By Janina Kauz
I stumbled upon this book in a bookstore in Amsterdam. What caught my eye was the girl on the cover in her glaring yellow jacket and short skirt, a rather odd choice of clothes. On her face, she wore an expression of almost defiant amusement, as if to say: “Here I am, that’s it, this is me. By the way, you are strange too, amusingly strange.” It was only after contemplating this girl and her appearance that I finally turned to the book’s title. It read: The Opposite of Loneliness. Inevitably, I wondered: “What is the opposite of loneliness?” That was all it took for me to be captured by this book.
The Opposite of Loneliness is a compilation of essays and short stories by Marina Keegan. She wrote all the texts during her time at Yale. Already in the first essay, she describes the feeling that is the opposite of loneliness, the sense of being part of a community, such as a circle of friends at university. It is a text that speaks very directly to its readers and makes them think of their friends and how amazing it is to have shared one’s high school years with them. Following this essay are a number of short stories that describe a few days or weeks in their characters’ lives. Often, the texts are so upfront and blunt that they teeter on the verge of being raw or crude, but they never cross that line and instead lie before the reader like uncut diamonds. A lot of them cover issues that are deeply rooted in adolescence, such as leaving home, growing to be an independent person or searching for one’s identity, and as a young person just having started at university, I felt like they had been written just for me; I felt like there was a person from my own generation talking to me. Marina Keegan was only 22 years old when she wrote the texts in The Opposite of Loneliness, and it shows in a very positive way.
The book further contains eight nonfictional texts that bear titles such as Putting the “Fun” Back in Eschatology and Even Artichokes Have Doubts. The tone is very much the same as in the short stories, rendering them authentic and relatable. Reading these essays, a laughed a lot because Marina Keegan had a way of looking at things with a quirky and very humorous approach. But they also made me think and wonder sometimes, at how we see the world and how we act. I said “had” because what I have not mentioned yet is that five days after graduating from Yale and shortly before starting her job at the New Yorker, Marina Keegan died in a car crash. The Opposite of Loneliness is and will stay her only book, made possible by a collaboration of her parents and her teachers after her death. To me, it was heart breaking to read it, knowing that there would be no more, that I would not be able to follow her up and buy her second book. I had found an author who, for me, had perfectly captured what it felt like to be alive at that moment, something I had not experienced before, and already she was gone.
The greatest tragedy about Marina Keegan’s premature death, however, is not all her unfulfilled potential: It is the thought that probably The Opposite of Loneliness would not have been published if it had not been for her passing, the thought, that editors and publishers would have rejected her stories and essays on the very ground of the bluntness and rawness that made them so special to me; and the implication thereof that there must be some more writers like her who have this gift, but are yet unheard because of it.
Our society, it occurred to me, very much values age and experience over younger people’s voices and thoughts. It is ingrained in us that, while we are entitled to our opinion and are encouraged to think for ourselves, in the end, there will be an older and by implication wiser person to call our attention to what we haven’t thought of and where we might go wrong. It is how the generational contract works: We don’t have to repeat all the mistakes that have already been made before us, which is lucky, because otherwise there would be no progress. But we also don’t get to find out for ourselves how to do something. That’s sad. After all, sometimes the mistakes or imperfections an inexperienced person makes or overlooks turn out to be valuable insights or new angles. Like The Opposite of Loneliness, for example.