Reflections on death, glory and great prose

Measuring our creative output to those our own age can be intimidating, especially when it is that of the recently deceased.

indepth1Death has the ability to concrete a writer’s reputation. The fact that they have passed on results in the eulogizing of their existing work, the glorification of their mediocre meanderings. Because their work now has a cap on it, it becomes ever more precious. Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen, but in the case of Marina Keegan’s “The Opposite of Loneliness” the work stands just as well on its own without the tragic backstory. Its significance seems amplified, however, by Keegan’s proximity to myself in terms of age. Keegan is the best writer my own age that I have ever read and to consider her a peer is a frightening prospect.

I have been through a long and rocky road through potential professions. Growing up watching James Bond on a loop I of course wanted to be a spy. The first issue with that was that I told anyone who would listen that being a secret agent was on my cards. I grew out of that and wanted to become an archaeologist (mostly on the basis of watching The Mummy) but this was quelled when one of my teachers asked me how I was going to survive on the pittance the profession yields. This did not stop me from asking whether it was more of a pittance than that which a teacher made. Throughout all these random career choices I have always written. There was something therapeutic about rewriting things that had happened or just writing about off the wall subjects.


Keegan challenged Mark Helprin, author of In Sunlight And In Shadow, because he spoke to Yale students and discouraged them from becoming writers because of the hardship they would face. She heavily believed that no one should discourage the craft of writing. Reading her writing makes me want to finish all of my unfinished work (beginning with the first story I ever wrote, the ominously titled “Twelve Days of Doom” that I wrote when I was ten). And yet, it is likely, despite writing this piece “Twelve Days…” will remain a mystery unsolved.

The story in question was the very advanced tale of three children walking up a laneway to a scary house. It is most memorable for its final line, at least its current final line, which was ridden with expletives. I wrote it in to shock and upset my grandmother. My reasoning behind this was that she, being an old woman, would never have heard such coarse language and would hail me a genius. This, of course, did not work; she merely looked at me wearily and said she liked it but that the swearing was unnecessary. I tried to explain it was Latin but this was to no avail. Perhaps I could have channeled the graphic elements of my writing better, as I still miss the days when I drew pictures of the villains in my stories beside the actual writing, should my descriptions not suffice. Despite its It was still a success in my pre-pubescent mind but will probably never amount to creating literary waves.

By contrast, Marina Keegan was valedictorian at Yale in 2012. She had a body of work that most writers could only of dream of having in their lifetime at the tender age of 22. She had acquired a job in The New Yorker, which she had both interned and been published. She had also written an off-Broadway play. She had a bright past and an even brighter future. Sadly, this was cut short by a freak car accident, which left her boyfriend unharmed but killed her instantly. “The Opposite of Loneliness” is a collection of nine short stories and nine essays that encompass most of her work.

The introduction to the book, by her professor and essayist Anne Fadiman outlines the motivation as the core of the volume. “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She’d want to be remembered because she’s good.” She is indeed good.

Keegan will always remain a cypher, a picture of a girl in a yellow coat as she is in her front cover. She wouldn’t even have wanted these pieces published as she was a furious re-editor of her own work. Her personal motto was “There can always be a better thing.” And yet she is reduced to being celebrated as a dead artist, part of a culture that glorifies dying young rather than encouraging and nurturing young people’s talent. Fadiman describes her pitiless re-editing and criticism of her own work as tireless. I tend more towards being happy if I am able to construct a sentence I like, let alone meet a deadline. The volume serves as an inspiration, but not in the wholesome life affirming way that Keegan would have hated.

Dying young

In a recent piece for Vice, Clive Martin claimed “Dying Young is Lame”. He launches into a polemic about young people’s morbid obsession with the 27 club, living fast and dying young and leaving that clichéd beautiful corpse. Keegan’s death was a tragedy because it was sprung from a freak accident. She would not want to be glorified; she would want to be respected as a writer who never got to peak, who never got to pick up the Pulitzer. Having just turned 22 myself, my own personal achievement is having my name called out in a pantomime. There is no comparison, it seems, and it makes me feel small.

Precociousness is no longer glorified. We fixate on Mozart writing his first piece of music at the tender age of six, but we don’t ever mention a 21st century equivalent. Sadly Marina Keegan didn’t live long enough to potentially become that figure. Instead we focus on pubescents eating bloody tampons, or 3 year olds arguing for cupcakes at once impressed their tenacity, but also condemning the society around us for creating these monsters. Which begs the question: Can a legitimate apotheosis occur while a figure is still alive?

I would hope so. The canonisation of someone who manages to produce work as good as Keegan’s at such a young age is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be examined as to whether people bought the book because she died or because her work is to an excellent standard.

Finding a voice

I am drawn to her work as it is very much the voice and writing of someone my own age, filled with self-doubt and with twinges of self-reference, though these are thankfully subtle. Her voice is unique and that is something to be heavily respected. I take too much trouble trying to ape the tone or metre of other writers, rather than establishing my own.

I once had an English teacher who believed in the concept of “The Steal”. This was all about finding phrases, ideas, descriptions that you liked enough to steal. It sprung from the T.S. Eliot quote “Good writers borrow, great writers steal”. I still keep a notebook of these “steals” but always feel like a hack when I add to it, borrowing others peoples wit and genius rather creating my own. Marina Keegan is the ideal candidate for these steals; her stories’ spines and key ideas are always things I wish I had thought of.

Interestingly, Keegan also kept a notebook, but not of other peoples interesting literary paraphernalia, but rather material from her own life. She ended up with thirty-two single spaced pages, some of which is likely totally useless, but it shows an incredible outward focus on the wider world around her. Most great writers are voyeurs and this only cements Keegan’s prowess. I cannot pretend to the same way of taking in the outside world. Perhaps that isn’t the point, though.

That this is Keegan’s only work is sad, but as her sole volume it could not be better. Keegan is unequivocally the best writer my own age I have ever read, and it is sad that upon finishing her book, I could not reassure myself that there would be more coming eventually. Still keeping my fingers crossed there is material undiscovered, within some introverted soul waiting to look outwards.

I once wrote a piece that I never ended up doing anything with on my own funeral. I’ve been to a grand total of two, so the piece was not overly realistic. But the point of the article was that I wouldn’t be happy dying until my funeral was big enough. I wanted professional wailers, tearful eulogies from eminent scholars who would mourn the loss of a great voice, an annual day of mourning.  My own personal Bloomsday, perhaps, but with less pretension. In short, you can see why it’s slightly premature to want this funeral in print. Perhaps that is why I feel so sad that Marina Keegan is dead; her funeral just wasn’t big enough yet.