When Marina Keegan wasn’t tapped to join one of Yale’s secret societies, she gave herself less than two hours to wallow in disappointment, then pledged to spend the time she would have spent “chatting in a tomb” writing a book. Five days after graduation, Keegan was killed in a car accident on Cape Cod. She was 22.
“The Opposite of Loneliness” is a record of that time better spent. The book of nine short stories and nine essays takes its title from Keegan’s last essay to appear in the Yale Daily News, which went viral in the days after her death when it was read by 1.4 million people in 98 countries. In it Keegan writes with an eerie urgency: “We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”
The introduction, by Anne Fadiman (Keegan’s writing professor at Yale), sets the tone for the collection. She describes Marina’s determination to become a writer, and brings her to life — she was always losing her keys in her bag; she complained when her roommate used the same knife to cut bread and spread Nutella — without ever slipping into sentimentality. This book is not a posthumous vanity project; Keegan’s writing is intimidatingly good. When she died, Keegan was already well on her way to becoming an established writer, earning coveted internships with The New Yorker and The Paris Review. She had a job lined up at The New Yorker after graduation, and an apartment waiting in Brooklyn.
It would be, however, dishonest to say that her death doesn’t add another dimension to these stories. Some seem like chilling premonitions but there is nothing sentimental on these pages. Keegan’s storytelling is so strong that the reader quickly becomes invested in the characters’ struggles, forgetting about their author’s life and death. While unsettling at times (the hair on my arms stood on end more than once), the feeling of being socked in the stomach doesn’t come from remembering Keegan’s death, but instead from the gut-wrenching vulnerability of her characters.
In “I Kill for Money,” Tommy, the obnoxious exterminator who cracks jokes incessantly,confesses that he releases squirrels into the wild, rather than drown them as the law requires. In “Winter Break,” the protagonist watches her mother trudging through the snow alone with her spaniel and later reflects, “I thought of my mother circling suburbia while I drank in dim fraternities or video-chatted with Sam or slept lazily in my dorm while it snowed out my window. I loved her in that moment in a way that twisted my stomach.”
Another strength: Keegan writes her age. A keen observer of the human condition, of herself, and of her generation, she uses the vernacular: “things,” “stuff,” “hooking up,” and “butts.” She writes about smoking weed, red plastic cups, microwaving Thai soup, the pangs of realizing a parent’s mortality, and of first love. She writes about friends who are protective of one another, as well as the failures of friendship, how college kids sometimes try to sound older than they are, and what it’s like to envy those who have already figured out who they want to be.
But Keegan doesn’t rely solely on her perspective as an observant, brilliant, self-aware college student. Some of the strongest stories in the collection take place in Baghdad, or 36,000 feet under the sea, or from the perspective of a hypochondriacal former ballerina. She often places her characters in horribly uncomfortable situations then writes about their efforts to escape. Keegan does not shy away from risk — either in setting, character, or form — and it pays off.
In “Challenger Deep” five people trapped at the bottom of the ocean in a submarine in total darkness await rescue. The story opens and concludes with the protagonist, Patrick, waiting by the periscope for schools of florescent jellyfish to float by and illuminate the blackness (the jellyfish may also indicate an ascent to the surface). The philosophical and psychological nature of being isolated in the dark brings to mind “Moby-Dick” (which Keegan alludes to in an essay titled “Why We Care About Whales”) and like Melville’s masterpiece, “Challenger Deep” works on multiple levels.
“The Emerald City” is told through a series of e-mails from William, a Coalition Provisional Authority officer working in Iraq’s Green Zone, to his girlfriend, Laura, back home in the States. Through his letters, he gradually becomes disillusioned by the US presence in Iraq, and we learn that he accidentally aids a coordinated mortar attack on the Green Zone, killing dozens, including one of his friends. The e-mails end after William confides in Laura that he and his Iraqi translator have decided to escape to the desert in order to avoid a lengthy sentence for conspiracy. Even though the drama accelerates gradually and is crafted through a series of one-sided letters, the story is gripping.
As Fadiman points out in the introduction, “When a young person dies, much of the tragedy lies in her promise: what she would have done. But Marina left what she had already done: an entire body of writing, far more than could fit between these covers.” So it isn’t a question of whether Keegan would have made it as a writer, but rather, what we have lost. What more might she have done had she lived for another 50 years?
In “Song for the Special,” Keegan writes that she once attended an arts conference in which everyone was “scrambling to meet everyone, asserting their individuality like sad salesmen” and she was the only person without business cards. “I read somewhere that radio waves just keep traveling outward, flying into the universe with eternal vibrations. 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.” Through these stories and essays readers can feel the powerful reverberations of Keegan’s singular voice.
Sophie Flack, author of “Bunheads,” has contributed to The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and O Magazine. Follow her on twitter @sophieflack.