I hate it when someone is a better writer than me. Or has just actually published a book, put pen to paper like a raging sword and ripped open the wounds of that lined paper to turn it into something typed in loud Times New Roman and quiet in its white space. Marina Keegan hated this as well, hate might be a strong word, but she felt the same feelings I felt as a twenty-something trying to make it in the publishing world that taught us how to seek out mystery, relevance, and the good story. She said, “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 write Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina. It’s inexcusable. Everyone else is so successful, and I hate them. There’s a German word I learned about in psychology class called schadenfreude, which means a pleasure derived from the misfortune of others” (204). I wonder now if she’d be proud to know how very jealous I am of her.
Marina Keegan died in a tragic car accident days after she graduated from Yale and was headed to a cozy office job at The New York Times. I don’t actually know if they have offices there, but one can assume that it isn’t a giant cafeteria filled with type writers instead of non-chicken chicken nuggets. Although, that newspaper would be quite thrilling. Her essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness” written about her feelings upon leaving Yale went viral. And she’s right, there is no word for the opposite of loneliness. No, one syllable stacotto thing that we could say to explain how we’re feeling when we’re vibrant in mass, vibrant next to a stranger, vibrant in a train car, vibrant walking down streets where it smells like home brewed coffee, vibrant at our parent’s kitchen table.
Whatever word that is, the opposite of loneliness, maybe one of the 96 words that Sanskrit has for love, Marina Keegan made me feel that when I read her brilliant new collection of writings, fiction and nonfiction. I requested this one on Netgalley after reading her viral essay and I can say in a completely honest way, as you know that I am, that this book held some of the best short fiction that I have ever read. I don’t care if she was in a creative writing workshop with a bunch of people who wrote about fast-walking zombies, or glittering vampires, these short stories edited in a college dorm room are breath-taking and stand tall next to the great writers that I’ve had the privilege of hiding in my arsenal. There is a giveaway on Goodreads if you’re already convinced.
“Cold Pastoral” is my favorite story in the collection of short stories. The book is categorized as viral essay, short fiction, and then essays that were published in the Yale Daily Newspaper. This story is about a girl in an almost relationship, you know that sticky “talking stage” that teenagers do now, with a boy who tragically dies. It’s actually quite ironic to Marina’s life, a lot of these stories and essays are. It was almost as if her writing foreshadowed her own story. The girl wasn’t even sure she wanted to date the boy, had late night wine conversations with the roommate over whether to continue the relationship. He was just a boy in a room where she forgot sweaters occasionally. However, when he dies, she feels pressure to become the girl he needed and the girl that his parents expect her to be, the girlfriend. I won’t give anything away, but she discovers his diary and already has discovered how “cool,” literally, his ex-girlfriend is. This ex plays guitars in basements for shadowed bar-goers. It shows the triviality of college hookups and those in-between relationships where the person is just waiting for the bigger/better to come along. I felt the unsure voice of the narrator, I was the narrator. I think a lot of college girls can relate to this story of learning to date for dating rather than learning to date for marriage. It’s a hard step up when you’ve been told your whole life to hold out for “the one,” that boy pocked full of marriage material, and grow old swag.
I also really loved, “Reading Aloud,” where an old NY Met dancer finds herself reading to a blind college kid. She reads in the nude because her husband has found old interests in his window office job and comes out of retirement to continue working. The wife feels like this is a personal dig at the time he was spending with her and signs up for this community service through the local library. She’s SUCH a character, the Havisham of short stories. I could hear the whisper of her sweater leaving her shoulders, and the quick way her fingers fiddled with the buttons. There’s something strangely alluring about silently undressing in a short story and even if Keegan didn’t type every sound on the page, I was still immediately intrigued with this woman. Keegan writes these stories that you don’t want to believe can actually happen, but you know somewhere in some condo, or tenement building these characters are feasting on our brief images of them through the telling of their story.
I didn’t find the essays AS riveting as the short stories, but come on..that’s because they’re essays. I actually found “I Kill For Money” and “Why We Care about Whales” to be the deepest essays of the collection. “I Kill For Money” tells the story of a bug guy. I think I enjoyed this so much because who would think to interview an exterminator. He had an unmarked van, which I always find creepy because I feel like Law & Order makes this the vehicle of all pedophiles, everywhere. And then…he was a little bit sad. I almost felt like he killed bugs to spare himself of some sort of aloneness, not loneliness because he had a wife and kids, but just this feeling of aloneness. People were rude to him in Keegan’s presence and he was just expected to go on with his day, do his duty, and climb back into the leather seat of his white van and go on handling bug business. It also broke my heart that he was an older man and it seemed like he almost HAD to work. There was some odd debt crisis, or some reason he wasn’t retiring. He repeated several jokes in the interview and seemed to be losing pieces of himself in each apartment where he poisoned bed bugs, and unclamped the squashed feet of mice. I just wanted him to go home and take a bath. You know it’s good writing when an essay can almost make you cry.
The “Why We Care about Whales” essay just made me think. Why do we care about the deaths of animals more than we care about just another human death by car crash in the news. The opening of this essay is, “When the moon gets bored, it kills whales. Blue whales and fin whales and humpback, sperm and orca whales: centrifugal forces don’t discriminate. With a hushed retreat, the moon pulls waters out from under fins and flippers, oscillating them backward and forward before they slip outward. At nighttime, the moon watches its work. Silver light traces the strips of lingering water, the jittery crabs, the lumps of tangled seaweed” (181).
Let me just say, I don’t want to look in the eyes of a whale who has been beached by the allure of the moon and watch its jaw lay open in a sandy death. I do wonder why the death of a human this way doesn’t affect my soul as much as the death of a whale this way. Maybe it’s that I can’t imagine this happening to a human, or it’s that the idea of animal deaths, creatures that can’t defend themselves against human stain, or now I suppose the laws of the universe, are much more sobering because who knows what they think, if they feel pain more intensely than humans, if they mourn their lost loves. It’s too much mystery for my small mind to comprehend in bed at this moment with a tea bag and an ice pack.
I want everyone to read this book, not so that in her death, Keegan can know the fame she should have attained in this life, but because I’m so jealous of her writing, her thought-provoking themes and messages, that I need other people to feel that burning need of wanting to do that too, wanting to write like her. I think it’s safe to say that that’s what Keegan would have wanted, people to go out and create something that will live in competition with her college creations. To be inspired, one must inspire others.
This book comes out April 11th, 2014. I DARE YOU to buy it.
I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.