Marina Keegan: A Tragedy Between The Lines

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marina-1Photo: Courtesy of The Opposite of Loneliness.
The first time I watched Love Story, it was strictly for the camp factor. All I knew about the 1970s romance was that it was a schmaltz classic about love and college students and the tragedy of dying young and beautiful. The film opened with its swoony theme song, "Where Do I Begin?" and found Ryan O'Neal on the edge of Wollman Rink, his husky voiceover asking: "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?"

This week, Marina Keegan's book The Opposite of Loneliness was released. It's a collection of short, wonderful essays and stories written while the author was a student at Yale. Keegan graduated on May 21, 2012, having already secured a job at The New Yorker. Five days later, she died in a car accident.

Keegan's story, in all its gutting tragedy, left critics in a difficult position when reviewing her work. What can you say when something like this happens? How can you, as New Republic's Alice Gregory says, "review the unreviewable?" It's a tall order; the tallest, perhaps, the critics have likely faced. After all, not only was she young and smart and killed too soon — Marina Keegan was an excellent writer.

Having interned at The Paris Review, Keegan had already been featured in (or recognized by) many respected publications. Her musical, Independents, was selected for the New York International Fringe Festival. She likely would have had a book deal any second, had she lived just a year longer. As it was, we have only this small smattering of works, collected by her mother, and edited by her professor. She was the very embodiment of "on the verge" and "bright future" and all those other clichés, but her talent was verifiable and tangible. Her story would be the stuff of schmaltzy cinema, were it not so unthinkably real.

marina2Photo: Courtesy of The Opposite of Loneliness.
In her essays, Marina Keegan did that thing we all want to do as writers: say what everyone else is thinking, but better. She writes in "Song for the Special:" "I’m so jealous. Unthinkable jealousies, jealousies of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel I’m reading and the Oscar-winning movie I just saw. Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina. It’s inexcusable. Everyone else is so successful, and I hate them." I've had these very thoughts myself, about 27 times this month, but not in the form of a paragraph that anyone would want to read. Even in composing this post, I sense the inclination to mimic her urgent, funny, secret-telling style. It's the writer in my brain sitting up and noticing a peer who's gotten the better of me, wanting to catch up. Reading Keegan's words, I feel an unjustified kinship. Two years she's been dead, and I feel I've just made a new friend.

The real ache is in the poignancy of her self-reflection. In that same essay, she captures the desperation of trying to make your mark. "Everyone thinks they're special," she notes, as if just discovering that perhaps everyone is not. In many ways, she's also not. In this essay, she captures that thrilling limbo nearly all 20somethings experience between graduation and potential employment, potential success, potential new apartments. She thinks about death and whether or not she'll be remembered after hers. Marina will never have the body of work she ought to have, and yet that hasn't stopped her legacy from lasting — at least for this week.

One has a sense in reading her work of the just-budding visionary she was, but also of the college student tapping away at 3 a.m. by the light of an overheated desk lamp, maybe two-beers buzzed, but simply unable to sleep until she spills the insistent words out onto a page. We've all been there. But, when Marina did it, the work held up the next morning. It hurts to think of her waking up, looking over the little essay, and realizing it was good.

What also hurts is to see the rough edges that would surely have been sanded off had she lived to show up for that New Yorker gig. Her writing still has a halo of the juvenilia it is. Keegan gets a little overexcited, a little mushy. She's fond of repetition and sometimes seems to go wandering in the words of her own prose (good thing they're such excellent ones). This collection is a snapshot of a woman just barely begun, taken right at the moment when life is so exciting. If she'd been a few years older, it's likely her first book would have been a very different one.

Last week, I sold my first book. Since my first meetings with literary agents to the day bidding closed on my proposal, it's been a head-spinning whirlwind of anticipation and writing and editing (and writing and editing). I got to sit at my desk and sweat over adverbs. I got to lay in bed and fantasize about a book tour. I got to panic over what my dad would think. I had the luxury of shaping my own story, deciding what would go in and what would stay in a little blue folder on my desktop, never to be seen or scrutinized. That little blue folder is what constitutes Marina Keegan's legacy. It should be read as such — extraordinary work made all the more resonant for its unfinishedness. For everything she might have been, that's really all we have left of Marina.

So, what can you say about a 22-year-old girl who died young, beautiful, and wickedly talented? Just those insufficient aphorisms that come out about any young person taken before their time: It's outrageous. It's unthinkable. But, what can you say about Keegan's work? It wasn't nearly enough.