Friday, 24 July 2015

The Opposite of Loneliness: youth, anxiety & perfectionism

I recently finished Marina Keegan's The Opposite of Loneliness. I first added it to my Goodreads shelf a year ago and since then, this collection of essays and short stories has blown up. In March, the German translation was released, which is when it reappeared on my radar and I thought I should finally get round to reading it.

Before doing so, I felt compelled to read a bit more about the author's background: I found out that she went to Yale; she was mentored and recognised by massive voices in the American literary world; she'd had a job lined up at the New York Times.
None of this made her a bad person, of course, but I still went into the book with a degree of scepticism. The exact same fatal car accident could happen to anyone, anywhere, and they wouldn't get a whole book published - even if they did indeed leave behind a load of written work.

I think I have only ever read one other book by a dead girl (and by that I mean a book where that's kind of the whole reason it was put out). The first time I read the Diary of Anne Frank, aged 15 or so, I was hooked. The thinner the stack of pages grew in my right hand, the more aware I became that her time was running out.
When I got to the epilogue giving away her fate, I burst into tears. Of course I already knew what happened to her, from history lessons and so on, but to see it actually written there, after all this time getting to know her through the pages of her diary... it was too much.

Although Anne and Marina's respective circumstances are obviously wildly different, there's still something deeply stirring about a young and promising life cruelly cut short. In an article for Die Welt, Ronja Larissa von Rönne asks why it's this young woman's death that is being marketed, not her talent. I think she's totally right; it is the kind of creepy, Laura-Palmer-fascination that's omnipresent not only in pop culture like films, but also in real life, in the way facts are presented and the type of language we use - that is, emotive and gendered language.

'She had a stroke at the age of 24 / it could have been a brilliant career,' sang Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian in 1998.
I turned 24 this year and it's this word "brilliant" that constantly agitates me. "Brilliant" means "extraordinary". "Extraordinary" is something we all want to be deep down, I think, even if we're reluctant to admit it.

For a while I have been plagued by a fear of dying and leaving nothing behind, which relates strongly to my perfectionism. To be more specific, I'm anxious I won't have published a novel by the time I die - a good novel, at that. In fact, I want to publish many novels by the time I die, I want to publish books of personal writing, I want a career and a legacy. How was Marina's writing obtained after she died? Had she published all of it (or at least put it out there in some other deliberate way)? Or did someone have to trespass into her hard drive or personal notebooks? There is so much half-finished work I have that I would definitely be embarrassed to have published as it is. Why does it matter that people I've never met have some kind of impression or opinion of me?

More than anything else, though, The Opposite of Loneliness reminded me that we seem to live in a culture where you're only worth something if you go after your dreams - and in many cases, this is only possible if you are in the right place at the right time. Is going after your dreams even always a good idea? (Fellow Berlin-based blogger Adam actually delved into that yesterday.)

As with all human beings on this planet, it is important to keep in mind that Marina Keegan was a good writer, but she wasn't the Messiah. Since finishing the book, I have been wondering a lot about what Marina was actually like as a person, beyond the marketing, beyond the flattering obituaries. All I have is this book, plus some YouTube videos of her spoken poetry, which demonstrate her charismatic and appealing demeanour. I did come across this piece by her friend, Cameron Keady, who provides some personal insight into the Marina beyond The Opposite of Loneliness. Loving someone doesn't mean focusing solely on their good qualities.

Regarding the book's actual content: I liked it, overall. Some pieces grabbed me more than others; I loved the essays about her first car and her gluten allergy. I dog-eared a few pages because I found some turns of phrase in her short stories quite beautiful. I get a feeling this book is going to gain pop culture traction over the years; Alok Vaid-Menon has already written a poem namedropping it.

Ronja von Rönne concludes that we should definitely read the book, but not buy it, which is an interesting hint towards how we consume contemporary media (do people borrow it from friends, the library, download illegal PDFs?). As far as I'm concerned, you can buy it, borrow it, but most of all, you can use the opportunity to consider what we, as 20-somethings, are we truly motivated by and what we hope will be different in our world after we've achieved our goals.