June 20, 2014 6:30 pm

Marina Keegan: a young writer gone too soon

As a student, her urgent writing about her generation had already reached a wider audience. Her death, days after graduation, lends her words extra power

In autumn 2011 Marina Keegan, a precociously gifted English major at Yale who was being mentored by the eminent academic and literary critic Harold Bloom, published an essay in the college newspaper. “Even Artichokes Have Doubts” (the whimsical title suggests the influence of David Foster Wallace) 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 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 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 cleverest 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 year group. “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 smashed-up laptop was found in the crashed car; from the 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 US, 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.

Why such urgency, I asked her mother? ‘Perhaps she had a sense of things to come,’ she said

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 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. “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 . . . ” Her 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 very 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 Keegan’s first and last book. Her voice is so fresh, her enthusiasm so appealing, her ambition so great 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 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, she 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.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman

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Extract

‘Not one said they wanted to be a consultant or banker’

In 2011 Marina Keegan described her concerns about the number of Yale graduates heading to Wall Street. This is an edited extract.

If this year is anything like the last 10, around 25 per cent of employed Yale graduates will enter the consulting or finance industry. This is a big deal. This is a huge deal. This is so many people! This is one-fourth of our people! Regardless of what you think or with whom you’re interviewing, we ought to be pausing for a second to ask why.

I don’t pretend to know any more about this world than the rest of us. In fact, I probably know less. (According to the internet, a consultant is “someone who consults someone or something”.) But I do know that this statistic is utterly and entirely shocking to me. In a place as diverse and disparate as Yale, it’s remarkable that such a large percentage of people are doing anything the same – not to mention something as significant as their postgraduate plans.

Marina Keegan at her Yale graduation ceremony

Keegan (far right) at her Yale graduation ceremony, 2012

I want to understand.

* * *

In the spring of my sophomore year, I got my first email from McKinsey & Company. “Dear Marina,” it read, “Now that you have finished your sophomore year, I am sure that you’re starting to think about what the future may have in store for you.” (I hadn’t.) “Perhaps you are starting to experience that nervous, exciting, overwhelming feeling that comes with exploring the options that are coming your way at Yale, especially given your involvement in the Yale College Democrats. To help you get a better sense of what is out there, I thought I’d take the opportunity to provide some more insight into McKinsey.”

This weirded me out. How did they know I was involved with the Yale College Democrats? (How did they know about that nervous, exciting, overwhelming feeling!?) But despite myself, it made me feel special.

Of course, everyone gets these emails. I’m not special. Their team of recruiters is really good. They come to Yale with myriad other consultant firms and banks and sell themselves shamelessly and brilliantly to us from the time we turn 20. I don’t know much about consulting but I do know if I were having trouble recruiting smart kids for a job, I’d hire a consulting firm to help me out.

But it’s not just them. It’s us, too. I conducted a credible and scientific study this week – asking freshman after freshman what they thought they might be doing upon graduation. Not one said they wanted to be a consultant or an investment banker. Now, I’m sure that these people do exist – but they certainly weren’t expressing interest at a rate of 25 per cent. Unsurprisingly, most students don’t seem to come to Yale with explicit passions for these fields. Yet sometime between Freshman Screw and the Last Chance Dance something in our collective cogs shifts and these jobs become attractive.

* * *

One senior I spoke with has known what she’s wanted since freshman year. When asked what she hoped to do with her life, she responded immediately: “Oh, you know, I want to write and direct films or be an indie music celebrity.” Ironies of expression aside, there was a sincerity to her avowal. “I want to devote my life to the things that I love.” Yet on Monday evening she found herself at a top-tier consulting firm event, meeting and greeting in anticipation of her interview the next morning. “Of course I don’t want to be a consultant,” she said the night before, clutching a borrowed copy of Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point (the aspiring-consultant bible). “It’s just very scary to watch as many of your friends have already secured six-figure salaries and are going to be living in luxury next year.”

Like many students, she was roped in by the easy application process. All she had to do to apply to the firm was submit a résumé, cover letter, and transcript by the drop deadline.

Tatiana Schlossberg ’12 says: “There’s definitely a compulsion element to it. You feel like so many people are doing it and talking about it all the time like it’s interesting, so you start to wonder if maybe it really is.”

Of course, many I talked to expressed more explicit interest in the industry. Well, to be fair, most didn’t want to say anything at all. For every student I interviewed, at least four others refused. In the words of Michael Blume ’12, “They don’t wanna be interviewed ’cause they already be on the path to making mad bills . . .”

This essay appears in ‘The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories’ by Marina Keegan (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

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