The Urethra-Crushing Meaninglessness of Death
BoJack Horseman, Eugene Onegin, and our desperate attempts to make life and loss feel like they matter
At the end of last summer, I inherited a piece of my dead friend’s library. Books—words, poetry, ideas—had formed the nucleus of our friendship. They sustained us as Natalie gradually succumbed to the cancer that began to take over her body just a few weeks after we first met. And they were still there at her memorial service, at a funeral home in Brooklyn. Her husband and family brought stacks of them so that each of us could have a piece of Natalie, each one containing a small bookplate with her name, the day she was born, the day she died, and a quote from Susan Orlean:
Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve catalogued and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.
A few weeks later, I picked up even more of Natalie’s books from her husband, who was packing up their apartment and moving out of New York. In her absence, the words, poetry, and ideas that shaped her were still everywhere. In particular, I noted a print in their kitchen that Natalie had gotten when she learned that her UTI was in fact bladder cancer. The quote was from BoJack Horseman: “Life is just one long, hard kick in the urethra.”
Natalie and I had initially bonded in our divinity school cohort. We were both there, in part, to study death: how do we make sense of it, and how do we continue living in the wake of loss? Up until that point, our lives had both been dotted by moments that placed us in the same room as those questions, and we’d both reached the point in our lives and careers where we wanted to weave some meaning out of the myriad of possible answers.
In the penultimate episode of BoJack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s characters refute the idea of meaning. In a scene set in BoJack’s subconscious as he faces death, the Byronic bronco has a conversation with his dead father, Butterscotch (in the body of racehorse legend Secretariat). The idea of inner peace comes up, and Butterscotch-slash-Secretariat scoffs: “Peace? That’s someone trying to convince himself of something.”
“Of what?” asks BoJack.
“That life has meaning, or purpose. That if you check the right boxes and do the dance, then you get a little parting gift at the end—a framed certificate that says, ‘Congratulations, you’ve got peace.’… But guess what? All the time those people spent, trying to do good or help people or be something? I did none of that shit, and yet here I am, same as them.”
Natalie preemptively echoed this a few weeks before she went into the hospital and, eventually, into hospice. “There is no philosophizing,” she wrote. “There will be no meaning to make of my death, no reason for me dying before I had the chance to grow old with the people I love.”
But Natalie’s books begged for me to find meaning—if not a grand, unifying meaning, then at least a sliver of it. Many of the books I inherited from her were dotted with white Post-it flags, each one marking a sentence or passage she found particularly resonant. In this way, reading Natalie’s books became an oblique way of reading Natalie herself. One example, from Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project:
The mob sorts itself out into individual people with their own hopes and needs and routines, each contained by their own reality. And moving between these units is not a linear act but an act of stepping from one parallel universe into another. And each moment has to be considered and understood, and the person who follows behind you, that person travels through their own moments.
Stepping from one parallel universe into another, this act of reading Natalie—an act of divining—began to feel like another book that we referenced throughout our friendship, the novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin.
After Pushkin’s eponymous character leaves the countryside and returns to St. Petersburg, his lovesick heroine Tatyana goes to his abandoned dacha. There, she combs through his library, analyzing every title, every thumbnail imprint in the pages, every scrap of marginalia. Through this, she begins to understand more fully the dissolute, enigmatic man whom she once followed around like a cocker spaniel.
Eugene Onegin isn’t unlike BoJack Horseman: Solipsistic and self-destructive, both tread the well-worn path of the Byronic hero (Onegin even has a portrait of Lord Byron in his study). Through their respective character arcs, they remain mostly static. BoJack even romanticizes the predictability of inertia (epitomized by the bland-but-harmonious pace in the world of his ‘90s sitcom), as opposed to the urethra-crushing pain of the unknown. In the end, both are left alone to figure out how to move on when all of the other people (and animals) in their lives have changed and drifted away.
