BOOK REVIEW: 'The Opposite of Loneliness': Marina Keegan's Posthumous Collection of Essays, Stories

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Opposite of Loneliness': Marina Keegan's Posthumous Collection of Essays, Stories

This is a review I didn't want to write. Not because the essays and short stories in Marina Keegan's "The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories" (Scribner, 240 pages, introduction by Anne Fadiman $23.00) aren't good. On the contrary, I'm sad because they show so much promise and their 22-year-old author won't write any more. 

She died in a car crash five days after her graduation from Yale in May, 2012. Her boyfriend, who survived, on May 26, 2012 was driving the car to a celebration of the 55th birthday of her dad, Kevin Keegan, on Cape Cod, MA. Accounts of the accident vary, but the most reliable one is that her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel and the car rolled over. (

The title essay -- 940 words written for the Yale Daily News -- went viral, touching people of her generation like nothing before. It reached more than 1.4 million hits from people -- mostly young people -- around the world. 

Here's a YouTube of Diane Sawyer and others at ABC on the phenomenon:

It's no exaggeration to say that Marina Keegan's star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at The New Yorker.  Yes, a paying job for a college graduate, not something that is guaranteed these days, not even for a Yale grad.

As a non-fiction writer, I was drawn to the eight nonfiction essays -- in addition to the title one. Even if you don't particularly like essays -- probably from being forced to read them in school -- don't skip Marina Keegan's; I don't blame the folks at The New Yorker -- I would hire Marina Keegan in a New York Minute, too!

Marina writes about subjects as diverse as the joy of work for a Chicago pest control expert ("I Kill for a Living") to the attraction of Yale graduates to the consulting or financial industry ("Even Artichokes Have Doubts")  to inheriting her grandmother's pristine 1990 black Toyota Camry ("Stability in Motion") and what a mobile trash container it became at the hands of a typical college student. (I wondered when I read this essay if this was the car in the accident….). When I started out in daily newspaper journalism at the beginning of 1966, feature stories were still a part of any respectable -- and some not so respectable -- daily newspapers. Today: Not so much.

The short stories -- a form I love and one in which we need all the talented writers we can find -- are crafted with the skill of a much older writer, but with the freshness of a young woman. I thought about other young women writers of the past, say Edna Ferber and Dorothy Parker (we think of them as old, but they were young, too)  and what a great Algonquin Hotel "Vicious Circle" Roundtable it would be with Marina Keegan in it. Perennial college student and talented actor James Franco might be in my imaginary Roundtable. Sparks would fly.

Anne Fadiman (you older folks out there may remember her dad, Clifton Fadiman, I do!) in her must-read introduction tells of the fire and passion of Marina that she experienced at a Nov. 10, 2010 master's tea honoring novelist Mark Helprin. I've read and reviewed Helprin's works (Link to my review of Helprin's novel  "In Sunshine and In Shadow: 

Helprin opined that making it as a writer was virtually impossible today. Let Fadiman tell the story:

"A student stood up. Thin. Beautiful. Long, reddish-brown hair. Long legs. Flagrantly short skirt. Nimbus of angry energy. She asked Helprin if he really meant that. There was a collective intake of breath in the room. It was what everyone else had been thinking but no one else had been brave (or brazen) enough to say."

In a follow-up email, Marina introduced herself to Fadiman, born 1953, an accomplished, award-winning author and, since January 2005, in a program established by Yale alumnus Paul E. Francis, Yale's first Francis Writer in Residence, a position that allows her to teach one or two non-fiction writing seminars each year, and advise, mentor, and interact with students and editors of undergraduate publications.

In the email, Marina said that "Hearing a famous writer tell me that the industry is dying and that we should probably do something else was sad. Perhaps I just expected him to be more encouraging hoping to stop the death of literature."

It's obvious throughout this book that Marina Keegan was determined to be one of those people! My wish is that her book will inspire others to escape the pessimism and do what they really want to do: write. If you have the talent and willpower of a Marina Keegan, you'll be happy with your furniture from Goodwill or even rescued from a Dumpster!

Here are two appreciations of Marina Keegan by two of  her teachers at Yale, Harold Bloom and Anne Fadiman:

"I will never cease mourning the loss of my beloved former student Marina Keegan. This book gives partial evidence of the extraordinary promise that departed with her. Throughout she manifests authentic dramatic invention and narrative skill. Beyond all those, she makes a vital appeal to everyone in her generation not to waste their gifts in mere professionalism but instead to invest their youthful pride and exuberance both in self-development and in the improvement of our tormented society."

-- Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English, Yale University

"Many of my students sound forty years old. They are articulate but derivative, their own voices muffled by their desire to skip over their current age and experience, which they fear trivial, and land on some version of polished adulthood without passing Go. Marina was twenty-one and sounded twenty-one: a brainy twenty-one, a twenty-one who knew her way around the English language, a twenty-one who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful. When she read her work aloud around our seminar table, it would make us snort with laughter, and then it would turn on a dime and break our hearts."

-- Anne Fadiman, Yale University Professor of English and Francis Writer in Residence and author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and Ex Libris.


About the author

Marina Keegan (1989–2012) was an award-winning author, journalist, playwright, poet, actress, and activist. Her nonfiction has been published in the New York Times; her fiction has been published on and read on NPR's Selected Shorts; her musical, Independents, was a New York Times Critics' Pick. Marina's final essay for the Yale Daily News, "The Opposite of Loneliness," became an instant global sensation, viewed by more than 1.4 million people from ninety-eight countries.

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