Book Review - The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan YC '12

Keegan picture

 

I. 

In May of 2012, 1,249 students graduated from Yale College.  Amongst them was a Coleridge-loving, poetry-writing Saybrugian from Wayland, Massachusetts, named Marina Keegan.  Five days later she passed away in a car accident.  This is heartbreaking, and will never not be so.

Already a prolific writer, stemming from journalism pieces in her high school days written on an extremely sophisticated and professional level, Ms. Keegan left behind a considerable body of work, including the titular essay of her book, The Opposite of Loneliness.  This essay, first in the collection and powerful in its message, was originally published by the Yale Daily News as part of its 2012 graduation issue.  After Ms. Keegan's passing it went viral, picked up and spread across print and electronic media.

Ms. Keegan’s friends and family then collaborated on a collection of her essays and short stories, published in April by Scribner, taking the title from her most widely-read work.  Nine essays and nine stories, spanning her high school and Yale years, cover a wide range of subjects, including relationship uncertainties, her own struggles with Celiac Disease, a doomed submarine on the bottom of the ocean, and the very end of the world.  These pieces are the work of a major talent in the process of its first unfolding, and it is impossible to read them, and not feel the loss of Keegan’s passing.

Anne Fadiman, Francis Writer in Residence at Yale and Ms. Keegan's teacher, writes in the Introduction that “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead.  She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”  Ms. Fadiman is right; Ms. Keegan’s work deserves more than to be read through the lens of grief.  It deserves to be read and judged on its own merits and strengths.

In this light, her work is fantastic.

 

II.  Her Fiction

“Story,” Robert McKee writes in Story, “isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”

Keegan’s short fiction pieces are both character portraits and tightly-worded exercises in narrative economy, each with a central, striking image.  In “Winter Break”, it is a mother walking her dog through a still, suburban winter’s night.  “Cold Pastoral” has an almost-girlfriend meet the ex-girlfriend of her recently-deceased lover.  A new mother running into an old college boyfriend years later, in “Hail, Full of Grace.”  Feeling around the dark of a stalled submersible lost on the ocean floor in “Challenger Deep.” 

These images will stay with you; they make an immediate, lasting impression.  Striking for both their impact, testifying to the author’s skills at description, and for their empathy, testifying to Keegan’s maturity and ability to connect her experience with her imagination, these stories show an insight and felicity remarkable for a writer of any age, much less one so young. 

Her gift, to fashion these images and characters in ways that will hold the reader’s interest and stay long after the book has been put down, is the mark of not only a writer, but a true storyteller.  The stories she tells here will surprise you with their candor, their powers of observation, and their ability to evoke specific, relatable emotions without overt sentimentality or bathos.

Each story has, at its core, characters grappling for meaning and certainty, in a world where meaning is difficult to find, and certainty almost impossibly so.  Groping in the dark (“Challenger Deep”), trying to reach across time to your younger self (“Hail, Full of Grace”), and emailing an old fling from a war-zone (“The Emerald City”) are all stories of the search for tethers in an often-tetherless world.  If McKee is right, and stories are the way we make sense of the anarchy of our existence, Keegan’s stories show a razor-sharp, intuitive mind making sense of the anarchy she saw, in a way that far transcends the simple author-surrogates and banality found in so much modern fiction.

 

III.  Her Non-Fiction

Drawn with the same powers of description, empathy, and insight she brought to her fiction, Keegan’s essays have two added qualities that shine, and take the reader by surprise.  The first is humor.  The second is hope.

While her essays can certainly move you to tears (you will not finish “Against the Grain” with dry eyes), they can also make you burst into laughter (you will not finish the first page of “Against the Grain” with a straight face).  Make no mistake: Marina Keegan is funny

One essay is titled “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology.”  Another has the lines “Sometimes I let the deep baritone of NPR’s Tom Ashbrook lecture me on oil shortages.  Other times I play repetitive mix tapes titles like Pancake Breakfast, Tie-Dye and Granola, and Songs for the Highway When It’s Snowing” (“Stability in Motion”).  Another essay, “I Kill For Money'” is about a Chicago-area exterminator who cracks jokes as he chases bedbugs and mice (protip: Do not read this one in a restaurant while eating).  Time after time, you will find yourself laughing with Keegan’s incisive sense of humor and keen observations of the absurd both in others, and herself.

