Epigraph from THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS: ESSAYS AND STORIES:
Do you wanna leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything . . .
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.
– Marina Keegan, from the poem “Bygones”
I rarely post book reviews; however, after reading THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS: ESSAYS AND STORIES by Marina Keegan, I felt compelled to do so. Sadly, the sublimity of Keegan’s writing is nearly overshadowed by the tragic automobile accident that took her life at the age of 23. I say “nearly” because it would be a disservice to what was her emerging literary genius to focus on anything but her precocious talent. And I know that “genius” is a strong word to use for such a young writer who was only on the cusp of what promised to be not only an accomplished writing career but, based on her stories and essays, an extraordinary life well-examined, well-chronicled, and well-lived. I’m saddened to think of the keen observations of and insights into life Keegan would have provided us and posterity as she moved through her youth and into middle age and beyond, and I mourn for that loss as well.
Her bio identifies Keegan as “an award-winning author, journalist, playwright, poet, actress, and activist.” She had already interned at the Paris Review, been published in the New York Times, and was poised to begin a prestigious job at the New Yorker. For most, these would be crowning achievements, not resume builders. In my years as a high school literature and composition teacher, I’ve had fewer than a handful of students like Keegan, students whom, both I and they knew, were already better readers, thinkers, and writers than me and for whom the best I could do was not to get in their way, and the best they could do was to humor me. Keegan reminds me of those few students.
Although the quality of her stories and essays is uneven, not atypical of such a young writer, Keegan’s insights into human motivations and behaviors are poignantly spot on, whether the protagonist is college-aged, like the narrator of “Cold Pastoral” or an elderly widow as in “Reading Aloud.” In the former story, a college senior is considering breaking up with her boyfriend, Brian, who had only recently ended another long term relationship, when she receives news that he has died in a car accident. She is contacted by
Brian’s ex, who asks her to retrieve his diary from his room on-campus, fearful of what intimate and potentially-embarrassing details might fall into his parents’ hands should they recover it first. In this and her other stories, Keegan makes no attempt to gloss over the high frequency of sexual activity and substance abuse on college campuses. Awkwardly for the narrator, Brian’s parents, although they barely know her, request that she deliver one of the eulogies at his funeral. After she successfully smuggles the diary from Brian’s room, she reads from it only to learn that he had regrets over breaking up with his previous girlfriend and doubts as to the narrator’s worthiness, which only further complicates her feelings towards him, her self-image, and her role as eulogist. My favorite story of the collection is titled “Reading Aloud.” It’s the story of a widower who volunteers to read to the blind. She is assigned to young man who lives alone in an apartment and who mostly asks her to read utilitarian text which he would transpose onto his computer and into braille on his specialized printer for his later usage. The hook is that as she reads, she performs a deliberate striptease – one item of clothing at a time – until she is reading to him while entirely naked. In the presence of this young man, who is unable to see the effects that aging has wrought on her body, she feels sexy and alive again, just as she had felt when young and naked in the presence of her now deceased husband. It is a powerful story of longing and loss for both the blind man and the widow.
The essays reveal Keegan’s insatiable curiosity with seemingly all things and her remarkable breadth of interests and knowledge. The topics range from a hilarious and heartfelt recounting of her relationship with her first car in “Stability in Motion,” to a touching plea for compassion for all creatures, human and animal, in “Why We Care About Whales,” to a hilarious yet profoundly sad character sketch of a Chicago-based exterminator in “I Kill for Money.” In both her fiction and her essays, Keegan’s keen skills of observation and her ability to capture in words the nuances of being human in an all-too-often inhumane world is on full display. Her mastery of language, both literal and figurative, is apparent throughout, and her themes strike upon universal chords.
I highly recommend THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS for all ages of readers. The title betrays Keegan’s most wished for condition, which despite her clearly-privileged upbringing and any number of available opportunities to pursue careers that promised wealth and status, she had little-to-no interest in, for she knew that the opposite of loneliness was not to be found in either. She intuitively understood that both money and status were empty goals and false gods that, in the end, would have cost her soul, not nourished it. Unquestionably for the attainment of her own hopes and dreams, Marina Keegan died too young but not so young that she was unable to leave an indelible mark on the hearts, minds, and souls of those fortunate enough to discover this one collection of priceless insight into the precious gift that is life. Though not enough, it will have to do.