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Reviewing the Unreviewable

How to assess the promising, posthumous work of a 22-year-old

“I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about,” wrote Arlene Croce, The New Yorker’s longtime dance critic, in 1994. “I have not seen Bill T. Jones’s 'Still/Here' and have no plans to review it,” began “Discussing the Undiscussable,” her infamous essay on “victim art,” which, she argued, capitalizes on its inherent sentimental value and special-interest significance. By using dying AIDS victims in his choreography, Jones, she wrote, was “putting himself beyond the reach of criticism.” Her polemic, which incited national fury—and inspired op-eds by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, Frank Rich, and Camile Paglia—remains, twenty years later, a raw reminder of just how fraught the relationship is between moral and aesthetic value.  

Marina Keegan, a 22-year-old girl who died in a car accident just days after graduating from Yale University in 2012, is an embodiment of “someone I feel sorry for.” And of course I also feel hopeless about her: She’s dead. In addition to her friends and family, Keegan, who had interned at the Paris Review and had a job all lined up at The New Yorker, was mourned by her future colleagues, the people—like myself—who were rattled by the death of someone who we would have met had she lived even just a few weeks more. We would have followed each other on Twitter, chatted at parties, been fellow recipients on cc-ed email chains about sublets and birthday parties and well-paid copywriting gigs.

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories, Keegan’s posthumously published collection of stories and essays, arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. It sat on my kitchen table for days, beside the salt cellar, a candle, and a bowl of tangerines. It might as well have been a skull. In my casual messiness, I had, accidentally, composed a still life, and the book was, quite literally, the tableau’s memento mori. I did not enjoy eating breakfast so close to death. Marina—glossy-haired, dressed in cheerful yellow coat—beamed out confidently from the cover. It felt ghoulish looking at her picture. I removed the dust jacket. 

The act of reviewing—or even just having critical thoughts about—juvenilia produced by someone who cannot defend herself seems both loathsome and pointless. For the first few days that I had to live within close proximity to the book, its very existence struck me as cynical. The stories and essays I wrote in college were terrible, and the idea of them being published makes me physically ill. Surely this book would not have been published had Keegan not died, I thought. Surely Keegan wouldn’t have wanted this. That her picture is on the cover seems more like a marketing ploy than a eulogy.

All of this is preamble to that fact that I have never been so relieved upon finishing a book. I would not be writing this were The Opposite of Loneliness not very, very good. It is free of verbosity, of ambiguous language gussied up as brilliance. It doesn’t contain any banal insights delivered as revelation. There is no subliminal messaging to the reader about the flattering ways in which the author should be viewed. These omissions are rare ones, especially in personal essays and debut fiction. This book is among the least embarrassing I’ve ever read; that parts of it were written when Keegan was most likely still a teenager should humble any writer with even the faintest memory of their own early “work.”

It is impossible to read The Opposite of Loneliness and not get chills at what repeatedly feels like real-life foreshadowing. Keegan opens an essay about her celiac disease with a list of items she will request on her deathbed. There will, of course, be no such list. In another, she “imagin[es] dying slowly next to my mother or a lover, helplessly unable to relay my parting message.” In a story set on New Year’s Eve, the protagonist assures her mother, “Don’t worry, I’m driving.” There is an earnest, charming essay about her first car, and how the filth that accumulated inside of it served as a kind of correlative for her own adolescence. And then there are the heart-wrenching references to the children she will have, to the “someday” when she is pregnant. “I plan on having fun when I’m thirty,” Keegan writes. “I plan on having fun when I’m old.” In a buoyant editorial originally written for the Yale Daily News, she indulges her classmates’ collective, conspiratorial ambition: “Vaguely, quietly, we know we’ll be famous.”

Keegan’s fiction, which constitutes the first half of the book, is built around the kind of empathetic extrapolation that makes for all the best realism. I read a lot of fiction, but until reading Keegan’s I hadn’t ever really thought to be impressed by a writer’s ability to create imaginative emotional dynamics; I had always just taken it for granted that make-believe scenarios were what fiction writers conjured, that that’s what fiction is. But Keegan, especially devoted to her thought experiments, thoroughly pursues a situation’s ramifications upon its participants: What would it be like if the guy you’re hooking up with died? How would his family react to you? Would they even know who you are? Would his ex-girlfriend have more propriety over the situation than you? What would people whisper as you read a speech at his funeral? Would you want to read his journal? 

In another story, Keegan accurately captures the alien strangeness of being a college student home for the first time after her freshman fall: How missing somebody isn’t immediately alleviated by their presence, how uncomfortable it is to imagine ones parents living on together without you. While chatting with her unhappily married mother as she’s folding laundry, the protagonist receives a text message from her boyfriend. She lies and tells her mother it’s just a friend. The scene perfectly captures the awkwardness of having to re-categorize the people in your life—how awful it is to pity a parent and how mortifying it can feel to see them as an emotional peer.

For me, the high point of the entire volume was a single, half-page in “The Ingenue,” a story about a young woman visiting her boyfriend who has been away all summer working on a play. The story turns on a game of Yahtzee. “If it had been a second earlier or a second later I would have missed it,” says the protagonist, “but for some reason I looked back at him at that moment and saw his hand dart up toward the table and switch a two to a four. Just like that: rotating the die on its side and sliding his hand back to his lap.” “I was shocked,” she continues. “Literally incapable of comprehending what I’d seen. ... It was unfathomable to me. The game didn’t matter. The stakes were so low. There was no part of me that would—could—ever consider doing what he did.” The scene masterfully protracts time, charting the short but piercingly torturous seconds it takes to register a betrayal, documenting how a tiny infraction can mean the world. It’s like something out of Henry James. 

Sad is a word that feels too leeched of meaning to use here but I can’t think of another. The experience of reading this book is extremely and uncomfortably sad. I can barely recommend it. Of course celebrity shouldn’t have a bearing on our assessment of a life; a person’s promise shouldn’t be an indicator of how tragic we find their death. For her family and friends this makes no difference, but it’s just so obvious that Keegan would have been—would have continued to be—a star. She would have been famous, not quietly or vaguely, but really, really famous.