You will also be inspired.  Keegan’s writing is soaked through with hope.  In an age of easy cynicism and rampant, sneering irony, Keegan writes with an earnest sincerity that holds, at its core, a profound hope for her generation and their opportunities to do good.

Two essays stand out in this regard.  The first is “The Opposite of Loneliness”, which if you haven’t read already you can do so here.  There, Keegan writes of the anxiety and fear she feels around losing the community of Yale when she graduates, but she immediately follows this with “The best years of our lives are not behind us.  They’re a part of us and they are set for repetition.”  “What we have to remember,” she writes, “is that we can do anything.  We can change our minds.  We can start over…We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility, because in the end, it’s all we have.” 

With college becoming ever-more competitive, the job market becoming ever-more narrow and specialized, and choice everyday being subverted for necessity, Keegan’s hope is remarkable, and an inspiring reminder that yes, you really can turn the page over, and start your life afresh.  Keegan saw what so many cannot, mainly that the future remains open, and its potential is limitless.  Those two sentences: We can change our minds.  We can start over.  Those are hope in its most essental form.

This is profoundly inspiring.

The squandering of the future always upsets the hopeful, and Keegan was no different.  In “Even Artichokes Have Doubts”, Keegan observes with bafflement the alarming trend of her peers to graduate from Yale and go into consulting.  Roughly twenty-five percent of her graduating class did so.  “This is a big deal,” she writes.  “This is a huge deal.  This is so many people!  This is one-fourth of our people!...we ought to be pausing for a second to ask why.”

What follows is an exceptional piece of nonfiction writing.  Blending investigative reporting, the thoughts of fellow students, and personal reflection, Keegan examines the lure of the consulting industry, and how, exactly, it gets undergraduates who are passionate about filmmaking, comedy, music, public education, and a host of other subjects, to enter “a line of work in which we’re not (for the most part) producing something, or helping someone, or engaging in something that we’re explicitly passionate about.” 

Through her reporting she investigates generational malaise, economic pressures, the need for validation, and a host of other circumstances that are both universal and manifested in ways unique to her time, capturing it all in a way the most well-coiffed TV talking head or New York Times columnist never could.  This piece is a window into the minds of today’s rising graduates, their fears and insecurities, and the opportunities they have for which Keegan is so hopeful and concerned.  Keegan closes her essay with “We can do something really cool with this world.  And I fear – at twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five – we might forget.”

Those who read Marina Keegan won’t forget.  She and her hope will not let us.

 

IV.

“Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats writes in Ode on a Grecian Urn, “but those unheard are sweeter.”

You hear a lot about the voice of the Millenial generation.  Some rush to proclaim a latest fresh take as the voice, the one that is going to lay bare the inner lives of young Americans to the world.  Some rush to claim this title for themselves.

In The Opposite of Loneliness you will find that voice for which all those others grasp so hard.  Marrying her historical time and place with a keenly observant eye for the ambiguities and ambitions of her peers, Marina Keegan draws out our era's struggles and anxieties in a way that makes other attempts seem at best pale simulacra, and at worst condescending cash-ins.

Those unheard, sweeter melodies that would have come from Ms. Keegan’s mind will forever be silent to us.  This is a part of her tragedy, one acutely felt after reading her work.  But we can still experience the sweet melodies she left behind, and marvel at them and their author.

It is graduation season.  This weekend Yale prepares to graduate roughly three thousand students, a little less than half of whom will be undergrads from Yale College.  In “Song for the Special”, the collection’s last essay, Keegan writes

Sometime before I die I think I’ll find a microphone and climb to the top of a radio tower.  I’ll take a deep breath and close my eyes because it will start to rain right when I reach the top.  Hello, I’ll say to outer space, this is my card. 

Thank you, Ms. Keegan.  You gave us an incredible card.

Disclosure:  I never knew Marina Keegan.  We matriculated at Yale at the same time, in the late summer of 2008, and overlapped as students for three years, she at Yale College, and myself at the Divinity School.