No, I want enough time to be in love with everything…
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.
-Marina Keegan, from the poem “Bygones”
Is there anything more gorgeous, more awe-inspiring, more breathtaking than possibility? Potential? The promise of future excellence?
Marina Keegan’s collection The Opposite of Loneliness had me from the beginning. Perhaps even before the beginning. The very concept of her book had me tingling with anticipation. I was not disappointed. What a mind, what a voice, what an exceptional artist and writer.
Even just reading the excerpts from her letters/emails in the intro to the book, I knew I had found a kindred soul. Like on page xvi:
I’m realizing how much I love Yale. With my minutes before sleep preoccupied with The Future for the first time in a while, I’m beginning to regard Yale with a kind of premature nostalgia. I WANT TO TAKE EVERY CLASS IN THE CATALOGUE. I WANT TO SEE EVERY BUILDING. I WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH ALL MY FRIENDS.
(bold added; CAPS in original).
Who hasn’t felt this way? I didn’t go to Yale, but I think you can fill in the blank. [Place alma mater here]. I regarded college with a “premature nostalgia” before I even got there. So too most of the rest of my childhood. “Premature nostalgia” pretty much sums up my standard state of being. I should get a tattoo. Or make a t-shirt.
But I loved college. I never felt more purposeful or “in place.” Life never made more sense, before or since. So much of what Marina says, in fiction or non-, matches my deepest most consistent internal monologue verbatim.
For example, her sentiment “We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.” Who can’t remember feeling that way? Being young? Being twenty-two? Didn’t we feel invincible? Didn’t we feel like we held the entire world in the palm of our hands? We were immortal. We were going to live forever, go everywhere, do everything. I still feel that way, but a little bit less so every day. And I think she did too, as you can see elsewhere in a few of her pieces. And I did too at her age; I already saw it slipping away, because that’s what time does. But that’s what makes it all so glorious yet also tragic yet also beautiful.
The “opposite of loneliness,” the book’s namesake, what a concept. Yes, there is no word, but yes, I yearn for that. The way I think she did. Not that we never need or want to be alone. Being with someone, physically, doesn’t automatically eliminate loneliness, just as being apart doesn’t automatically make you sad.
I love in her first essay: “I plan on having parties when I’m thirty. I plan on having fun when I’m old.” p. 2. As if the two are synonymous. She was so young, but I don’t hold it against her. I was too, once. Still am by many people’s standards. Like Deana Carter, I still remember, when thirty was old. Though it’s a few years behind me now, I remember that feeling from the other side like it was only yesterday. How premature we are in our regretting. In launching into our “should have…,” “if I’d…,” “wish I’d…” reflections. See p. 2. Oh man! But I don’t mind being reminded.
I loved little things, like in her short story “Winter Break,” the concept she mentions, almost in passing, being reminded “of the world’s remarkable capacity to carry on in every place at once.” p. 34. On one level, it’s a simple concept, very reminiscent of the thoughts and attitudes I was having at that same time in my life. But it’s also a deep philosophical consideration. She strikes the perfect balance, acknowledging its weight, but not making it too serious. She captures and conveys the idea and sentiment profoundly.
I enjoyed all of her fiction, but several of her non-fiction pieces spoke to me very deeply, both the me I was at her age, and the me I am now. Particularly “Even Artichokes Have Doubts” and “Song for the Special,” as well as, of course, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” We are/were “told a lot of things.” See p. 189. Strangely, in some ways, we do seem to have a much clearer idea who we are and what we really want when we are younger, before we graduate from college and enter the “real” world. We are conditioned to accept the “ready-made, established process.” p. 192. In “Artichokes,” she talks about how around 25 percent of Yale grads go into consulting or finance, no matter what they majored in. This resonates with me. I was an English major. I read novels all through college, and loved every single second of it. I was going to write novels, and discuss those novels with other like-minded writers/students/thinkers. Write about that process. Get published. Teach. That’s all I ever wanted to do. And yet, somewhere in there I went to law school, and now I’m a lawyer, which is about as opposite from being a novelist as you can get, I don’t care what John Grisham says. How the hell did this happen?
She clearly saw all this more clearly at her age than I did. She knew what fate awaited me if I didn’t stay true. “Most firms are looking for people who will stay up until three A.M. seven nights a week making slides for a partner who goes home…for dinner every night at five P.M. — and who will do so thinking they’re ‘winning’.” p. 193. EXACTLY! Oh, and “I just haven’t met that many people who sound genuinely excited about these [i.e. finance/ consulting/(and I would throw in)legal] jobs. That’s super depressing! I don’t understand why no one is talking about it.” pp. 199-200. Oh Marina, where were you when I was 22??? I really could have benefited from a chat.
“Song for the Special” could be the anthem for Generation Y, and I guess millennials too. Maybe even more so millennials. For better or worse, we were all told we’re special, have been from birth, and so think we are. Of course the reality is that we can’t literally all be uniquely special because that is, by definition, impossible. The majority has to be average or “exceptional” has no value. It would be like not having any grading system in college, ditching the bell curve and giving everyone an “A,” just for showing up. Report cards would be meaningless. It’s completely illogical, and yet that is our worldview. I loved her insights on “specialness.” On the one hand, her view that, at twenty-two, she could “see the possibilities fade,” “too late to be a doctor, to star in a movie, to run for president,” could be very depressing. p. 207. But it’s not. It feels familiar. And it feels wonderfully un-lonely to hear someone else articulate it. Continuing, she adds “There’s a really good chance I’ll never do anything. It’s selfish and self-centered to consider, but it scares me.” Id. It scares me too. But thanks to her book, I don’t feel alone in that feeling.
Exquisite, exquisite thoughts and writing. It spoke to my heart. I loved it very, very much. I could not recommend it more highly.