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.
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.