Book Reviews 2016 · Contemporary Books · Non-Fiction Book Reviews

‘The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories’ by Marina Keegan

Marina Keegan’s star was on the rise when she graduated from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash. As her family, friends and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord. Even though she was just 22 when she died, Marina left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty and possibility of her generation. The Opposite of Loneliness is an assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories that articulates the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.

3.5 Stars, rounded to 4.

Browsing through books on the table displays in Waterstones Trafalgar Square after an awful seminar and lecture session at KCL, this book leapt out at me. I was (as most people who read this book are) terribly saddened to hear that Marina Keegan passed away 5 days after graduating, and that this collection acts as a sort of memoir for her essays and short fiction that her family and friends gathered after her death. I was intrigued to try to understand the publicised notion that Keegan was an ‘up-and-coming star’ and that her work represented the ‘voice of her generation’ as I had boldly seen stated. It is true that this collection is generally (not entirely) full of strong writing and shows a talented writer of both fiction and non-fiction in the making, however I cannot escape the overriding feeling that this collection is branded ‘brilliant’ mainly because of what it could have become, rather than what it actually is.

The first thing to note is that Keegan was a very strong technical writer. In the introduction by Anne Fadiman, she claims Keegan’s voice is not that of a 20-year-old pretending to be 40 as young writers often are, but rather just that of a 20-year-old. I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. Keegan’s youth and the integrity in her statements shows in her work. However, it is clear that there was still improvements to be made before we saw the finished article (that sadly never will be.) One thing that struck me is the view others had of Keegan, from the introduction and conclusion from her tutors to the review quotes on the back cover. Her two tutors, Fadiman and Beth McNamara, put Keegan on a pedestal and shower her with astronomical praise, while Buzzfeed called her ‘one of the most present writers… How incredible, how lucky that we get to read her words,’ and it is at this stage that I begin to disagree. Keegan was a hopeful and passionate young writer, but is representative of many others out there who are as good or better, and not all will have the opportunity to shine. Keegan’s work is good and completely merits praise, but there is an undeniable sense that had she not passed so tragically, this collection (in its current state) would not receive such high acclaim as it has done; Keegan had the potential to be great, but from the limited amount we got to see, was not as special as the publishers led us to believe.

Split into short stories and essays, the two sections of the book had very different effects on me. Firstly, the fiction. Keegan had some very good ideas – stand-out moments being the hypochondriac older woman’s emotional affair in ‘Reading Aloud’ and the adoption focus of ‘Hail, Full of Grace’ – and these good ideas made for captivating reading. There were some stories, see ‘Cold Pastoral’ and ‘Winter Break,’ which lacked originality or true purpose but were also entertaining. The rest of the stories, however, were a struggle to read. From the bizarre ‘The Emerald City’ to the confusing ‘Challenger Deep’ and ‘The Ingenue,’ to the pointless ‘Sclerotherapy’ and ‘Baggage Claim,’ over half of the stories were rather weak. ‘The Emerald City’ had a rushed and illogical end, ‘The Ingenue’ was full of bitchiness with no satisfying conclusion, and both ‘Baggage Claim’ and especially ‘Sclerotherapy’ were far too short to pull off the profundity Keegan was aiming for, and both came across as completely pointless. A niggling issue I had throughout the stories was the abundance of casual drug-taking, which really frustrated me, as it was among many things that came up time and time again – there was a lot of cross-over and similar ideas and themes between stories – but I do understand that drugs are a topic that many people, especially in American culture, are more comfortable with the idea of than I am. Obviously bearing in mind that none of these works were in finished form, there is promise to the fiction collection, however not every story was a success. Conclusively, I had a good time reading the stories, whether I loved them or not.

The essays were technically very good, and I especially enjoyed ‘Stability in Motion’ and ‘I Kill for Money.’ ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ and ‘Even Artichokes Have Doubts’ are both good essays, but there is nothing special about either pieces, with the former being a typical school-leavers speech and the latter an average piece of journalism; despite this, both are decent reads. On the whole, though, I did not enjoy the essays nearly as much as I did the stories. The biggest problem for me is that Keegan’s voice (even in the stories but especially in the essays) is incredibly pretentious. I love a profound message in an essay or story, but Keegan tries desperately to shoe-horn in deep meanings to everything and making far too great analytical statements about the world around her. Even her writing itself seems so forced and unnatural, with complex, unnecessary words used almost as if to illustrate her own brilliance. Even I, who normally enjoys writing which is slightly on the pretentious side, could not stomach her swooping judgements on humankind’s approach to saving animals over beggars in ‘Why We Care About Whales,’ or her dwellings on the future of our planet and race in ‘Putting the Fun Back into Eschatology’ – everything feels like it is being written in far too convoluted a manner for the sole purpose of trying to be blatantly profound and show off Keegan’s writing talent and intellectual capacity, and that doesn’t strike me too well.

It is undeniable that Keegan had a talent for writing, and was a very intelligent individual. However, the thought that pursued me as I read this book is simply ‘why am I reading this?’ And I don’t mean why am I as an individual reading it, but rather why is this collection out there, and why has it been such a big hit? There are many, many talented young writers, some (dare I say) way more talented than Keegan, and yet this collection was the one published and popular as ‘the voice of the generation.’ The latter of my two points is easier to answer: because Keegan passed away. Keegan had the potential to become a fantastic novelist, journalist or whatever literary-based role she chose to pursue. The tragedy is that she never got the opportunity to do so. All of this work (bar the published essays) was in an unfinished state, and Keegan lost the chance to go back and make it better; because it does need making better. This work saw the light of day because Keegan died, and that in itself is tragic, but I do feel it is fair to say that this collection gains most of its brilliance not through the merits it exhibits, but through the promise it shows, and generally, people dwell more on how good Keegan could have been, rather than identifying that this collection – whilst enjoyable – is by no means the strongest. After all, people always feel uncomfortable criticising the work of someone who has died, which leads to excessive praise. The first of my questions is slightly more unsettling: why was it Keegan’s work that was published, rather than someone else’s? While this is also partly answered by her death, there was another reason I kept on getting a sense of throughout: privilege. One thing that was clear to me right from Anne Fadiman’s insightful introduction is that Marina was a very privileged individual. She had access to a top-level education which provided links with people in high places. I was left thinking for the duration of the book, was it for this reason, combined with her untimely death, that we are hearing the story of Marina Keegan? Does this pairing of privilege and tragedy make for substantial aid in work being published, and subsequently a success? Because Marina was talented, yes, but there are many works far better than this one that may never see the light of day, yet alone win awards. This insight, whilst feeling for no true reason a little inappropriate given Keegan’s passing, did leave me thinking for a long time after finishing the collection about how the literary world often revolves around who you know rather than what you know (or rather, what you can do) and this conclusion made me a little sad.

I am glad I read this book. It inspired, it saddened, it made me realise that we should make the most of our opportunities while we still can. It also left a bit of a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth. Does this book demonstrate a talented young writer’s view on the world? Yes. Does it live up to the praise that graces its cover? Arguably no.

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