For the next in my (slightly ailing) 52 Books Challenge, I am reviewing The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. This lovely book is the lasting legacy of a rising star, shot down far too soon. Marina was graduated magna cum laude from Yale University in 2012, having studied English Literature. She had a presitigious job lined up at The New Yorker, and a glittering future ahead. But five days after graduation she was killed in a car accident. Her boyfriend was driving her to her parents’ summer house in Cape Cod, lost control of his car, which hit one guardrail, spun across the road, hit another guardrail, then rolled over twice. Although hospitalised, boyfriend Michael Gocksch walked away, but Marina was killed.
The book is a collection of Marina’s short stories and essays, articles she wrote for classes and newspapers, a testament to her enviable skill at such a young age. Collected by her friends and tutors, the book was published last year to critical acclaim. It is broken down into a fiction and a non-fiction section, ranging across so many different topics and ages. Of the fiction stories, my favourite was Cold Pastoral, the tale Claire, whose casual boyfriend dies suddenly, leaving her caught in the aftermath, stranded in the awkwardness of an undefined relationship. Although she mourns the loss of Brian, she also has Lauren, his ex of several years, to deal with. The level of her grief for the death makes Claire feel inadequate alongside, especially witnessing the pain his family are also suffering. When she discovers Brian’s diary (on Lauren’s instruction), Claire is thrown into a whole new turmoil as she has to decide whether or not to share its contents.The story itself isn’t really about Brian, but more about the girls and how they cope with being the ones left behind.
Going against my usual grain, I actually preferred the non-fiction stories, because I felt like I got to know Marina so much better. There is so much that is poignant and sad without meaning to be: she talks about growing old and being pregnant, future events that we should all be able to look forward to, yet she has now been denied. She covers so many topics: from learning about the desire for anonymity after being observed as a Western tourist in India, and standing out so much from the norm; to the story of a pest controller, so happy in his persona and his job, yet constantly battered by the world and put down by them because of what he does (that story made me really sad). And I really enjoyed reading Stability in Motion, where she discusses her first car and its role as a sort of scrapbook of her adolescence, and the sadness she feels in parting with it.
Marina was just under a year older than me, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I relate to her so much. She graduated in the same year as me, and her writing just speaks to those of us in what has been coined as Generation Y: a generation full of bright young things, with the potential to exceed anything our predecessors imagine. Yet the reality of such expectations alongside the difficulty of today’s job market, saturated with graduates, makes for a far from rosy future. And I think Marina Keegan was highly aware of this, but at the same time could not hold back the youthful optimism and hope that we all felt at one point around graduation (I certainly did, although it was a little short-lived). She writes with the wisdom of someone well past her years, but with the freshnes of a 22 year old, vivid and alive.
This book is prefaced by an introduction from Anne Fadiman, one of Marina’s professors. She talks about putting the dead on a pedestal, and states that Marina would not want to be remembered for being dead, but for being good. Although the tragedy of her story certainly adds an edge to reading her work, an extra poignancy, this is not what makes her special. It is her words, her talent, the way she draws you into a story, fictional or not, and makes you really live that world, for a short space of time. I only regret that she did not have longer to change the world with her words.
Never mind Lena Dunham, Marina Keegan is the voice of my generation.