Lost Promise: the short, brilliant life of Marina Keegan

June 20 2014 / Financial Times

In autumn 2011 Marina Keegan, a precociously gifted English major at Yale who was being mentored by the eminent scholar Harold Bloom, published an essay in the college newspaper. “Even Artichokes Have Doubts” (the whimsical title suggests the influence of David Foster Wallace or George Saunders) was about the career choices of elite Ivy League graduates. Keegan, who also wrote and acted in plays, lamented how many of her peers – a quarter at Yale, she calculated – would soon be pursuing high-paying careers on Wall Street or in management consultancy.

This troubled and saddened Keegan, who was an activist in the Occupy movement and served as president of the Yale College Democrats. It told her something important about her generation of millennials and what they wanted, or were coerced into wanting, that she did not like.

The essay reached a readership far beyond her student peers and, after a version of it was republished in The New York Times, it inspired, Marina’s mother Tracy told me, a wide-ranging discussion about what America’s brightest young people should be doing with their lives in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession.

Just before she graduated in May 2012, Keegan wrote the cover piece for a special graduation edition of the Yale Daily News. “The Opposite of Loneliness” would be her farewell to a brilliant student career at Yale. It was also a plea to her fellow graduates not to waste time and to “make something happen to this world”. Keegan wrote often in the first person plural, as if she were speaking not only for herself but a generation. “What we have to remember is that we can still do anything,” she wrote in “The Opposite of Loneliness”. “We can change our minds. We can start over . . . The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating from college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”

The essay was a viral hit and seemed to confirm what everyone who knew Keegan already thought about her: that she was a young person of tremendous promise. One of her creative writing professors, Anne Fadiman, called her a “self-starting cornucopia”. You sense that Keegan knew she was good, perhaps the best of her cohort. “Vaguely, quietly, we know we’ll be famous,” she wrote in one piece at Yale.

Within a few days of graduating, Marina Keegan, who was preparing to take up a staff job on The New Yorker magazine after impressing there as an intern, was killed in a road accident. She and her boyfriend, Michael Gocksch, had been on their way to Marina’s father’s 55th birthday party in Cape Cod when the car hit a guardrail and overturned. An inquest revealed that Gocksch had fallen asleep at the wheel. He was unhurt in the crash but Keegan was declared dead at the scene. She was just 22.

When he was told what had happened, Harold Bloom said the young woman’s death was “beyond human comprehension”. He added: “It is 60 years since I first came to Yale. I can think of only a few other women and men I have taught whose presence always will be with me.”

. . .

Keegan’s damaged laptop was recovered from the wrecked car; from its hard drive her mother retrieved her unpublished writings. These, together with short stories and pieces from the Yale Daily News, have been collected in a book, The Opposite of Loneliness. Edited by Anne Fadiman, it has been a small sensation in the United States, where it has been widely and mostly generously reviewed. Keegan has, indeed, become famous but not in a way that she or anyone could have imagined or would have wished.

Many of the book’s themes – the confusions of romantic love, your first car, college jealousies and rivalries, the strangeness of returning home to your parents after a long period away – are juvenile: after all, Keegan was only 22 when she died. Yet there is a surprising preoccupation, too, with death and mutability and this gives the book depth and a kind of macabre retrospective fascination.

Milan Kundera has written about what he calls “the mathematical paradox in nostalgia: that it is most powerful in early youth, when the volume of the life gone by is quite small”. Keegan seems to have had a keen sense of this paradox: even as she prepared to leave Yale and was excited by her future prospects, she seemed to have been mourning something she understood could never be recaptured, the bright brilliant life of her student experience. “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness,” she wrote in her final piece, “but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.”

Tracy Keegan told me when we spoke on an indistinct phone line (she was on a train to New York), that her daughter was extraordinarily driven. “She grabbed life and ran with it,” she said. “Compassion, humanism and humour – these are the three strongest ingredients of our family. Marina was driven by her passions but also by a sense of urgency.” Why such urgency in one so young, I asked. “Perhaps she had a sense of things to come . . . ” Tracy Keegan’s voice faded, and then there was silence.

. . .

There is not much footage of Marina Keegan on YouTube, apart from some recordings of poetry recitals she gave at Yale. In one performance she recites from memory a long poem she wrote called “Bygones”, the last line of which is “And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” As she speaks you can see how she is drawing confidence from the audience and the pleasure their enthusiasm gives her.

It’s moving to watch this young woman speaking about everything being “so beautiful and so short”, knowing what happened to her soon afterwards. “High on their posthumous pedestals, the dead become hard to see,” writes Anne Fadiman in her introduction to The Opposite of Loneliness. “[But] Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”

As an undergraduate I had a special fascination with several writers who died too young, notably Keats, Wilfred Owen and Alain-Fournier, who wrote one enchanting novel, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), before he was killed shortly after enlisting to fight in the first world war. I loved them for what they had written but also for what they might have written had they lived even just a few more years.

It’s something like this with Marina Keegan’s first and last book. Her voice is so fresh, her enthusiasm so appealing, her ambition so boundless that you cannot help but wonder what she might have achieved with more life experience and once she was freed from the hothouse environment of an ultra-competitive Ivy League school. “When we encounter a natural style we are always surprised and delighted,” wrote the 17th-century polymath Blaise Pascal. Keegan had her own surprising and delightful natural style. She persuades by sweetness, not authority. She also had a very American sincerity but was never solemn or worthy. She performed in plays and was active in politics; her friends speak of her wit and warmth. For Fadiman, “Every aspect of her life was a way of answering that question, ‘How do you find meaning in your life?’”

I asked Tracy Keegan whether she felt any anxiety about exposing her daughter’s juvenilia to the world. “Marina would have been mortified,” she said, half joking, “but this is all we had to choose from. What has given me sparks of light in the darkness is the way people from all over the world have responded to [her graduation essay] “The Opposite of Loneliness”. So many have contacted us to say its message has changed their lives. This encouraged us to push through this whole thing and get more of her words out there in the world.”

Marina, her mother said, “was willing to put on paper her fears, hopes, insecurities, foibles, jealousies. She had courage. My daughter had courage in her writing.” And now she has many readers too.