In Memoriam: a Meditation on Meaning
W. Kendall Coor
The first star hangs between his feet.
W. Kendall Coor died on July 22, at a quarter after 7 in the evening. He was not in the tip of a V-2 about to strike a movie theater in Los Angeles. Nor was he taken out by an agent of Phoebus as he sat helplessly screwed into a ceiling socket. Nor did he just fade away, barely perceptible except to Pig Bodine. Instead, he died peacefully in bed, aged 50, after fighting multiple sclerosis for 18 years.
Kendall was my friend. My last visit was a week before he died. We talked, hung out, and said “see you soon” as we parted. His death was not unexpected—he had slowly deteriorated for many years. The numbing effect his death had on me was also not unexpected. We were close.
When I got the news, I had finished another friend’s novel about the CIA in the ‘60s. His intentions hovered between memoir and fiction—much of his book was true, but much was altered and omitted to protect the innocent and the guilty, and perhaps make a better story. The ending came with no revelations, no solutions, just the last of series of events. The results didn’t satisfy, and I had been thinking about why.
A good work of fiction sets up the expectation of discernible meaningfulness—the Shakespearian wedding, the Hollywood battle victory—an end that informs the preceding events and gives them power, purpose and most importantly, completeness. These are the delights of what could and should be. A memoir offers no such expectation, no inherent meaningfulness, just the delight of witnessing true and exciting events, something actually accomplished. But like life itself, memoirs just stop, perhaps adorned by remarks on what the events should mean. Memoirs are the delights of what is: the delight of Life itself.
Readers need either the satisfaction of meaning or the satisfaction of truth or some combination thereof. Without one or the other, you have an absurdist universe.
Kendall lived a life, not a novel. He was not Slothrop, or Tantivy, or Byron. He was an architect, a designer, a coffee snob, a craftsman, a manager, a glider pilot, a competitive skier, a collector of comic books, an older brother and a son, a movie buff and a beautiful soul at the end of his days. He breathed. He sighed. He loved. He hated. He feared. He teased. He appreciated. He achieved. He misunderstood. He helped. And he suffered. Kendall lived his life with a rare intensity.
Kendall’s life does not owe us discernible meaning, and it does not even owe us the truth of experience. Was his disease a lesson to us all to live life while we may? Please. Is there a link between his skiing and his architecture? This is a question appropriate to a work of fiction, those intermeshed universes where everything happens for a reason.
To try and pull the meaning out of another’s life, to make sense of it, is a terribly selfish act. By definition, it reduces, through stretching and compressing, what little we know of the person into a coherent expression. Were Kendall able to reply to my earlier list, he would mutter commentary to refine and bring it closer to his understanding of his experience. “It’s more complicated than that” is the terrible rejoinder every author fears and deserves. Even Joyce. Even Pynchon. Any given life has been all things a human can be if you look hard enough and long enough. And yet to express it all, everybody’s story would become infinitely long.
Our lives do not guarantee meaningfulness. We create stories—novels, plays, epics, myths, religions—to locate and describe the meaningfulness we are sure must be here, somewhere, but have such trouble locating in our lives. We read to find meaning for our lives. Whether through a physics textbook, the Bible, or Gravity’s Rainbow, the goal is always a greater understanding of some aspect of our life and world that will give us comfort, control, purpose, perhaps even peace of mind…. So that’s why….
Kendall’s life reads well as memoir. His accomplishments before his disease were substantial. Phillips Andover, Washington University in St. Louis, The Sorbonne, SCIARCH, Frank Gehry’s Studio, just the names of his affiliations augured a successful career. His work was brilliant, beautiful and challenging. But instead of fulfilling his promise, he simply withered away in bed for 18 years—a strong argument for the absurdity of existence, the inherent randomness and meaninglessness of life: read this life and despair. Why that fate? Why was he denied the achievement of happiness through his gifts? This can be asked of so many lives, and through none of them can we find an answer that satisfies. Kendall’s life might read better as fiction, events altered—the disease erased—his promise fully realized.
Would that I could rewrite Kendall’s life—
Choose events and a career that would make sense, express beauty and build towards happiness, success and completion. His hardest struggle would be with the burden of fame.
Would that we could all write our lives—
And yet, there is a certain plastic-ness to fiction (except for the very best) that leaves you reading about people that aren’t half as real as we all know them to be. Few works of fiction can equal the true unexpected depths of human nature and experience, its possibilities, improbabilities, beauties and terrors. The richness of Life is in Life, not in writing, which only points us back to Life with tools to understand it better.
In writing about Kendall, there is deep irony. Through his life I could find meaning for mine, if I study him hard enough, manage to capture him in words somehow, or some aspect of him, in words that will help him live within whomever reads about him, to gain an immortality of sorts. That goal, understood purely, is far too complex: it would need infinite words. With a few hundred, or a thousand, he can only live on as a cartoon.
I met Kendall in high school, in a mechanical drawing class, and we became best friends. Emerson says friends are self-electing, that we do not really choose them. Indeed, we were too much alike not to connect. We were perfectionists. We were competitive. We were private and sensitive about our families. We were angry and on edge, even prickly. We saw coolness and desirability in the same things—Jim Jarmusch films, clove cigarettes, The English Beat. We saw a reflection of ourselves in the other without being conscious of it.
