“I used to think printing things made them permanent, but that seems silly now. Everything will be destroyed no matter how hard we work to create it. The idea terrifies me. I want tiny permanents! I want gigantic permanents! I want what I think and who I am captured in an anthology of indulgence I can comfortingly tuck into a shelf in some labyrinthine library.”
Book Title: The Opposite of Loneliness
Author: Marina Keegan
Genre: Fiction, Essays
Date Published: April 8th, 2014
Date Read: May 23rd, 2014
Cover Love: It’s very affecting, even if you don’t know the story behind the picture and behind the author. Just a girl (in a cute coat!) staring you down.
Given Synopsis: “Marina Keegan’s star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude 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 twenty-two 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, like The Last Lecture, articulates the universal struggle that all of us face as we figure out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.
What I’d Add: The synopsis is very focused on Keegan’s fate, her short life. It doesn’t really say anything about the stories and essays inside. You know her famous title essay will be included, but other than that, you have no idea what to expect. Her death was truly a tragedy, but that should not be what sells her book.
It’s Sorta Like: The synopsis compares this book to The Last Lecture, the big similarity between to the two seeming to be that their authors are now deceased.
My Grade: B
I saved Marina Keegan’s now very famous essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness” to one of my browser’s bookmarks a couple of years ago, the day after a friend on Facebook posted it. The first thing you see when the page loads is her picture – the same picture that makes up the cover of her book here (here’s the link to the original post from the Yale Daily News). My first reaction upon opening the page was Cute coat! (I have a things for jackets. Scarves. Boots. If I could live perpetually in fall weather, I would.) The first paragraph, in italics below that picture, is short and sweet. She wrote for the newspaper. She had just graduated. She died shortly afterward. It already lends a tragic tone to her essay. The essay itself was incredibly relatable. It hit home for me. I was facing down the summer before my senior year of college. I was feeling a lot of the same feelings, thinking a lot of the same thoughts. I too, loved my school and the environment there, loved the people I’d come to know as friends. It was already hurting, thinking about leaving that structured setting of papers and exams, having to navigate the Real World and work for a living.
And of course, the whole thing was very sad. This was clearly a girl who could affect people with her writing. She could capture a spirit and a mood and now she wasn’t here anymore. When I saw the book on a promo table at my work, I immediately remembered the essay. It was still saved on my browser. I reread it when I graduated. I read the book jacket and purchased it after one of my shifts.
It is hard to critique something like this. First of all, I do not read a whole lot of anthologies or short story collections or essay collections. It’s true that some of those things have made it to the “Favorites Shelf” (linked above up there), but I tend to reach toward fiction or sci-fi for a read. So I don’t feel overwhelmingly qualified to criticize how cohesively the stories fit with one another or how themes were developed or how well constructed her essays (articles?) were. Second of all, the whole set up to this book is centered around grief. About the loss of Marina Keegan, and how this is what she’s leaving behind: the beginnings of a promising writer. And really, the endings. You read this knowing that this is it from her. The point that she is gone is so driven into the reader’s head that it becomes a little difficult to enjoy the collection. To appreciate the lovely insights some of her fiction can bring (how to mourn someone who was clearly more special to someone else in her story “Cold Pastoral,” the conflicted emotions so often associated with adoption in “Hail, Full of Grace”). I read this collection (with no clue what to expect, because, like I said: the synopsis gives you nothing to go off of) in sadness, in solemnity. And some of the stories and essays didn’t need that tone. They didn’t deserve to be read in mourning. Many of the stories were sad in and of themselves!
I’m not saying that Keegan’s death needed to be completely omitted from the collection, that it should have been at all glossed over or brushed aside. But the synopsis, the introduction, the pointed choosing of essays and stories that focused on loss and the impermanence of the things we as a human race do and think and create was overdone. I felt bashed over the head with this loss. I think most of Keegan’s writing speaks for itself.
For the most part, the stories are strong. Keegan’s a gifted writer who can write metaphor without making it too strained, describe moments and landscape with just enough detail, and write a multitude of stories and scenarios that seem vastly different from each other. This collection includes scientists stranded on a submarine, an architect thrust into the politics and battles of war torn Iraq, and more than one college student analyzing her love life and relationships to family in a time of transition. The variety is refreshing. My favorite story is probably “Reading Aloud,” where a sixty year old woman volunteers to read to a twenty year old blind man…and takes off her clothing while doing so. Passages in that story were beautiful, and the plot well organized and touching.
I found the essays to be less strong. Many of them felt exactly like her short stories. Keegan wrote for the Yale Daily News, and probably a couple of these essays were published as articles in various issues. One such essay/article outlined the reasons why a staggering number of Yale student go on to become “consultants” right after graduation (it’s 25%. Keegan is floored by this number). It’s kind of interesting, but I don’t go to Yale. I don’t really know what a consultant is. What do they supposedly do? Amidst the articles was an obtuse conversation between Keegan and an exterminator who also served in WWII, Keegan waxing nostalgic and philosophic about the car she drove in high school, and a sad story (sorry, essay) about how whales die and why we care. Most of them feel stilted. Like Keegan couldn’t quite figure out how to turn them into stories, so she dubbed them essays.
I obviously loved “The Opposite of Loneliness.” And in the book’s final essay, “Song for the Special,” Keegan expresses some of her eerily ominous thoughts on the impermanence of everything and her lasting desire to make something that stands some kind of test of time. Both of these are beautiful. Impactful. If only her other essays were similar.
So after ALLLLLL that, I have to say that in my very amateur opinion, this collection is good. It’s not spectacular, and unfortunately I am always conscious of the fact that there will be no second collection, but these stories can be powerful. Even if some of that power comes from the knowledge that Keegan is no longer with us, and that toys (a little cruelly) with some of our emotions.