The Poignancy of a New England Fall

In Waterstones Perth I picked up a copy of The Opposite of Loneliness, essays and stories by Marina Keegan (Simon & Schuster UK 2014).

And couldn’t put it down.

Marina Keegan read English at Yale.  She was an author, poet, playwright, actor, and political activist.  Five days after her graduation magna cum laude from Yale in 2012, she was killed in a car crash.  The Opposite of Loneliness, her last essay for the Yale Daily News, went viral.

What is the opposite of loneliness?  Gregariousness?  Fellowship?  Togetherness?  Ms Keegan said there was no word for it; but she depicted it as something she experienced during her time at Yale, something that she was anxious not to lose.  So The Opposite of Loneliness is an exhortation to her fellow graduates not to look back with regret, but to look forward with hope.  The best is yet to come.  She reminds them that they are after all only 22 years old.  There is a bitter poignancy in that.  They have all the time in the world.

Her work is represented by eighteen pieces, half of them fiction, and half, including the title piece, non-fiction.  Her themes are Love, Transience, and Death.  In Cold Pastoral, the narrator gives a eulogy at the funeral of a boyfriend who has died prematurely.  In Challenger Deep, the occupants of a submarine trapped in total darkness and at great depth debate whether to await the inevitable, or leave early.  There are essays about a man who kills vermin for a living; about a school of whales thrown up by the tide and dying on the beach; and one about the death of the sun.  In Against the Grain, she even mocks her own demise, fantasising about a huge gluten-rich meal she would consume on her death bed.  (She had coeliac disease.)  It sounds like the sort of last meal sometimes ordered by people on Death Row.  If this all sounds a little dark, still there is humour and vitality and linguistic virtuosity.  And there is idealism.  You get a sense of it in Even Artichokes Have Doubts, in which she looks askance at the astonishing statistic, that 25% of Yale graduates take jobs in the financial sector.  That bothers her.  She doesn’t pretend to understand how the world works, but she just knows this isn’t right.  She expresses this with great warmth and humanity.  You will get a sense of it if you go on to and go into “Performances” and watch “I don’t know about Art…”  What a Life Force.

With Marina Keegan, you have a sense that a jealous god snatched her away precisely because she was so extraordinary.  She said, “…everything is so beautiful and so short.”  She has a sense of urgency.  She wants to leave her mark in the universe before she’s gone.  She might have shared a sentiment with Keats, who died when he was twenty five –

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain…

Of course, she is a 22 year old writing as a 22 year old, in an unmistakable eastern seaboard US accent.  I suppose there is a tradition of mawkish sentimentality about Ivy League doomed youth that goes back to Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in Love Story, and indeed a surprising amount of the comment on line on The Opposite of Loneliness is negative and hypercritical in suggesting that, had Marina Keegan lived (as if her death was some kind of slick career move) her book would not have seen the light of day.  I think this is both unfair and untrue.  Ms Keegan said she was liable to bouts of jealousy; maybe she didn’t know she could stir that detestable emotion in others, who mistook for naivety the greatest gifts a writer can have – directness and simplicity.

She reminds me of Eva Cassidy, another artist who died prematurely.  Listen to her sing Autumn Leaves.  There’s something in the tone of voice that bespeaks a prescience of mortality.  The tone of voice of Marina Keegan is Eva Cassidy singing Feuilles mortes.


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