug, that never learned to Move On. As she puts it: “I could love another face, but why?”
14. Anyone who has ever loved and lost — which is to say, anyone who has lived long enough — knows that to move on, to let go, is to (a) betray the one who has gone and (b) betray the validity of the void. The rousing daily chorus of our cultural voices of self-help, the paeans to Good-Living like to proclaim Carpe Diem and so on — an erasure or coercion that reinforces the isolation, the alienation of grief, which is part of what we wish to deny about being human — not a linear process so much as an undoing.
If life isn’t about loss and separation — about a realization that we hurt people we love and need, that we bear grief and guilt — then I don’t know what it’s about.
Redemption does not exist in Green’s Bough Down; the book rejects Art as Redemptive; the same goes for Shields’s book, deceptively titled as it is.
(And one might argue, if the unnamed Dead Author’s life and death proved anything, it was that LITERATURE WILL NOT SAVE YOUR LIFE.)
15. As in Rankine’s masterful work, Green’s book contains larger, implicit questions: for example: what can we be to each other? What to make of a system that failed “you” — of a doctor who did not see a person, but instead a set of symptoms? What of a system that insists on dehumanizing the self, the spiritual, the artistic — of a spouse who refuses to return to a psych ward? refuses the world of the well-adjusted (not an accidental term)? What of a spouse who becomes precisely that which she couldn’t save?
And yet, a self must move (if not quite on); Green writes: “Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth.”
16. In her beautiful essay on Francesca Woodman, Ariana Reines invokes Woodman’s note to interrogate the seduction of suicide:
This action that I foresee has nothing to do with melodrama. It is that life as lived by me now is a series of exceptions…I was (am?) not unique but special. This is why I was an artist…I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see…and show them something different…Nothing to do with not being able “to take it” in the big city or w/ self doubt or because my heart is gone. And not to teach people a lesson. Simply the other side.
It’s hard not to imagine a note from Green’s husband saying something similar — it seems that his entire adult life was this struggle: to be special and not unique. To live in a world that didn’t see him as he saw/felt himself: an extraordinary ordinary person. But, as Green writes, “Some people would rather die than be understood.”
17. I tried and failed not to mention the fact that hovers beyond the text, the suicide of the writer who was also the very particular, specific man married to Green; and yet — how does one not feel the levels, the layers or the eventualities? How does one not see in his choice the destruction of lives and the creation of art? Or the very particular way in which the depth of life is limited through the creation of art. Green writes: “You’ve won every argument except the one about my being better off.”
18. Bough Down makes a point of refusing the romance, reminding us to see it another way: “I don’t want him at peace.” She, after all, was an artist long before he married her, before he met her. She fell in love. He was perfect for her (The doctor says if you were so “perfect for me” you’d probably still be around, no offense.). Part of the shock and shimmery ache of the book is the way she resists, not only redemption, but revelation, rendering these moments of seeming-disclosure more cutting. Or: “They talk about him like he’s meant to be dead and that makes me mad.” and “Death excites people but from a distance.”
19. Art is not enough. Art is never enough. Life is what matters and out of that we make out the words within the book’s art among her text, pages, this meditation on the impossibility of redemption or release, the rejection of fitting conclusion, the fiction of closure.
20. Writing about Simone Weil, Sontag said something about a culture’s need for the Suicide:
The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force — not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self — these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live. It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.
The suicide-as-salvation mythos exhausts itself here, where the writer has a wife, not to speak of parents and a sister and the many friends who loved him. To claim the suicide as a sort of present (as he himself may have put it) message surrounding his death is to reject the sheer violence of it to the life of, for one, his life partner.
21. How many have looked to Him, our collective Saint Suicide, for answers? That the person who did that must have answers — when Jonathan Franzen suggested that his suicide was a sort of career move, an inability to finish his book, he was slammed as heretical and yet — what do those who now read him — the many new readers since his death — hope to learn from his death?
“I can’t wrap this up.” Green ends her book with the insistence that, like language, closure fails, endings fail. The bough is down, and something else has begun: a new way to tell a story, a new way to understand the relationship between art and death.
22. The humor and ache of Green’s position, the loneliness and the rage behind the desolation, suicide’s widow — one who cannot see him as Saint or Martyr but rather as a guy who sweats, who was intimidated by lingerie, who hated the psych ward even if he knew he needed to be there, is enough to render this argument baseless, facile. That art is always an engagement with another human being cannot be denied — that art must ask the questions posed by Rankine: “What can we be to each other?” “What do we mean to each other?” In this sharp, devastating book, Green finds a way to engage with the lost Other — a self both elusive and specific, who has left us, yet again, asking these impossible questions.