The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories

  • Marina Keegan
  • Scribner
  • 208 pages
  • Reviewed by Kristina Moriconi
  • June 18, 2014

Published posthumously, these stories and essays of a recent college graduate display fate’s betrayal of a promising literary future

In 2012 Marina Keegan was a senior at Yale University, with a prestigious internship under her belt and a job waiting. Her writing had already been published in The New Yorker. But, five days after her graduation from Yale, a fatal car accident on Cape Cod changed the story of her promising future to one now told in the past tense. Keegan died at age 22.

Her stories and essays, written while she was in her late teens and early twenties, have been published posthumously. It is this word — posthumous — that stays with me, haunts me, as I read her work, perhaps because years ago, at that same age, a serious car accident nearly ended my life. And, since then, I have carried with me the almost unbearable knowledge that every single thing we do becomes a part of what we leave behind.

The Opposite of Loneliness is that collection of both stories and essays. While a count tallies more pages as fiction, the nonfiction section, which includes nine personal essays, feels far more substantial and heavily weighted. Maybe it is because, before readers even open the book, that word posthumous is there on the back cover.

For this reason, so many lines in these essays take on new meaning and become a kind of unintended foreshadowing.  In “Why We Care About Whales,” the author imagines dying slowly next to her mother or a lover, helplessly unable to relay her parting message. And, in “Against the Grain,” an essay about her lifetime struggle with celiac disease, she opens with a list of items she plans to request when she is on her deathbed.

As words become harbingers, reading with the tragedy of loss in mind can be distracting sometimes. But this in no way lessens the impact of Marina Keegan’s collected work. Her writing is provocative and intelligent, the voice steady and consistent, no matter the shifts in genre or the changes in point of view.

Her fiction is a collection of short, quirky stories about love and loss, disappointment and betrayal. In “Winter Break,” the first-person narrator, a bored, pot-smoking teenager, begins to see her mother in a different light. In “Hail, Full of Grace,” she depicts with great detail the kind of pain and regret that comes with love lost: “I kept his holiday cards in a drawer in my apartment year after year: his three children aging and waving from beaches and backyards and trips to pick pumpkins.”

The gestures of her characters create real movement on the page. In one of her third-person stories, an older woman takes off her clothes and reads to a blind man; another rummages through a warehouse of unclaimed baggage, while still another ponders the mistaken meaning of a tattoo.

This tapestry of stories and essays is held together by those threads of hope and longing and uncertainty that threaten to unravel us all. It is an ode to adolescence—to first loves and first cars. It is a how-to guide for the grief-stricken and lonely. It is about fortitude, about the resilience and the audacity that define us.

When she died, Marina Keegan was near the start of her career as a writer, beginning to make her way out into the post-undergraduate world. In her opening title essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” she writes: “We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.” And in the final essay, “Song for the Special,” she proclaims: “Sometime before I die I think I’ll find a microphone and climb to the top of a radio tower. I’ll take a deep breath and close my eyes because it will start to rain right when I reach the top. Hello, I’ll say to outer space, this is my card.” But there was never time, never a chance.

These stories and essays are the inhale and the slow exhale of that deep breath at the top of the tower. And they are everything in between. I cannot fathom what a prolific future Marina Keegan would have had if her life had not come to a tragic end at twenty-two. But I do know that readers everywhere should consider themselves fortunate to glimpse the talent and artistry of a writer whose ending came far too close to her beginning.

Kristina Moriconi is a poet and essayist. She received her MFA in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. Her work has appeared most recently in Cobalt Review, Prick of the Spindle, and Blue Heron Review. She is the author of a chapbook, No Such Place (Finishing Line Press, 2013), and she is the 2014 Montgomery County Poet Laureate.

 

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