The Promise of Youth: A Review of the Opposite of Loneliness
The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories Hardcover
Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness was never supposed to be published—not, at least, in the form I read it. A few weeks back, I was roaming around the aisles of Barnes & Noble when I came across Keegan’s book. The book’s cover, a picture of Marina in a yellow peacoat with the title superimposed over it, caught my attention. Was the picture on the cover a picture of the author? How was she already published? She was so young.
And she was young. Marina Keegan’s book was posthumously published this past month, almost two years after a tragic car accident took her life only five days after her graduation from Yale. But in Keegan’s case, youth was not— and is not—a measure of talent. In her years at Yale, Keegan landed coveted internships at the New Yorker and The Paris Review, published articles in the New York Times, wrote for the Yale Daily News, researched for preeminent literary scholar and critic Harold Bloom, served as President of the Yale College Democrats, and organized Occupy Wall Street protests. Two months after her death, Keegan’s musical, Independents, showcased at The New York International Fringe Festival, where it garnered a New York Times Critics’ Pick. She had a job at The New Yorker waiting for her after graduation. She was only twenty-two.
The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection of Keegan’s short stories and essays compiled by her friends and family, is testament to Keegan’s strength and command as a writer. In her introduction to the book, Anne Fadiman, a non-fiction writer and one of Keegan’s professors at Yale, writes, “Marina was twenty-one and sounded twenty one: a brainy twenty-one, a twenty-one who knew her way around the English language, a twenty-one who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.” And it’s true—many of the characters in Keegan’s fiction are college students or young adults juggling competing relationships and demands, fostering career dreams that are exciting yet ultimately untenable, second-guessing their life-altering decisions, and then learning to live with the decisions they finally do make.
In “Cold Pastoral,” Claire, a college student, navigates the implications of ambiguous relationships when her lover (“we were involved, of course, but not associated”) suddenly dies. The story follows Claire as she examines what her unlabeled relationship really meant and copes with the realization that her lover may not have loved her back. “Winter Break” explores conflicting loyalties and relationships as a young woman visits home from college, returning to a boyfriend she left behind and a family on the verge of dissolution.
Although many of her characters are young, Keegan also had the ability to capture what it means to age, the actions people will take to feel young again, and how people interact with their ever-present pasts. In “Reading Aloud,” Anna, an aging senior, routinely undresses as she reads to Sam, a blind man with whom she has been matched with in the “Visually Impaired Assistance Program”: “She read him an advertisement for car insurance and unbuttoned her sweater. She read him a credit card receipt and rolled down her stockings.” And in “Hail, Full of Grace,” a middle aged woman returns to her hometown with her newly adopted daughter, where she must face old lovers and an emotionally complex past.
Keegan’s fiction is excellently crafted. Her characters have emotional depth, her narratives are evenly paced, and her sentences are beautifully constructed. But personally, I was drawn to her non-fiction.
Maybe it’s because I also harbor dreams of interning at the Paris Review and The New Yorker, of one day becoming an accomplished writer. Keegan’s book—and the writing of this article—marked the end of a two year span I like to call my “writer’s funk”: a period of time where, as much as I tried, I couldn’t write. I constantly found myself with the spark of an idea I wanted to write about—the pattern of water on a building left wet from a recent rain, the hot breath of the subway as it rushes towards the platform—but when I sat down to write, I couldn’t form the sentences. And it was Keegan’s essays, her own determination to follow and fight and believe in her dreams, that compelled me to review her book—and try to write again.
In “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” Keegan investigates a problem that really irks her: why are 25% of Yale graduates taking jobs in finance and consulting? Interviewing her fellow graduating seniors, she identifies the root of what truly worries her: “What bothers me is this idea of validating, of rationalization. The notion that some of us (regardless of what we tell ourselves) are doing this because we’re not sure what else to do and it’s easy to apply to and it will pay us decently and it will make us feel like we’re still successful.” But Keegan is not advocating for a bohemian, starving artist approach. She just wants her friends to do the things they love in life and chase after what they care about: “I want to volunteer with Joe’s nonprofit and eat at Annie’s restaurant and send my kids to schools Jeff has reformed…Maybe I’m ignorant and idealistic but I just feel like that can’t possibly be true. I feel like we know that. I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear—at twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five—we might forget.”
And in the title essay, written for the Yale Daily News only several weeks before her death, Keegan writes, “What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating from college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”
Keegan’s writings force her readers to reevaluate what they want from their lives, to ask themselves if they can do more, if they can be more. She was idealistic and passionate and fully expected the same from her peers. She wrote with zeal about the future, about the accomplishments that our generation, and future generations, will achieve. In the incessant droning of publications about the horrible economy, job market, and global affairs, Keegan’s voice is one of hope for the future.
And maybe that’s why I wrote this review: because I believe in a sort of ethics of reading, and I think that Keegan’s essays commanded me to write. Because I’m also young, and—to use Keegan’s own lines of poetry—I was forced to ask:
“Do you want to leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything…
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.”