I love discovering books in unusual ways – the collection of essays bought on a whim, the novel heartily recommended by someone you’ve just met, the poetry plucked from a parent’s shelf. I found out about Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness after seeing Emma Gannon (who has a fabulous blog, by the way) tweet about an event she’d taken part in at Blackwell’s, Oxford. I hadn’t known it was happening, and was frustrated to miss out, as it sounded very special indeed. But a few days later I went along to the bookshop myself, and picked up a copy (a treat to myself on finishing an essay), having a long conversation with the cashier about it as I paid.
The reason for the conversation? Marina Keegan’s collection of short stories and essays were published posthumously. She died several days after graduating Yale in 2012, aged 22.
So much of the media coverage has, both understandably and obviously, focused on the premature, unbearably unfair loss of a life that looked set to continue burning bright. It’s devastating that someone with such a capable and creative mind didn’t have years and years to expand her craft. Yet the stories and essays here demonstrate her growing command of expression, as well as a rigorous approach to self-critique.
I’m a little younger than Marina was, and it’s hard not to draw some comparisons, particularly as someone who writes an awful lot. The zest and drive and excitement for the future that she captures? They’re feelings I’ve had (and have). The kinds of techniques she uses to keep her text supple: the repetitions, the lists for emphasis, the rules of three, the addition of an unusual image in the middle of an otherwise pared back line? Yep. All ones I’m familiar with. The desire to improve, to create, to keep ambition galloping? Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes (see? Rule of three AND repetition).
But maybe I shouldn’t allow myself to compare – maybe that’s crass, a sign of my own youth, or at least a clichéd way to approach this text - and instead I should just read the book as a book, without regard to the circumstances of the author. It’s easy enough to do. Her voice is so fresh and full of clarity; deeply funny at times, carefully measured with pathos at others (seriously, there are so many lines where I pause, going, “damn, wish I could could come up with that.”)
I prefer her essays, but only because a.) I’m very much an essay girl, and b.) They’re so rich in minute observations. Whether she’s talking about generational hubris, food allergies, empathy for animals, or the contents of her car as the “physical manifestations of… memories”, she’s kind of dazzling. To me, the best essays pluck at the thread of something, no matter how simple, and hold it up to the light - making you stop, think, respond. Here the fine filaments of analysis and honesty are strong and flexible. She weaves them with care.
And yet there is something very special in her short stories too – namely their interest in various experiences instantly recognizable if you’re a late teen/ early twenty-something. It was only afterwards that I realized how unusual this is. Most of the short stories I've read are from decades past, or concern themselves with times of life other than being young, being a student, being at the very beginning of things. Whether the focus is parties, relationships or jealousy, the pages are full of sharp, focused insight. I nodded at so many little gleaned instances that resonated – either personally or generally. People talk about the ‘youth’ of this collection. But why not? She sounds young because she was young – but age is no barrier to being brilliant.
For once, I’m struggling with what to write next. It’s hard to know how to conclude. But I’ll say this for certain - although right now words feel a little lacking, every time I’ve picked up The Opposite of Loneliness, I’ve felt more galvanized than ever to write, write, and write some more. There’s an energy to Keegan’s words, a crispness to her sentences, that’s very inspiring.
One of the most quoted observations from Anne Fadiman’s introduction is the claim that “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.” Sadly the two are interlinked, and probably always will be, especially as the literary world is often receptive to those who died before they should. But she is good. Very good. Good in a way that kind of hurts. Her book is one that makes you want to grab life - to do and be and make and reflect. That’s the kind of enthusiasm to nurture, to hold as close as possible.
Everything I'm wearing is second hand - the vintage 60s top recently found in a charity shop, and the velvet shorts cut down from trousers. Both the hat and the brooch on it belonged to family members.