After high school, we moved far apart—Kendall in St. Louis, Paris, Los Angeles and Phoenix, while I went to Montreal, Slovakia and New York City—but we kept in touch through letters: ornate, detailed, outrageous and essentially competitive letters. When I grew my hair out, I discovered Kendall had done the same. When I cropped it short, he seemed to have beat me to it. And then when I discovered Gravity’s Rainbow, I shared it with Kendall, and we both quickly grew to love it above all other books. We lived in our own little GR world, our references, even entire conversations opaque to outsiders, which is to say anyone who had not read and nearly memorized the book. Gravity’s Rainbow was the salt in our lives, a primary seasoning to our experiences. The characters were not heroes, nor the world a particularly appealing one, but their experiences resonated with us at a deep level.
If Gravity’s Rainbow has a plot, you could say that Tyrone Slothrop goes on an epic 760-page quest to understand who he is and find his purpose and place in life. However, after having put all the pieces of his life puzzle together, instead of completing a grand goal, he simply fades away--literally fades from the view of other characters and the reader, forgetting his quest, forgetting what he’s doing at any given moment, becoming a “presence.” Slothrop doesn’t go home. He doesn’t get the honorable discharge from the army. He doesn’t get revenge on the scientists that experimented on him as a child. He does not receive the approval of his father or the love of his mother or become the head of his old, blue-blooded Boston family. He doesn’t even get the girl. He does not fulfill the promise of his life.
Pynchon meant to disappoint our expectations that fictional heroes will, damnit, have comprehensible, meaningful endings, triumphs of good over bad, order over chaos, offering an experience that will be remembered because of its value to readers. And yet Slothrop does not simply disappear. His attributes blend into many of the other characters. They become “Slothropian” in their habits, language, and actions. Slothrop lives on in his friends through a memory of imitation, appreciation, and unconscious understanding and sympathies. That is our true immortality on this earth, the manner in which aspects of our character survive in others, so suggests Thomas Pynchon.
But Kendall never identified much with Slothrop. He chose the story of Byron the Bulb as his avatar, even before his sickness. Byron is an immortal light bulb, fated to survive every attempt to unscrew and smash him, to gain immense knowledge and yet have no way to communicate it in an effective manner. Byron’s story ends in his Cassandra-like and immortal despair. Kendall literally lived like Byron in his later years, unable to move his body, and barely able to speak except in the faintest of mumbled whispers. His email address was Byrondabulb@gmail.com
And Kendall had another email address Tantivvymucker@gmail.com At first this mystified me, as Tantivy is a minor character, a friend of Slothrop’s who is kidnapped and probably killed by the evil forces chasing Slothrop. His full name is Tantivy Mucker Maffick. An “old mucker” is contemporary British slang for an old friend. And rereading Tantivy’s role in the book, he is indeed Slothrop’s faithful friend, an archetype of unappreciated constancy when everyone else is working against him. For Kendall—ambitious, competitive, sharp-edged Kendall—to define himself as “the minor friend” was curious.
In our late 20’s and early 30’s we changed, grew apart, even fought, and didn’t keep in touch as much, if at all, for long periods. He wanted to bail out of the architecture profession and become a grade school teacher in Alaska. This was insanity to me, considering his artistic talents and the fact he hated kids. I got very angry at him. He got angry at me. I despaired. We were close; and then we weren’t.
At about the same time, he became sick with multiple sclerosis. And so all plans ended, and he found himself in Phoenix using a cane at first, then a walker, then a wheelchair, then bed ridden. He got angrier and angrier in our phone calls and emails. Sometimes my letters would remain unanswered for years. When his letters did come, they were incomprehensible to me. We were no longer mirrors of each other, but nearly strangers, a pain I felt deeply, as he must have. How well had I really known him?
In his last few years, Kendall reached out and we reconciled. He was no longer angry. I visited often, reading from GR to him, making coffee, suffering wrath when it was a little too cold or sweet. He had come to peace with the life that was his lot—mostly involving TV, books on tape and sleep, in spite of paralysis from his neck down and great difficulty speaking.
He told me he had come to peace with death, no longer feared it, but not wishing it on himself. We talked about the women he had almost slept with, but hadn’t for one reason or another. He would mouth “Stupid” over and over again. He told me he would do anything, anything at all for my children, I only had to ask. We watched Love It or List It, one of his favorite shows, in which people worked on their houses to make them more livable, or sell them for a better one. He wanted to know why I hadn’t written a great novel yet.
He saw my wound in the failure of our friendship, rather than just his anger at me, and he healed it the only possible way it could be—not through explanations, apologies, gestures or promises, but by helping me understand how he had redefined his success. In achieving peace with his life – “blooming where he was planted” as his father said at his burial – he redefined the question and changed the answer, from a major loss that led to frustration and despair to a success that led to happiness. The promise of his early design achievements apparently pointed to the success of finding happiness in a paralyzed body. It is a lesson to us all, not a simple or easy one, to avoid Byron’s ending.
The strangeness of reality often points to absurdity. But Kendall led a meaningful life, apparent, I believe, without explanation. But wait, I am confusing my genres, and finding meaning where there is only truth, manufacturing it as I go then pointing to its ancient and inherent pedigree. Kendall’s life as an example to us all? Please. That can’t be what I was aiming for; but what it was I was aiming for, I forget exactly.
We hover over the theater of our lives like Gottfried in the V-2 at the end of GR, caught in a moment of time, perhaps aware of context, perhaps not, living life to the fullest of our imaginations and fantasies, perhaps denied those fantasies, and yet always a moment away from death, the possible annihilation of our memory here, our role in this world, and perhaps on the edge of exaltation, it’s so hard to tell the difference.
Of course you will never know how Kendall lives on in me, and that’s fine. Of course you will find meaning and reconciliation, or not, in your own way. Of course you will wrestle with loss and acknowledge its place in life. Of course you will remember Kendall.