Review: ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ by Marina Keegan

the opposite of lonelines_coverI finished reading Marina Keegan’s “The Opposite of Loneliness” on the train to Boston. The short stories and essays had been rolling around in my brain since I had begun reading on the Metra train to Joliet two days ago.

Marina Keegan died in a car accident in May 2012, five days after she graduated magna cum laude from Yale University. Her essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which appeared in the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News had been read by more than a million people within the week after her memorial service. I remember reading the essay during one of my shifts at The Daily Republic in Mitchell, South Dakota. My thoughts had echoed her words: “We’re so young. We’re so young.” She was 22 years old; I was only 20 at the time. Thinking of how young she was when she died reminded me of a friend of mine who had died a few months prior.

Then I forgot about Marina Keegan and her essay. Not intentionally — there were other things on my mind, other essays and articles to read. I heard her short stories were to be published in a book, made a mental note to read it someday and forgot about it once more.

Reading posthumous work — especially knowing how old the author was when she died — can be self-reflective. As I was reading through each short story, I found myself wondering what I would’ve left behind if I had died shortly after my college graduation. Articles covering the bedbug problem in the UNL residence halls? Meeting coverage of the student government? Random writing exercises and Harry Potter fan fiction? But I had to stop myself from thinking that way — I am still alive and as Marina wrote, I “have so much time.”

Marina’s short stories enveloped me into their own little worlds. I’d reach the end and think, “That’s it?” I wanted more, but all I could do was move on to the next story.

One such story was “Challenger Deep.” The five-person crew was on a two-week experimental dive on an Alvin II — 36,000 feet under, the ballast tanks broke and the pressure short-circuited. Basically, they couldn’t climb to the surface and electricity didn’t work. It was a sub destined to never resurface. The narrator, Patrick, and Ellen wore blindfolds because it’s easier that way.

I was captivated by the scenario. I wondered how I would react in that sort of situation. Patrick spoke about how he stopped having visual dreams. How scary would that be? Marina drew me into the world of the doom submarine.

Despite the submarine having no lights — “the ocean was black just like the walls” of the submarine (p. 135) — she found ways to create a picture. The characters had to rely on touch, and so did Marina: “I ran in and felt the cold on her face and the wet on the suit, but the veins in her neck were still throbbing” (p. 135).

Then there were the jellyfish, which tied the beginning and end together. Imagine being in total darkness, then seeing fluorescent jellyfish swimming around the window:

My eyes hurt from seeing but there was a strange hope in the blue light and the weeks of darkness drew us toward it like moths. (p. 129)

There is so much to say about the other stories as well: the email, one-way correspondence of “The Emerald City” and the regret of “Sclerotherapy.” Marina’s essays also hit me, but in a different way than the fiction. I remembered my own ride while reading “Stability in Motion” and laughed along with Tommy Hart’s horrible and punny jokes in “I Kill for Money.”

There is a realness to Marina’s writing, both in her fiction and nonfiction. As her professor, Anne Fadiman wrote in her introduction:

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.


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