The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
4th Sep 2014
In 2012, Keegan died when her boyfriend, driving to her family’s home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, fell asleep at the wheel and flipped the car. She was only 22.
The danger with a posthumous collection like The Opposite of Loneliness is that its value will be purely sentimental: you feel sorry for what happened to the author, so are willing to overlook deficiencies in the writing. Let me reassure you, though: this is top-notch work; no caveats required.
Surprisingly, the collection’s short stories, deeply thoughtful and relevant, are almost better than the essays (nine of each), and certainly on par with debuts by writers a decade Keegan’s senior.
The best stories are clearly autobiographical, narrated in the first person by a college student. In Cold Pastoral, when Claire’s boyfriend Brian dies suddenly of an aneurysm, she realises how little she really knew him.
Sexual jealousy is a theme shared with The Ingenue, in which the narrator is appalled to catch her boyfriend cheating (at a board game, that is) – but marries him anyway.
In Winter Break, Addie, home on vacation, realises her family, previously “just functional enough to be functional,” is disintegrating before her eyes.
The Emerald City, structured as a one-sided e-mail conversation, documents a soldier’s questionable choices in Iraq. In sweet Christmas-themed story Hail, Full of Grace, a woman who gave up a baby for adoption two decades ago gets a second chance at motherhood.
Keegan is less confident when trying third-person omniscience, and Challenger Deep, an apocalyptic suspense tale set on a submarine, is an odd one out. However, dialogue is snappy and authentic throughout. “Dude, you gotta stop talking about Taiwan. You’re becoming the kid who went to India.”
There are also some great reflective lines: “One thing I am is self-aware (to a neurotic fault)” and “how amazing it is that things seem so absolute when you’re young.”
Especially in the essays, you’re aware of her age – she’s very much of her time, referencing Obama’s election and the Harry Potter series. But that doesn’t mean what she has to say is any less important or lasting.
Why We Care about Whales, framed around a mass whale beaching she witnessed, wonders why compassion is easier to extend to animals than to fellow humans.
The peculiarly named Even Artichokes Have Doubts questions why up to 25% of Yale graduates sell out, taking finance or consulting jobs instead of pursuing art and social justice (Keegan was president of Yale College Democrats and an organizer of Occupy Yale).
Even slightly dull pieces – one about her gluten intolerance, and a mildly witty profile of an exterminator – show that Keegan was on the way to becoming a successful essayist in the vein of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.Even slightly dull pieces – one about her gluten intolerance, and a mildly witty profile of an exterminator – show that Keegan was on the way to becoming a successful essayist in the vein of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.
If you don’t believe me, there’s testimonials here from Harold Bloom (the most well-read man on the planet), for whom she worked as a researcher, and essayist Anne Fadiman, Keegan’s tutor, who contributes the book’s introduction.
“I don’t pretend to know any more about the world than the rest of us…There’s a really good chance I’ll never do anything.” It’s ironic to read such thoughts, and Keegan’s predictions about pregnancy and children.
Yet, Fadiman insists, “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.” Luckily, on the evidence of The Opposite of Loneliness, she’s damn good – and worth remembering.