Light from a fire extinguished too soon shines on

By ANTHONY HILBERT
On April 15, 2014

  • Students packed into Alumni Arena from Friday night to Saturday morning to set up “campsites” at Relay for Life. Different student groups sold baked goods, bracelets, Buffalo wings and other goods to help fundraise for cancer research. Jeff Scott, The Spectrum

Book: The Opposite of Loneliness

Author: Marina Keegan

Release Date: April 8, 2014

Publisher: Scribner Publishing

 

Marina Keegan's "The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories" begins tragically - before the cover is even cracked - but ends asserting indomitable strength and hope.

By age 22, Keegan was already an accomplished and award-winning author, playwright and poet. Following an unsuccessful bid to join one of Yale's secret societies, Keegan invested her time into a far worthier pursuit - writing. Along the way, the enviably talented student's work was featured in The New York Times,The New Yorker and on NPR.

Like millions of others, my knowledge of Keegan's story long preceded the book. On the cusp of potential most can scarcely dream of, Keegan passed away after a car accident, five days after her graduation from Yale. Following the tragedy, the book's title essay went viral worldwide after its publication on the website of the Yale Daily News.

I picked up the book on the day of its release. As the clerk pulled it from the stacks of new releases and dutifully held it out to me, the hardback was almost chilling to see. Rarely do such profound stories precede books, invisibly etched across the cover. Following the introduction by Anne Fadiman, Keegan's former professor at Yale, and the heart wrenching acknowledgements by Keegan's parents came the iconic essay "The Opposite of Loneliness."

I remembered the line without hesitation, "We're so young. We're so young. We're twenty-two years old. We have so much time." The essay, written for her graduating class and indeed this generation, appeared even more significant than it did in 2012. Always hauntingly beautiful, inexorably bound with such a tragic story, it stood to me imbued with so much anticipation for the work that would follow it.

I read the essay and had to put the book down, only to return in five days to read straight until the back cover. It was one thing to hear of Keegan's success and awards and potential, another to experience her work firsthand.

In each story and essay, Keegan demonstrates nuanced perception and understanding, coupled with such youthful insight and hope, underscored by obvious intelligence and creativity.

Essays like "Cold Pastoral" and "Winter Break" capture uniquely collegiate romance, the untimely death of a lover and the balancing act between family and a long-term relationship, respectively. Each story captures competing emotions and divergent priorities with such gripping depth and clarity that the reader feels as helplessly conflicted as the characters. Both, however, leave relatable characters on a precipice, without a clear conclusion, giving the stories a feeling as real and unfinished as our own lives.

Throughout her fiction, Keegan reveals a desire to speak to her generation, through a youthful lexicon that includes "spliff" and scenes like basement frat parties. These moments, though, are juxtaposed as seamlessly as they are in our own lives with more serious matters - guilt over a family untangling, insecurity and uncertainty following the death of a friend and lover.

Keegan unquestionably demonstrates her knowledge of the plights her generation faces but displays at least equal insight into issues as varied as war and deep-sea exploration in her fiction.

"The Emerald City" is presented as a collection of one-way emails from a citizen working as a contract worker in Iraq's Green Zone in 2003 to what is presumably an estranged love interest. The format is leveraged flawlessly, giving the story of William Madar's ethical and personal conflicts a new dimension. As the war heats up and his relationship fades ever more quickly, the reader becomes enthralled by the hopeless, endearing William, wishing him the best and fearing the worst.

"Challenger Deep" explores the lives of five people trapped aboard a defunct submarine, floating without lights or propulsion along the bottom of a deep-sea trench. With characters enveloped in perpetual darkness, with desperation building, Keegan skillfully explores obvious and obtuse concerns and results of the situation. The subject is approached from a multitude of angles, giving the personal conflicts each character faces depth and the story a gripping quality.

The second half of the collection - a series of nonfiction essays - similarly tackles a breadth of subjects, emblematic of both Keegan's broad abilities and curiosity.

"Stability in Motion" tracks the author's life through her 1990 Camry, where "the physical manifestations of my memories soon crowded the car." Aluminum foil balls and fingernail dents become imbued with purpose and significance in a way any young car owner will relate to and understand. The story reveals the intimate details of Keegan's life, caught in the minutia of an aging sedan.

Her non-fiction moves beyond personal experiences in essays like "I Kill for Money," a profile of an exterminator. Delving into the defenses he assumes to confront insecurities while explaining the mundane moments in his field of work, Keegan demonstrates uncanny insightfulness. Detailing even the smallest imagery and personality traits, she creates an impossibly fascinating story from a seemingly bland subject.

The collection closes with the essay "Song for the Special," musings on the uniqueness, or lack thereof, of each generation and individual among them. "Everyone thinks they're special... But I searched my name on Facebook and got eight tiny pictures staring back." Keegan expresses doubt regarding her place as an individual in the world, among so many billions of others, within so vast a universe, searching for a way to express permanence in the face of death and imminent destruction.

The irony - Keegan attained a level of significance that will not soon be forgotten. Her prose may someday fade; the influence she will have on those who read her work will not.

"The Opposite of Loneliness" begins as sad as any story can - such promise, talent and dedication, the voice of and to a generation, cut short. Marina's gaze on the cover pierces the reader immediately.

As I finished her final essay, I was left only with the "About the Author" page staring back, beginning with her full name followed by dates, a recap of a life lived and lost to us. I flipped past to find a set of blank pages, overcome with so many fleeting ideas and strong emotions I struggled to grasp - sadness, sure, but something else, an inexplicable pride, belief in identity and hope.

Marina Keegan's story may be over, her influence is just beginning.

"We're in this together... Let's make something happen to this world."

 

email: arts@ubspectrum.com


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