Book review

Marina Keegan's 'The Opposite of Loneliness': A mirror of the 21st century

This fiction and nonfiction collection by a woman who died at 23, on her way to a literary career, explores the anxieties of our age


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In May 2012, a promising young writer named Marina Keegan graduated with honors from Yale University. With a job at The New Yorker ready for her and a play she had written set for production at the New York Fringe Festival, the 23-year-old's future looked bright. Sadly, she was killed in a car accident five days later. In the days after her death, the last essay she wrote for The Yale Daily News went viral, its message of optimism in the face of an uncertain future speaking to others far beyond Yale.


"THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS"
By Marina Keegan.
Scribner ($23).

"The Opposite of Loneliness," a poignant collection of her fiction and nonfiction named after that affecting essay, doesn't include her work as a playwright and only hints at her work as a poet, but what remains feels both hopeful and bittersweet. It's easy to see why the title essay became so popular -- the message is celebratory and optimistic as well as being a meditation on the interconnectedness of the lives of modern college students. Ms. Keegan writes about the joy of her experience of community at Yale even as she worries about a life without a built-in social safety net.

Ms. Keegan was a millennial -- the first generation to grow up with an omnipresent Internet -- and as a result, the stories in "The Opposite of Loneliness" often deal with the thin line between self-awareness and narcissism, no doubt inspired by the daily sharing of one's life via social media. The narrators of her short stories vary by age and gender, but they still share these anxieties, particularly the constant tension between the truth of one's inner life and the self one wishes to project.

Many of the short stories in this collection focus on very short time spans wherein the narrators experience a pivotal event that causes them to re-evaluate their concept of self and their beliefs about the people around them. In "The Ingenue," a young woman catches her boyfriend cheating at a casual game of Yahtzee, throwing into question everything she believes to be true about him.

"Baggage Claim" also explores this same concept as a young couple visit a store that sells unclaimed baggage, and the thought of the personal photos deleted from the found digital cameras forces the male narrator to contemplate the fleeting nature of happiness -- how quickly happy moments occur, and how quickly they can be erased.

"Cold Pastoral," the most striking short story, is a melancholy exploration of love in an age where our past never really leaves us. Claire, a college student, learns of the sudden death of a casual lover. Claire's mourning process is full of anxiety as she grieves for someone she shared a bed with but whom she ultimately didn't understand. This leads Claire to a painful universal truth: namely, that we are not guaranteed leading roles in other people's stories, no matter how much we feel we deserve them.

Ms. Keegan's nonfiction often reveals how deeply her own anxieties inform her writing. "Against the Grain" is a touching exploration of her struggle with a gluten allergy in terms of the conflict between her desire to be "normal" and her mother's dedication to ensuring her daughter's health. The essay deftly explores another universal truth -- that growing up requires self-differentiating ourselves from our parents while acknowledging that at some future point, we, too, will have to become caregivers.

The last two pieces, "Putting the 'Fun' Back in Eschatology" and "Song for the Special," illustrate the joy and anxiety of being young in the 21st century, and they feel paradoxically intimate and accessible. Ms. Keegan's brief contemplation of humanity's role in the history of the universe in the first essay, and her worries about her own mortality in the second hold a wisdom and optimism so sweetly portrayed that it compels the reader to share her optimism for the human race.

This collection would have been impressive from any 23-year-old author, but knowing that it is being released posthumously tempers the feeling of discovery with sadness. It is to our detriment as readers that we will be deprived of watching her talent and skill grow with each new work. Fortunately, "The Opposite of Loneliness" does her talent and memory justice, both as a picture of a generation entering adulthood and as a highly personal portrait of a gifted young woman.

Wendeline O. Wright is a freelance writer and editor (wendywright@gmail.com).


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