J. R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Author of the bestselling memoir, The Tender Bar, he is also the co-author of Open by Andre Agassi. His most recent publication is Sutton, published in 2012.
J. R. Moehringer on Marina Keegan
I never met Marina Keegan, but when I learned of her death I felt as if I'd known her well. We belonged to several of the same tribes. We were both Yalies. We were both from the Northeast. Both Irish, both writers. We walked some of the same paths, probably sat in the same chairs. So it was as if Iâd lost a close cousin, or even a kid sister.
Then I read her work. In that terrible week, as media outlets posted her essays, as people around the world reposted them, I read every word with a sinking, quickening heart. The first news reports, I felt, had been wrong - this wasnât simply a promising young writer, this was a prodigy, a rare rare talent, still raw, still evolving, but shockingly mature. From the few things sheâd published in her brief life I could project a remarkable career, a line of words stretching far into the future, words that would have thrilled and enlightened, words that might have changed peopleâs lives. As I grieved for her family, her friends, her boyfriend, I also grieved for the global community of readers who would never know the pleasure and excitement of a brand new book by Marina Keegan.
All of which made me think there should be, there must be, at least one book with Marinaâs name on the spine. Publishers arenât eager to take chances these days, but I hoped that one would have the guts, the heart, to make a slim, posthumous collection of Marinaâs stories and essays and poems. I could actually see the book in my mind, stacked on the front table of a sunlit bookstore, perhaps the Yale bookstore, where Iâm sure Marina dreamed about her work appearing one day.
A year later, it came in the mail, the very book Iâd seen in my mind, with the only possible title: The Opposite of Loneliness. I studied the striking cover photo and felt a wave of sorrow and joy. Then I sat down and read it and that sorrow-joy feeling became my constant companion over the next several days.
This is a book full of wonders. This is a book full of sentences that any writer, 21 or 101, would be proud to have authored. This is a book that will speak to young readers, because it expresses some of that inexpressible anxiety of starting out, of making life's first momentous choices, of wanting and fearing and needing and hoping and dreading everything at the same time. It will also speak to older readers, because itâs an inspiring reminder of youthâs brimming energy, its quivering sense of possibility.
Young people get a bad rap for thinking theyâre immortal, and acting accordingly, but Marina dwelled on the end. Hers, civilizationâs, the sunâs. âAnd time, that takes survey of all the world, must have a stop.â She must have heard her beloved adviser Harold Bloom expound many times on Hotspurâs line, and clearly she took it to heart, personalized it. Savor every half-second, she seemed to be saying, to herself, to her readers, and her meditations on death, once charmingly precocious, now feel breathtakingly premonitory. Describing a group of fifty whales beached near her house on Cape Cod, she laments that their songs donât transmit on land, and thus they canât communicate their final thoughts. âI imagined dying slowly next to my mother or a lover, helplessly unable to relay my parting message.â
Such was her fate. And yet it wasn't, not really. This book is her parting message, exquisitely relayed.
And itâs not a mournful message. Thereâs so much light and humor here. In the title essay alone I hear glimmers of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, Fran Lebowitz. For example, when Marina worries that other kids are sprinting ahead of her, embarking on fabulous careers while sheâs still clinging to the cocoon of Yale. âSome of us have focused ourselves. Some of us know exactly what we want and are on the path to get it; already going to med school, working at the perfect NGO, doing research. To you I say both congratulations and you suck.â
My favorite passage might be this gorgeous burst of nostalgia, this prose poem about the bright college years. âWhen the check is paid and you stay at the table. When itâs four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we canât remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.â
The hats. That tiny sentence was the first raindrop before the deluge, a tickling hint of all that was to come. How many 21-year-olds are capable of a line so sure-handed, so precisely and comically placed? The only other two-word sentence I can think of that had me laughing aloud and shaking my head was in Lolita. (Humbert summarizing his motherâs demise: âPicnic, lightning. â)
If Iâd met Marina, Iâd have urged her to keep these first hopeful essays handy, cherish their energy, refer to them whenever beset by despair and doubt. Instead Iâll have to give that advice to her readers.
I also might have told Marina that we do have a word for the opposite of loneliness. Itâs called reading. Again, Iâll have to tell her readers. This book reminds us: as long as there are books, weâre never completely alone. Open it anywhere and Marinaâs voice leaps off the page, uncommonly honest, forever present. With this lovely book always at hand, we and Marina will never be completely apart.
J. R. Moehringer
Marina Evelyn Keegan (October 25, 1989 – May 26, 2012) was an American author, playwright, and journalist. She is best known for her essay "The Opposite of Loneliness," which went viral and was viewed over 1.4 million times in ninety-eight different countries after her death in a car crash just five days after she graduated magna cum laude from Yale University.
Keegan was born in Boston and raised in the suburb of Wayland, Massachusetts. She attended Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge before matriculating to Yale University in the autumn of 2008. At Yale, Keegan majored in English and served as president of the Yale College Democrats during her junior year. She was to begin a job at The New Yorker following her graduation from Yale, but died in a car crash on Cape Cod, only five days after the graduation ceremony.
The Opposite of Loneliness
A collection of Keegan's works, both fiction and non-fiction, was published posthumously by Scribner on April 8, 2014. The book is named after her graduation essay and features an introduction by the American author Anne Fadiman, who was one of Keegan's professors at Yale. "The Opposite of Loneliness" was well received and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof dedicated a column to the book, hailing it "a triumph" and urging readers to reflect on what they really want from life. Positive reviews of the text have been garnered from the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and the Financial Times, among many others.
"Even Artichokes Have Doubts"
On September 30, 2011, Keegan published an essay in the Yale Daily News entitled "Even Artichokes Have Doubts," lamenting the high percentage of graduates who enter into the fields of finance and consulting. The piece captured the attention of author Kevin Roose, who worked for the New York Times’ financial website DealBook at the time. Roose contacted Keegan and asked her to adapt her essay for DealBook, which published her piece as "Another View: The Science and Strategy of College Recruiting" on November 9, 2011. Roose reports that it was DealBook’s "best-performing post in months." He went on to feature Keegan in his book Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits (2014), and dedicated it to her memory. Keegan also appeared on National Public Radio's All Things Considered to discuss the piece.
"Why We Care About Whales"
In September, 2009, Keegan published an essay in the Yale Daily News entitled "Why We Care About Whales," considering the inconsistencies of empathy. The essay has been anthologized in The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose.
The musical Independents, for which Keegan had written the book, debuted at the New York International Fringe Festival in August 2012. It was one of twelve works - out of nearly two hundred - that was selected for an encore series in September.
Keegan's play Utility Monster premiered at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors' Theater on Cape Cod on May 25, 2013. The play follows two fifteen-year-olds struggling with ideas of privilege and social responsibility.
This short story was published by the New Yorker on September 27, 2012. It also appears in the book The Opposite of Loneliness.
"Reading Aloud" was read by Rita Wolf on NPR's Selected Shorts program on September 11, 2011.