In 2012, Marina Keegan looked set for literary stardom. The 22-year-old had graduated magna cum laude from Yale and was about to start a job at The New Yorker; she’d already interned at The Paris Review and a musical on which she had collaborated was being produced at the New York International Fringe Festival. For an aspiring writer, her credentials were so perfect they could have been lifted straight from fiction; but just five days after graduating, Marina was killed in a car crash.
Within days of her death, Marina’s commencement speech, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, had drawn over 1.4 million views online. It was just one piece in a sizeable collection of work: Keegan had penned essays, short fiction and poems, and her loved ones’ efforts to collate these writings culminated in the recent publication of a book that bears the title of Keegan’s internet-famous speech, the words of which appeared to inspire people of all ages.
It’s almost impossible to separate the content of The Opposite of Loneliness from its context. In her introduction, writer Anne Fadiman – one of Marina’s teachers at Yale – notes that, ‘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’. However, Fadiman concedes that none of this work ‘was in exactly the form [Marina] would have wanted to publish’ because ‘she was a demon reviser, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting even when everything else thought something was done’.
It seems a shame, really, to read Marina’s work in light of her promise rather than its fulfilment, and reading The Opposite of Loneliness feels borderline voyeuristic and slightly unfair – how different might Keegan’s book have been if she’d been alive during the publication process? Her death casts a sombre shadow over her work: ‘We’re so young’, she wrote in her title essay. ‘We have so much time.’ The first story, ‘Cold Pastoral’, is particularly uncanny in its themes and subject – the sudden death of a college student.
As you’d expect for a collection of pieces that probably aren’t in their author’s intended final form, The Opposite of Loneliness is slightly uneven and difficult to read objectively; nonetheless, it’s an assured and poignant anthology. Marina was a graceful but honest prose stylist, remarkably good at inhabiting diverse fictional voices: her protagonists range from the expected (a college student in the first flush of love; a young woman reflecting on the moment that changed her relationship) to the challenging (an elderly former ballerina; an officer stationed in Iraq’s Green Zone). Her fiction deals with weighty themes – love and its loss, grief, growing old – but she often brings a lightness of touch and flashes of wit to her sombre subject matter.
Marina’s non-fiction is slightly less assured, and her essays – which traverse everything from the sympathy evoked by beached whales to coeliac disease and the interior of her first car – are often earnest and more immediately shaped by her own experience than her fiction. But her observations are thoughtful and well-constructed, and suggest her maturity and her capacity to analyse and question the world around her and her place within it.
The Opposite of Loneliness is a memorable and touching book, if partly for the wrong reasons – namely, its author’s tragic demise. Marina’s death is, perversely, a sadly compelling one in which to situate her creative output, and we can only wonder at what she would have gone on to produce if not for fate’s untimely intervention. ‘We’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves’, she wrote in her commencement speech. Marina’s ‘perfect’ self – the incredibly promising young writer, the rising literary star – is frozen in time forever, and perhaps it’s only fitting that her potential be memorialised in print, however imperfect she might have found the results had she lived to look back on them.