“When I think about the future, I don’t think about inescapable ends.”
Marina Keegan graduated Yale in 2012 with plans to produce a play at the New York International Fringe Festival and start a job at The New Yorker. Five days later, a tragic car crash took her life. Keegan’s words, however, have lived on, starting with her last column for the Yale Daily News—“The Opposite of Loneliness”—going viral. This posthumous collection of prose work, curated by Keegan’s family and teachers, is an exploration of youth and hope that also celebrates the author’s life and craft.
The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories. By Marina Keegan. Scribner. 2014. Paperback.
How did I get the book?
This book has been on my shelf for nearly three years, an impulse purchase I made at Strand Books when I was getting ready to graduate from NYU and (despite having very clear graduate school plans) felt like the world was slipping out from underneath my feet. Now, six months into the “real world,” it felt appropriate to revisit.
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What did I think?
Anne Friedman describes Keegan in the book’s forward as “a twenty-one who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful,” directly contradicting Keegan’s worry about only having 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in her life to write about. Youthfulness indeed inhabits the collection’s characters, people whose clothes are recently populated with cigarette holes and whose love lives still operate on the principle that making too much serious eye contact implies you’re too interested; people moving to cities for the first time where they discover new breeds of camaraderie, energy, and generosity through art and all-nighters, making everything feel newly romantic and giddy; people who continue to tell themselves, “I'm young. I'm fine...It doesn't matter.” All of the new emotion also finds the characters reflecting on their upbringings, seeing their families as “just functional enough to be functional…[that] everyone's house had its own messed-up stories” while not yet being able to see the perspectives of their parents. “How amazing it is that things seem so absolute when you're young,” one character in a story states, admiring how everything happening to her seems worthy of retelling. Even in Keegan’s older characters (those in their thirties), there is a haunting nostalgia for the “what ifs” from their twenties, as if they’ve somehow forgotten what it feels like to be able to dream of doing anything.
Running parallel to the youthful energy are thoughts about the future. Keegan’s titular piece fears—“more than finding the right job or city or spouse”—what life looks like after one’s early twenties, when group texts disappear and you’re no longer living on the same block as your best friends; what it could mean to loose possibility or to let the universe down. Keegan never finds resolve on this matter, but she does often pivot from there (in a somewhat haunting foreshadow) to death. Her essays simultaneously joke about throwing her gluten allergy to the wind in her final days (“On my deathbed...Everyone will gather around me, crying softly and clutching each other, as I reach gloriously for the four-cheese Hot Pocket and Big Mac Supreme”) and having her legacy captured in “an anthology of indulgence” while thoughtfully reflecting on what it would mean to not be able to leave her loved ones with a parting message. Keegan’s fictitious characters are also deeply troubled when death hits them, questioning the manner in which it happens, struggling with what has become what was, and re-evaluating what people mean to them now that they are no longer there.
Both of these ideas are huge concepts for any work to tackle, especially one that spans across genres, but given that Keegan didn’t assemble this collection herself, I’d venture a guess that theme was not paramount in her brain when crafting these pieces. Instead, I’d argue her focus was more basic, on getting ideas and details and sentences to sing on their own. She often accomplishes this, particularly when writing around the idea of love, painting portraits of young women with their first “really-serious-this-time” boyfriends who are experiencing what it means to have someone wake up beside you then roll over and kiss you, how it feels to watch someone smile at you as they zip up their coat and see “everything in the world build up and then everything in the world fall down again.” Keegan also tracks the loss of these relationships, characters breaking up while they’re still in love so that the wound never properly heals, or someone losing a partner to death and having to reckon with what it means that the person “whose eyes and neck and penis [they] had kissed the night before…no longer existed.” Love, of course, is yet another big motif to throw into the ring of this relatively short body of work, but (pun intended or not) it also felt to me like its heart.
🌟 2.5/5 — Okay
“When a young person dies, much of the tragedy lies in her promise: what she would have done,” Anne Friedman emphasizes in the forward, “but Marina left what she had already done…Marina wouldn't want to be remembered because she's dead. She would want to be remembered because she's good.” And indeed, Keegan did have talent, perhaps enough that she could’ve even survived a career as a writer without the fear she had of loving it but being poor. However, I just don’t know if this collection could have been published in its current iteration without her untimely, terrible passing prefacing it.
There were certain moments that really excited me. For instance, how I’ve already written she managed to capture love. Additionally, the beginnings of the short stories “Hail, Full of Grace”—At the Unitarian Universalist Christmas pageant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it didn't matter that Mary insisted on keeping her nails painted black or that Joseph had come out of the closet—and “Sclerotherapy”—Karen found out the tattoo of the Chinese character on her right ankle actually meant soybean five months after she got it—were totally enthralling. Unfortunately, what followed was too frequently less do. The fiction often felt windy whereas the nonfiction came off short. I finished the book and agreed that Keegan had promise, but I struggled to remember much of what had happened while doubting I would read the book again.
Beyond the book.
Keegan’s family has maintained a website and social media accounts dedicated to The Opposite of Loneliness where they continue to celebrate her life and work, as well as encourage others who were moved by her writing to do the same. There was also an interesting piece by Nicole Dirks in the Yale Daily News last October about the experience of interning for the website where she sorted through Keegan’s archives. Also, if you happen to be curious about what Keegan was like off the page, you can see her performing slam poetry as a Yale student here.
See you again soon!