Restoring a Family Ghost


Arts & Culture

Some months ago, I came across a smattering of random family photographs at my parents’ house. The house had experienced some flooding during Hurricane Sandy, and the pictures, having been rather unsentimentally stored in the garage, were damaged—not terribly, but enough to make them brittle, to make them seem older than they were, to make them somehow strange, like daguerreotypes sold at flea markets. In the pile I found a very old group photo: my tiny maternal grandfather plopped on his mother’s lap, surrounded by people who must have been family but whose identities now seemed irrevocably lost. My mother held the fraying sepia image and lamented not knowing, the family history mostly a blank she could not fill in, the details lost to war and displacement, to evacuation and emigration, to the banalities of everyday life that make it impossible to keep track of the everyday banalities that eventually become history.

But history, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so we make do; we make up. We plot against the blank spaces. Frail Sister, Karen Green’s genre-transcendent new book, is just this sort of plotting against: a collage-memoir-epistolary found object willed into the story of a life otherwise lost. Virginia Woolf famously invented Judith Shakespeare, doomed sister of William and a woman of equal talents and missing opportunities, who—abandoned, pregnant, fallen—dies by suicide. Green reanimates her Aunt Constance, a ghost in the family archive. Working with old photos, vintage postcards, stationary, sheet music, newspaper clippings, faded cocktail menus, ration books, military documents, and aerial maps, Green combines and reworks, adding text in snippets and bursts, until—imperceptibly—a story coalesces. In an interview with Art in America, Green describes the book as “an old-fashioned mystery,” hidden in a graphic novel, a memoir, an art book, a biography—though she is adamant that Frail Sister is none of these. I came to think of the work as an immersion, a piece of participatory theater, a way of getting lost among the artifacts of a civilization that eventually shows itself to have been ours all along.

Like most good stories, the tale Frail Sister tells is simultaneously very simple and very complicated. At its center is Constance “Connie” Gale, a musical prodigy and born performer. As children during the Great Depression, Connie and her sister are put to work dancing and singing to support their family. Eventually, Connie joins the USO, goes to Italy, and witnesses the ravages of World War II. Men fall in love with her and send her letters, then die fighting. Connie forwards this correspondence to her sister (who, in remaining silent and nameless, serves as a placeholder for the reader), adds comments, makes fun of her more hapless admirers, and laments those she cared for (“They wouldn’t let me marry him because I was seventeen when he went away. I thought I was a widow in some way”). Sometimes she doubts herself. “You would faint if you saw the state of me and my things,” she types over an image of bombed ruins, “but I am alas still a girl … which in wartime means still pretty.” Sometimes she gestures at the intersection of large-scale violence and intimate violations. Over a photograph of a warplane raining bombs: “After his kisses and after his slaps, the same chorus: look what you made me do look what you made me do.” As war’s end nears, she scribbles, “War has swords / Love has darts / War breaks heads / Love breaks hearts.”

Then she’s in New York (“This city is like poetry only easier to interpret”). There are more men, only this time Connie seems to be the one falling, feeling desperate, for them. The city begins to lose its shine: “I can now catch roaches by smacking them with the palm of my hand.” Connie has a baby out of wedlock (“Maybe I called the baby an It, maybe I said I don’t want it, which I didn’t mean, but whatever I said made them call the authorities”). She struggles, is institutionalized. Her letters become harder and harder to comprehend: “Baggage bawd bitch broad chippy cocotte drab floozy fornicatress frail sister guttersnipe harlot harridan hussy jade jezebel loose woman nymphet nymphomaniac pickup pig slattern slut strumpet tart trollop wanton wench whore,” she writes, defending against charges or else lambasting herself. She is hospitalized (“The one about my Cracking Up is true”). She disappears.

Frail Sister is sad but not depressing, a difficult maneuver that Green makes seem effortless. Her previous book, Bough Down—stunningly good and, shockingly, her first—documents the aftermath of her husband’s suicide. (Green is the widow of David Foster Wallace.) Writing in fragments and interspersing small collages, some as tiny as a stamp, Green meticulously strings the beads of her grief. Most of her assemblages are muted in color, with occasional bursts of vivid red. Meticulous, they appear to have been made by a loving, patient hand and looked over by eyes that have seen too much. “Some people would rather die than be understood,” Green writes late in Bough Down. “Not me. My chess pieces are transparent. I move them around with a ropey, spotted hand. The other hand makes a mess of things under the table.”

Juxtaposing words and images, Green makes texts that are elliptical, resonant, impervious to description. They are poetic vitrines. They are exotic butterflies pinned to vellum. They are symphonies in matchboxes. It’s hard to know what to make of an encounter with them, only that you are a little different afterward. Like Bough DownFrail Sister is generous, a beautiful jewel excavated at great cost and with great endurance. It shines brightly and drips blood.

“I will salt away our memories, even the jaggedly ones I’ll turn over and over until they are burnished,” Connie writes. “We are the bridge in a song, sis, forever linked, together we make music and there is nothing and no one can asunder us, not even war!” Frail Sister documents the sundering, shows the ways in which frailty is the enforced condition of women trying to survive in a world hostile to their ambitions, their melodies, their needs and desires. All sisters are frail. But Frail Sister insists that faded images can be restored, fragile connections remade. The book’s final images are of an embroidered woman playing the violin, flowers in her hair, then the embroidery’s reverse. The threads tell the tale. The threads hold tight.

Yevgeniya Traps lives in Brooklyn. She works at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU.