"We're so young. We're so young... We have so much time."
This excerpt from an essay by Marina Keegan was published in a special edition of the Yale Daily News and distributed at the 2012 commencement exercises when she graduated from Yale summa cum laude. Sadly, Keegan was killed in a car accident on Cape Cod, five days after graduation, en route to her father's birthday party.
A writer, playwright and social activist, Keegan had already achieved some degree of literary success by the age of 22. One of her short stories had been published in The New Yorker and she was supposed to start a job with its editorial department a few weeks after graduation. In addition, a musical she wrote was accepted by the New York International Fringe Festival.
After her death, her essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, published on the web, went viral with more than 1.4 million hits and was later reprinted in The New York Times. Almost two years later, Keegan's writing is published posthumously in this absorbing collection of fiction and non-fiction.
The first half of the book contains her spare, lucid short stories, many of them echoing autobiographical elements such as university settings and the Generation Y protagonists and their sense of angst. In Winter Break, the heroine states, "I didn't know what I wanted. Cigarette holes had started spotting the sides of my skirts and the semester had refined a profundity to the world that I could photograph or turn into a bad poem."
First published in The New Yorker, Cold Pastoral focuses on a young female student struggling to cope with the untimely death of her boyfriend. After inadvertently discovering his journal, she must then confront her misperceptions of their relationship.
The Ingenue deals with a young woman who attends the final performances of a play in which her boyfriend has the lead, succumbing to jealousy because of the attention he lavishes on his female co-star.
Two of the stories, Reading Aloud and Sclerotherapy, revolve around female baby boomers. In both cases, the characters must reassess their lives and cope with change as a result of incidents that befall them.
The Emerald City is a 21st-century epistolary tale. The narrative consists of emails written by an American soldier in Baghdad to his girlfriend in the United States. At the outset, he receives a promotion to deputy housing secretary and is given an office in the former palace of Saddam Hussein. Throughout the piece, Keegan aptly captures the weirdness of the setting, the tension of living there and the protagonist's deteriorating mental state.
Midway through the book, readers are treated to a series of Keegan's essays on a wide range of topics, including whales, exterminators, the future of the universe and aggressive tactics used by financial institutions to recruit graduates. Regardless of the subject matter, Keegan's breezy style and depth of analysis render her writing lively and thought-provoking.
A few of the essays address personal issues. In Against the Grain, Keegan informs us about celiac disease through anecdotes about her lifelong experience with the condition. In The Opposite of Loneliness, Keegan extols the virtues of campus life while expressing apprehension about the uncertainties of post-university world.
Despite her short life, Keegan's fiction and nonfiction have served as a voice for her generation. How sad that she didn't live long enough to reach her full potential, yet how fortunate we are that a body of her work lives on through the publication of this book.
Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.