A week or so ago, I read a review in the New York Times that made me do something I haven’t done in quite awhile. I pre-ordered a book from Amazon. (The book was due to be released in just a few days.) Oddly, it was a book of short stories and essays, which is not my usual reading fare. And, stranger still, even though I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, I ignored the stack of soon-to-be-due library books awaiting me, opened the box from Amazon, and sat down and read.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan is a moving collection from a startlingly talented young writer.
Marina Keegan had already begun receiving accolades for her writing. She had a post-graduation job lined up at the New Yorker. And then, five days after graduation, she died in a car crash. The material for the book was compiled by friends and family with help from Anne Fadiman, who was Marina’s instructor and mentor at Yale. More details about this remarkable young woman’s life are available in the introduction and online. However, her parents have said Marina wouldn’t want people reading her work just because she’s dead. She’d want people reading the book because she had something to say. So should I mention the biography? How relevant is it? It doesn’t really matter whether I mention it or not, because it’s pretty impossible to read the book without being clued in to its backstory. But knowing about the tragedy does, subtly or profoundly, change the reading experience.
Woven throughout some of the stories are a rather morbid preoccupation with death. In one story, the protagonist’s not-quite boyfriend has just suddenly died. In another, stranded submarine occupants await eventual death in total darkness. In her essays, although she celebrates her youth, she makes mention at times of things she will do before she dies or as she is about to die. It all seems so very prescient, but of course, it isn’t. Just as when she writes about herself and her peers having so much time to explore options and change their minds, or when she writes about her own future, a some-day pregnancy, it leaves the reader with a hollowed-out feeling. This girl was just bursting with life, with hope, with promise–with all that grand expectation and invincibility that comes with youth. The writing stands on its own, and yet, the emotional impact is greater—the reader is necessarily impacted—by knowing that the author died shortly after writing the words.
Marina Keegan urged her fellow students not to settle for after-graduation jobs where they would forget about their passions, their ideals. The sentiments are inspiring and expressed with all the enviable enthusiasm and lack of cynicism of someone who still seemed to see the world’s most insurmountable problem as the eventual burning out of the sun. (And even that, she believed, could be gotten around with some ingenuity.) For herself, Marina wanted to beat the odds and be a writer—a challenge that could well seem, to today’s young writers, to be more impossible than engineering a solution to the death of the sun. The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories shows that Marina was up to that challenge. She was a writer. Don’t read the book because she’s dead. Read it because it’s wonderful.