In the title essay from The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories, we read what Marina Keegan wrote on the eve of her graduation from college. At Yale, she wrote, she had found “the opposite of loneliness”:
“It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four A.M. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.
“Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. … These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights…”
Keegan feared the loss of that embrace, but her essay is also optimistic: “We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.”
Six days later, Keegan would be dead. Killed in a car accident when her boyfriend, who was not drunk and not speeding, fell asleep at the wheel. He had been driving them from brunch with Keegan’s grandmother to a birthday celebration for her father. (He survived unscathed.)
Within a week of Keegan’s death, that title essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” first published in the Yale Daily News, had been read by 1.4 million people from 98 countries. The collection it opens includes nine short stories, nine essays, excerpts from Keegan’s poetry, a set of discussion questions at the end, and an introduction by Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and Keegan’s professor in a first-person writing class at Yale.
The book was not published out of pity. Keegan was a prolific and tremendously talented writer. At 22, she had already interned at The New Yorker and contributed to its book blog. She was also published in The New York Times and one of her short stories was read on NPR. The literary agents and editors who helped assemble the book are a who’s who of the publishing world. One of their challenges was to figure out what to include because Keegan had written more than one volume could contain. Keegan also found time for playwriting, poetry, acting, and activism.
Of the nine nonfiction pieces in Opposite, the most influential was “Even Artichokes Have Doubts.” Why is it, Keegan asks, that when students first arrive at Yale, hardly any express an interest in consulting or finance, but by the time they graduate, about 25 percent of them are headed to jobs in those fields? After interviewing students, professors, advisors, and other professionals, Keegan concludes with her fear “that some of us (regardless of what we tell ourselves) are doing this because we’re not sure what else to do and it’s easy to apply to and it will pay us decently and it will make us feel like we’re still successful. I just haven’t met that many people who sound genuinely excited about these jobs.” The article was published online at The New York Times and sparked a national conversation.
Other nonfiction pieces included in the collection are “Why We Care about Whales” and “Against the Grain.” In the first, Keegan ponders the question of why humans sometimes seem to find the welfare of animals more compelling than that of fellow humans.
“Last year a nonprofit spent $10,000 transporting a whale to an aquarium in Florida, where it died only three days after arriving,” she writes. “That same $10,000 could have purchased hundreds of thousands of food rations.”
“Against the Grain” is a story with origins in Keegan’s babyhood, when she was sick in ways that stumped one doctor and specialist after another. It took Keegan’s mother’s untrained descent into the medical journals to determine, at last, that what ailed her baby was celiac disease. After that, Keegan was gluten-free all her life, starting long before it became fashionable. For her, there was nothing fun about it.
Some of Keegan’s short stories explore the lives of people her own age, including dilemmas of friendships and romantic relationships and relationships with family, as well as choices about careers and children and places to live and ways to live.
Eerily, in one of the stories, “Cold Pastoral,” a recent college graduate dies suddenly and totally unexpectedly.
Other stories range far beyond the experiences of a new college graduate. In “Reading Aloud,” for instance, an older married woman goes regularly to the apartment of a young blind man to read to him, completely undressing as she does. And “Challenger Deep” tells the tale of a group of people stranded on a submarine that has lost power and contact with the rest of the world, as their supplies dwindle along with their hope.
I found the themes of just about all of Keegan’s stories and essays to be compelling. Really, though, what I loved most of all was the beauty of Keegan’s writings. I appreciated the perfectly captured moments, the evocative descriptions, and the endings that were just right. I basked in the emotional depth and complexity, rendered in a voice that always sounded true.
If Marina Keegan had lived, she would have been one of those writers whose work I would read just because she wrote it, no matter the topic.
The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories
Scribner, April 2015
Paperback, 256 pages