I recently finished reading the collection of essays and stories, The Opposite of Loneliness by the late Marina Keegan. It was one of those books that just came into my life at the right time. About a year ago, I picked it up in Barnes & Noble–just literally picked it up–and thought about buying it, but for some reason I didn’t. Later, I read headlines of glowing reviews about it and felt like an idiot for not getting it. But the first time wasn’t the right time for me to read it. When I bought it a couple weeks ago, I felt as though I needed to read it this time. And I was right.
The essays and stories in The Opposite of Loneliness were written by Keegan from the ages of about seventeen through twenty-two. Five days after her graduation from Yale, she died in a car crash on the way to Cape Cod. The book was published posthumously.
What matters, though, is not the traumatic circumstances but the perspective. Because of Keegan’s sudden death, the book carries with it two perspectives: one of the vibrant, passionate, intellectual student, and one provided by the audience who knows that the author is no longer alive due to what seems to be a glitch in the flow of the universe.
The first half of the book is a collection of short stories. After reading each one, I found myself angry. But a good kind of angry. Angry because I hadn’t written what she did, angry because at twenty-two, she could write better than I probably ever will. Each story is so complex, so real. They engage with the quiet struggles of dysfunctional families, the twisted emotions of romance, the panic and the aftermath of death.
The first story, “Cold Pastoral,” sucked me in like a vortex. It focuses on the impact of the death of a college student, while following a girl who knew him, who was in the all-too-common romantic place of having a “thing” with him. She wasn’t his girlfriend, yet feels like she’s expected to fill that role. The ending left my mind stuttering, reeling. Keegan made me think, which I think is the goal that all literary writers hope to achieve. The rest of the stories followed suit, each with a unique twist at the end that ignited surprise and frustration fueled by my own egotism.
The second half of the book is a series of essays– stories and observations from Keegan’s own life. The second essay, “Why We Care About Whales,” recounts the story of fifty pilot whales that became stranded on the beach next to her Cape Cod summer home. She wonders why we spend so much money to save a whale, yet eat fish all the time. She says, “I worry sometimes that humans are afraid of helping humans” (153). She says that the reason the whales get stuck there and die is not through any fault of their own; rather, the culprit is the moon that pulls the tide in and out.
The day I read that essay I found out that I had lost a cousin, suddenly, without warning. A relatively young person. One who lived far away, but was nonetheless family. To me, it made no sense. It still doesn’t. And it probably never will.
I couldn’t help but draw the connection to the book I was reading, one written by a girl who died in a car accident. Two lives cut short. Two women no longer physically present in our reality. It all connects.
Over the next couple days, I finished reading Keegan’s essays. I noticed how often death came up not only in her stories but in her essays as well. Especially in the short “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology,” Keegan talks about the Big Death– the death of the human race. She begins, “If you didn’t already know this, the sun is going to die” (169). She mentions the same thing in her poem, “Bygones,” which I found on YouTube when I wanted to know what her voice sounded like. She says in a way what Robert Frost says: “Nothing gold can stay.” Yet she does so without demeaning the merit of the gold we create every day.
Her thoughts on life and ambition and gluten allergies and bug-killing humor are filled with a keen urgency. Despite the fact that she had no way of knowing she was going to die at twenty-two, she knew the value of time. And she did not intend to waste it.
And now there is a published book with her name on it.
The Opposite of Loneliness opens with the title essay which was published in the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News. In it, Keegan writes:
There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious […] that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead […] That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement[…] What we have to remember is that we can still do anything[…] We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have” (2-3).
What I learned from Marina Keegan is that time is of the essence. Ambition is worthwhile. Nothing is ever going to make sense, and I will never know everything there is to know about anything. The sun is going to die one day, but we’re here now. We’re here. Now.
Let me know if you have any thoughts on The Opposite of Loneliness or this blog post in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!