Bright, brief spark: Marina Keegan, who died in 2012. Image: Facebook.
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Grief in the conditional tense: the short, brilliant life of Marina Keegan

By twenty-two she had reached millions, written for the New York Times and campaigned for Obama. But then tragedy struck.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker there is a picture of a girl – tall, moon-faced, beautiful – wearing a yellow raincoat. The girl is smiling. The image is part of an advertisement for a new book, The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection of essays and short stories by the American wunderkind Marina Keegan.

In 2011, Keegan wrote an essay called “Even Artichokes Have Doubts”, in which she lamented the unthinking march of Ivy League graduates into jobs on Wall Street. The piece caught the attention of the business reporter Kevin Roose, who commissioned her to write about the subject for the New York Times. Internships at the Paris Review and the New Yorker followed. Keegan was destined for great things.

On graduating from Yale University in 2012, the 22-year-old published a short piece in a special edition of the Yale Daily News, handed out to students on their final day at university. When it was published online, it became an instant hit, racking up 1.4 million views.

“We have these impossibly high standards and we’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves,” she wrote. “But I feel like that’s OK. We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re 22 years old.”

Five days after graduating, on 26 May 2012, Marina died in a car crash on the edge of Cape Cod. She was travelling to her father’s 55th birthday when her boyfriend lost control of the vehicle.

“High on their posthumous pedestals, the dead become hard to see,” writes Anne Fadiman, one of Keegan’s writing tutors at Yale, in her introduction to The Opposite of Loneliness, which is published this month. “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”

And she is. Another journalist stunned by Keegan’s early promise was Jack Hitt, who invited her to work with him on the popular Chicago-based podcast This American Life. He recalls meeting her at a coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and being “elated by a rare feeling – the certainty that I had met a future associate, someone I would enjoy knowing and reading for the rest of my life”.

The response across the US press followed in a similar vein: an acute professional grief, expressed in the conditional tense. Alice Gregory, reviewing the book in the New Republic, seemed haunted by it. “We would have followed each other on Twitter, chatted at parties, been fellow recipients on CC-ed email chains about sublets and birthday parties,” she wrote, initially questioning whether the book should have been published.

Who would wish to see their juvenilia (some of which was written while the author was still at school) extracted from their laptop and made public? Writers outgrow their words. The dust jacket – as featured in the New Yorker advertisement – becomes difficult to look at.

Marina Keegan was an extraordinary figure, a young person of enormous potential who had already achieved a great deal. She campaigned for Obama in 2008 and organised for the Occupy movement. Her play Utility Monster was staged on the first anniversary of her death. “[She] was an activist,” the literary critic Harold Bloom told the Boston Globe. “She had not only ethos and logos – high character and intelligence – but the deepest kind of pathos as well.”

Throughout the 18 pieces in the collection, that pathos is delivered with a striking emotional intensity, in sharp and witty prose. Keegan doesn’t shirk her youthful naivety but makes a weapon of it, insisting that we question our choices and look ahead, no matter our age.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses