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2 May 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:45am

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.

By Philip Maughan

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.

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“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.

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