BoJack has his own parallel to Tatyana in Diane Nguyen, who initially enters his orbit as the ghostwriter for his memoir. Because writing a memoir requires a degree of reflection BoJack is incapable of accessing, that project turns into an uncompromising biography, presenting BoJack as what Pushkin might have termed “a child of heaven, of hell perchance. / Devil and god of arrogance.”
It’s in tandem with, rather than in spite of, the comedy of BoJack (which is, in and of itself, a Russian doll of references, cross-references, double and triple entendres) that the biggest gut-punches are delivered. I think that may have been one of the reasons that Natalie and I enjoyed it so much: It brought us up close with the shit of human existence, but it couched that shit in a way that offered, if not meaning, at least camaraderie. (As BoJack’s man-bunned Judah Mannowdog says of a Stephen King musical opening on the same night as a Stephen Sondheim musical, “Misery loves Company.”)
As much as BoJack seemed to speak to our lived experiences, it also kept them in perspective. Animation means you can explore multiple worst-case scenarios without any real sense of risk to your characters. They can drive their cars into swimming pools and emerge without a scratch. The animators and writers can, as the official BoJack coffee table book suggests, put the art before the horse.
When the fifth season of BoJack Horseman was released in September of 2018, Natalie was just finishing up a round of chemotherapy. She had a Sinead O’Connor fuzz of hair, but her eyebrows and eyelashes were starting to plan their comeback. She was still iffy on alcohol, but had enough of an appetite for apple fritters and bourbon donuts. That winter, she would be declared tumor-free. Art had created a safe space for catastrophe to spin out as normal life continued in a relatively calmer cadence. The fear of burying someone my age seemed to subside.
Less than a year later, Natalie was gone. A month after her positive scans, she was back in the hospital for what she initially thought was a flu-like virus. A brain scan revealed a lesion that was incurable.
Grief isn’t logical. When Natalie died, after nearly eight months of seizures, treatments, and hospitalizations, I was, in part, relieved. The last time I saw her, I only caught glimpses of her as she periodically latched onto lucidity. I was trying to find her in the margins of morphine drips and breathing tubes.
Grief isn’t linear, either. It’s an act of stepping from one parallel universe into another. I initially skipped denial, anger, bargaining, and depression like a superfluous opening credits sequence, immediately going for acceptance. But at some point, I had my inevitable crossover episode with anger.
The bridge between the two, incongruously, became the final season trailer for BoJack Horseman, which came out a few weeks after the memorial service, after I got my new books. My anger all funneled into the fact that Natalie would never see the series conclude. We’d never be able to analyze it together, finding every hidden bit of meaning. Adding insult to injury was Bob-Waksberg’s revelation that he’d hoped for two final seasons versus the one that he’d been given by Netflix, meaning that the pre-orchestrated end for Hollywoo would be accelerated, truncated.
Living in the wake of loss means one can’t help but try to seek out some meaning. Natalie’s insistence that there was no meaning to find in her death didn’t mean that she hadn’t accepted her prognosis. But rather than spend the remaining time she had trying to tack a meaning onto her death, she focused on adding more meaning to the rest of her life. For those of us left behind, though—like Tatyana in the wake of Onegin, like Diane in the wake of BoJack, and, ultimately, like BoJack in the wake of everyone else—the idea of finding meaning gives us something to cling to amid the nonlinear mess of grief. Even if it’s not the end goal of grieving and processing loss, it’s something we can work with to escape inertia.
While closure isn’t a guarantee, the project of meaning-making can also help us move towards a kind of (sorry, BoJack) peace—or at least habituation. Every loss we can begin to process gives us more to work with for the next inevitable loss. It’s a card catalog for our private library of grief.
BoJack faces his own backlog of overdue processing head-on in the penultimate episode of the series. It’s a setup straight out of another acerbic ode to show business, Bob Fosse’s 1979 movie All That Jazz: BoJack’s subconscious goes into overdrive as his brain shuts down following a bender that may prove fatal.
The characters whose death permeate the series—BoJack’s uncle Crackerjack, his Secretariat costar Corduroy Jackson Jackson, his Horsin’ Around showrunner and former best friend Herb Kazzaz, his father-Secretariat hybrid, his mother, and, of course, Sarah Lynn—come together for a dinner party. This culminates in a variety show in which, one by one, each character gives their final performance, before entering a door that leads to an unknowable void. (“Blest he who leaves a little early/Life’s banquet without eating up,” Pushkin writes at the end of Onegin.)
It’s during this sequence that BoJack’s father-slash-Secretariat rejects the idea that life has meaning. It’s as cynical a moment as any like it in Russian literature (or in a Bob Fosse musical, for that matter). But BoJack doesn’t suggest that there’s meaning in death, either. Moments after this conversation, BoJack is saying goodbye to Herb.
“Is it terrifying?” he asks as Herb stands on the threshold.
“No, I don’t think so,” Herb responds. “It’s the way it is, you know? Everything must come to an end. The drip finally stops.”
When BoJack says he’ll see Herb on the other side, Herb’s thoughtfulness turns to disappointment. “Oh no, BoJack,” he murmurs. “There is no other side. This is it.”
It’s not necessarily a relief to see, in the next and final episode, that BoJack lives. He’s arrested for breaking and entering into his former home and sentenced to 14 months in a maximum-security prison. His friends move away and move on, leaving him to reconnect with them at Princess Carolyn’s wedding one year into his term, on a prison furlough. Each conversation, whether it is indeed their last or not, feels like a goodbye—a way of making peace. But, like Onegin, they’re not necessarily satisfying.
Despite BoJack’s urethra theorem (which, parenthetically, is the name of my new riot grrrl band), Natalie wrote last May, “We don’t really have cultural stories to tell about the bladder.… This, to me, is generally a relief.” For her, this meant that there were no metaphors to ascribe to the part of her body where the cancer originated. There is no bladder equivalent to being lily-livered or anal-retentive.
But meaninglessness, while a relief, is also a vacuum. Natalie had no family history of bladder cancer, wasn’t exposed to any of the known risk factors, and took care of her body, with caffeine being her biggest vice. As a result, she wrote, it was hard “not to feel betrayed and alienated by this inarticulate organism that carries me around each day while allowing cancer cells to proliferate.” Her disease wasn’t metaphorically overburdened, but that lack of metaphor also meant there was no easy or comforting way to fit it into the rest of her life’s narrative.
In the finale of BoJack Horseman, Todd posits that, if art has a point, it’s less about what people put into it and more of what people get out of it. It’s an absolution to those of us who—like BoJack, like Tatyana—keep searching for meaning even in the meaningless. After I finished the series finale, I revisited Natalie’s post about how the bladder has no cultural weight. I forgot that, amid feeling betrayed by her body, and trying to separate her imagination, her metaphors and emotions, from the realities of her body and treatment plans, that she made an about face. No, her body wasn’t betraying her. It was, against all odds, trying to sustain her as she navigated the changes caused by tumors and treatments.
“There is, in fact, no place of retreat from my body, no safe space where I can memorize drug names and compile dispassionate to-do-lists,” she concluded. “My body and mind are not just connected, we are—and will only ever be—inescapably and incredibly whole.”
There’s no right or wrong answer in the end. Fully aware of her own mortality, not just as an abstract concept but as an imminent eventuality, Natalie wasn’t responsible for telling us what her death meant in the grand scheme of things. She was shaping and re-shaping her own sense of meaning in real time, along with the rest of us—but unlike the rest of us, she had a deadline.
I thought of Natalie the hardest during the final lines of the last episode. Echoing a bumper-sticker platitude that he could have just as easily said at the beginning of season one, BoJack sighs, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
Diane concedes that, sometimes, this is true. But she doesn’t let him stop there. “Sometimes,” she adds, “life’s a bitch, and then you keep living.”
We keep living among the marginalia. We continue to collect the notes and the Post-it flags, but not to find meaning, or to come up with a grand unifying theory. Instead, we move between the marginalia, like parallel universes, until the meanings present themselves, changing over time as we continue from one universe to the next. The good-bad news is that there’s no closure, just more questions. But it’s those questions that keep us going.