About J. R. Moehringer
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 I’d 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 wasn’t simply a promising young writer, this was a prodigy, a rare rare talent, still raw, still evolving, but shockingly mature. From the few things she’d 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 people’s 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 Marina’s name on the spine. Publishers aren’t eager to take chances these days, but I hoped that one would have the guts, the heart, to make a slim, posthumous collection of Marina’s 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 I’m sure Marina dreamed about her work appearing one day.
A year later, it came in the mail, the very book I’d 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 it’s an inspiring reminder of youth’s brimming energy, its quivering sense of possibility.
Young people get a bad rap for thinking they’re immortal, and acting accordingly, but Marina dwelled on the end. Hers, civilization’s, the sun’s. “And time, that takes survey of all the world, must have a stop.” She must have heard her beloved adviser Harold Bloom expound many times on Hotspur’s 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 don’t transmit on land, and thus they can’t communicate their final thoughts. “I imagined dying slowly next to my mother or a lover, helplessly unable to relay my parting message.”
Such was her fate. And yet it wasn't, not really. This book is her parting message, exquisitely relayed.
And it’s not a mournful message. There’s 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 she’s still clinging to the cocoon of Yale. “Some 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.”
My favorite passage might be this gorgeous burst of nostalgia, this prose poem about the bright college years. “When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.”
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 mother’s demise: “Picnic, lightning. ”)
If I’d met Marina, I’d have urged her to keep these first hopeful essays handy, cherish their energy, refer to them whenever beset by despair and doubt. Instead I’ll 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. It’s called reading. Again, I’ll have to tell her readers. This book reminds us: as long as there are books, we’re never completely alone. Open it anywhere and Marina’s voice leaps off the page, uncommonly honest, forever present. With this lovely book always at hand, we and Marina will never be completely apart.
"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)
"Illuminates the optimism and neurosis felt by new grads everywhere. . .Like every millenial who's seen irony elevated to an art form, Keegan brings self-awareness to the collective insecurity of her peers even as she captures it with a precision that only comes from someone who feels it too. How unfortunate that she will never know the value readers will find in her work." (Publishers Weekly)
"Funny, poignant, tender, and fiercely alive, 'The Opposite of Loneliness' contains the keen observations of a short lifetime—and the wisdom of a much longer one." (Jennifer DuBois, author of Cartwheel and A Partial History of Lost Causes)
“The writing Marina Keegan left behind offers a tantalizing taste of a literary voice still in development, yet already imbued with unusual insight, nuance, humor, and sensitivity.” (Deborah Treisman, Fiction Editor, "The New Yorker")
“Two years after a young writer’s death, her words soar. . . . The Opposite of Loneliness...sparkles with talent, humanity, and youth. The prose, polished but thoroughly unselfconscious, is heartbreaking evidence of what could have been.” (O Magazine)
"A bittersweet, what-might-have-been book filled with youthful optimism, energy, honesty, and beyond-her-years wisdom." (Yale Alumni Magazine)
"The Opposite of Loneliness captures in both fiction and nonfiction [Keegan's] adventures in love and lust, the weird bliss of being stoned, and, as she writes, what it’s like to see 'everything in the world build up and then everything in the world fall down again.'" (Elle)
"Remarkable... a compelling literary voice... the appeal of this collection is its improvisational quality, its feeling of being unfinished but always questioning." (Chicago Tribune)
"How do you mourn the loss of a fiery talent that was barely a tendril before it was snuffed out? Answer: Read this book. A clear-eyed observer of human nature, [Keegan] could take a clever idea...and make it something beautiful." (People Magazine)
"A triumph...Keegan was right to prod us all to reflect on what we seek from life." (Nicholas Kristof, "The New York Times")
"The Opposite of Loneliness does [Keegan's] talent and memory justice, both as a picture of a generation entering adulthood and as a highly personal portrait of a gifted young woman." (Pittsburgh-Post Gazette)
“What a gift Keegan has left behind. Not only in her written words...but also in her legacy of social activism and fierce belief in leading a life of purpose, not privilege. (Joseph P. Kahn, Boston Globe)
“Keegan’s fiction… is built around the kind of empathetic extrapolation that makes for all the best realism… Keegan would have been—would have continued to be—a star. She would have been famous, not quietly or vaguely, but really, really famous.” (The New Republic)
“[Keegan ] was one of the most present, incisive, and hopeful writers.… That’s the gift and the pain of her book. How incredible, how lucky, that we get to read her words, that people who never knew her or her work can find it for themselves, that she was in some way given the chance to speak to the world the way she wanted.” (Buzzfeed)
“A glimpse of a young woman who is growing as a writer and a person, someone who’s thinking deeply about love and the world around her and the scale of the universe….I have no doubt she would have been great.” (Bustle)
“In the little time [Keegan] graced the world she created a life’s work many writers could only dream of achieving in decades.” (MariaShriver.com)
“This posthumous collection of essays and short stories is beautiful and brilliant, young but not childish—just like the author was. Every essay is a gem you want to pick up and put in your pocket, taking it out from time to time to see how it looks in different lights—the lights of promise and potential, yearning and memory. The Opposite of Loneliness will make people cry and hope.” (Rewire Me)
“The loveliest piece of writing I’ve ever seen from someone so young… Her voice is steady and often very funny, her senses of character and pace are frighteningly good, and the flow of her prose is easy to get carried away by. She wasn't just college-talented; she was talented, period.” (Kevin Roose, New York Magazine)
“A new voice of her generation.” (The Hartford Courant)
"Wonderful... Marina Keegan did that thing we all want to do as writers: say what everyone else is thinking, but better." (Refinery29)
""Inspirational." (The Huffington Post)
"Full of uncanny wisdom...Marina would not want to be remembered because she was dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good. No worries there, Marina. You left us aching for more." (Detroit News)
Ms. Keegan takes on the meaningful and mundane with wit and grace. Her words alternatively swagger and tiptoe.... Reading this book is both heartbreaking and entertaining." (The Economist)
"In her short life, Keegan exhibited uncanny wisdom for an individual of any age, and a literary talent perhaps even more rare." (The Huffington Post)
"Keegan's short stories are relatable and entertaining while her essays, including some of her op-eds from the Yale Daily News, showcase her work as an already accomplished writer. Young writers everywhere will look to her as an inspiration." (The Huffington Post)
"The ultimate summer read for Gen-Y, by Gen-Y." (Elite Daily)