Karen Green, writer and artist, has created two books that aren’t like any other books, including each other. One introduces her, then, at one’s peril. Categorizing her work risks normalizing it, summarizing it at the expense of the protean subtext that resists paraphrase, let alone summary. The reader should thus consider herself warned that the categories and summaries to follow are the most makeshift sort of signposts, rough and provisional, written in sand.
Green’s first book, Bough Down (2013), is a mixture of poetry and visual art about the loss of her husband, the writer David Foster Wallace. It features exquisite rectilinear collages the size of postage stamps or business cards set opposite printed text. The book thinks and feels its way through all the goods and ills of hoping during grief, in the manner of the great meditations on grief in which hope is embodied in art. Bough Down is funny, self-effacing, absurd, and deadly serious. Its emotions turn on a dime and turn back just as quickly as the art and the writing flicker in connection with each other, reinforcing here, undermining there. You hardly ever know whether to laugh or to cry.
Her new book is about a different kind of lost person. Frail Sister, published this month by Siglio Press, is the story of Constance, a musical prodigy who grows up in Oil City, Pennsylvania, during the Great Depression and ships out with the USO to Italy. She is eventually lost, in more than one sense of the word, and the plot unfurls into a mystery. This missing person is both an actual relative of Green’s and a fictional invention of hers. The deeper mystery, then, takes place in the relationships between the story and the objects through which the story is told, between the world that effaces a woman as it uses her and the artifacts by which she, through Green, comes to define herself. Those artifacts are both found and made—we readers mostly don’t know which—and are all over each other in every manner of letter, photograph, clipping, drawing, and diagram, making the book like a biographical archive ordered by chronology and collaged into lucid disorder. It calls to mind historical fiction, mockumentary, graphic and epistolary novels, found art, and bildungsroman. Where does a critic begin? I wrote to Green in August to find out.
ADAM PLUNKETT How would you introduce this book to someone who knows nothing about it?
KAREN GREEN Well, certainly it’s a Siglio Press “kind” of book—a thing at art and literature’s intersection that costs too much to print and confounds the marketing team. I can readily tell you what it’s not: not a graphic novel, not a memoir, not an art book, not a biography. It’s more like an old-fashioned mystery hiding in all of the above.
PLUNKETT How did you come to write, create, put together the book?
GREEN I had always wondered about my aunt Connie, who disappeared before I was born—or at least that was the official story. All families have secrets, and she was one of many in mine.
PLUNKETT So Connie is, or was, a real person? Then why not say so on the back cover?
GREEN It really is a work of fiction, but I will allow that if my research had progressed differently, it might’ve been a different kind of fiction. What I want for the reader is that exciting, disorienting feeling of finding a box of family secrets in Grandma’s attic. And as for the question of art and life, there is a more accurate portrait of me in this book than there would be in a biography of me. I had my thinnest skin on while making it. Besides, anyone who loves and knows me would obfuscate a biographer on my behalf.
PLUNKETT At the most literal level, what sort of stuff is the book made of? It seems to me that the stuff is both found and made, research and art, two kinds of detective work into the mystery of this woman’s life, and part of what makes the book singular is that your reader often can’t tell the found from the made, can’t tell what kind of imagination is at play, and so has to bear both in mind as she makes sense of it all, fact and imagination congealed and sometimes confused as they are in the way we make sense of anyone’s past.
GREEN Yes, yes, yes, exactly. Thank you. The “stuff” includes vintage photos, some of which I found in archives and others that belonged to the family; letters, envelopes, postcards, and stationery from World War II; nineteenth-century gold thread for vestment embroidery; autograph books; children’s drawings and homework; one-hundred-year-old braided hair; sheet music; letters from strange admirers; newspapers, programs, and menus; old tape and photo corners; ration books and stamps; yearbooks; military paperwork; aerial bombing photos; old endpapers. The list could go on.
PLUNKETT The historian Nell Painter uses the metaphor of quilting to talk about putting together an archive for Sojourner Truth. The metaphor struck me in relation to Frail Sister given the project of restoring lost history by putting together disparate sources. Can you talk about what you were looking for in the archive?
GREEN The quilting metaphor is a good one. Here we have my neglected person/artist/muse with no archive at all, and there is little evidence she is a subject worthy of an archive: an envelope of photos, an old yearbook, a letter to her from a soldier, a letter to a different soldier from her with her USO address on the back. To riff on the metaphor, the materials I had for the quilt were threadbare indeed.
The book was always a story about how women disappear, and early on I was looking for anything about Connie, who happened to be related to me. Even in the age of Google, she was hard to find. The first place I found pictures of her—two very small group pictures in Caserta, Italy in late 1944—was at the New York Public Library in the Billy Rose Theatre Division. She was not named, she was not in a specified folder; I found her after two days of looking, in a folder marked “Misc.” I recognized her because she had my calves, or rather I have hers, and her hairdo is distinctive. They don’t let you bring materials in there with you, but they do allow photography, so I had to wait until I got out to check the images against the few I had of her. At that moment I felt haunted in a really happy way—but she was not always a friendly ghost. Sometimes she was scary.
When I hired a private investigator to help find her, the woman called and told me all kinds of cryptic things about dead babies and dead cousins, promised to elaborate, took my money, and disappeared herself. I think up until then I was holding out hope for a happy ending (for the book or for Connie).
I told my publisher that every day I worked on it I was losing her another ten readers; it was positively brimming with female trouble. This was pre–pussy grabbing candidacy, pre–2016 election. What she said back to me was, “Don’t worry about losing readers: that’s my job.” The worrying, she meant!
PLUNKETT I suspect that it would be hard to cite precedents for Frail Sister, but can you name influences that you thought of during the book’s composition?
GREEN Not exactly. It took about three or four years to make, and once I admitted to myself I was veering into hybrid territory I pretty much steered clear of recommended hybrid works. Even W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn I put down, not because it wasn’t great, not because I didn’t love Austerlitz, but because of my own process-related superstitions and limitations.
When I’m working, I need to feel I’m no more than subconsciously influenced, that the wheel has magically not yet been invented. It’s the only way I know to make my lack of education, my ignorance, work in my favor. Writing, for me, is much lonelier and more precarious than making visual art—it’s easier to stumble when you have nothing solid at the end of a workday—so I protect myself in all kinds of peculiar ways, one of which is by actively feeling and being an outsider.
I feed my inner outsider daily, much like a religious practice. It has something to do with blind faith and I shouldn’t examine it too closely.