“Watching Boys Do Stuff”: Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters

I recently came across Joyce Johnson’s 1983 book Minor Characters on a Goodreads list of memoirs by women, and I was intrigued to find a female voice from the Beat Generation.

At first, it seemed too good to be true. I hadn’t heard of a female writer among the Beats, even when studying them in college courses. After all, most Beat criticism quotes the following observation from Allen Ginsberg: “The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” So who was Joyce Johnson? Would her book have literary merit, or would it be a just-okay read, piggybacking off of Kerouac’s celebrity?

Johnson’s cover features the original photo used in a 1993 Gap ad “Kerouac wore khakis.” As one can see, her figure was gently erased.

Speaking for herself, Johnson is almost unrecognizable as a Beat woman. Whereas in On the Road, et al., the women are all legs and beds – sirens of small towns, briefly featured, ultimately discarded – Johnson is a Barnard graduate and aspiring writer, living in New York City. She holds jobs at various literary agencies, gets a book deal, and rents her own apartment. Kerouac mopes through town, between stays at his mother’s house, and crashes on her living room floor.

One of the highlights of reading Johnson is precisely what she has promised in her title: a sketch of life as a minor character, a girl stuck on the sidelines of the boy gang camaraderie. Consider this image of Edie Parker in Johnson’s opening chapter:

“One night Lucien Carr found an empty barrel and rolled Jack Kerouac home in it — that’s a solemnly recorded fact. As it crashes along Broadway through the hot, empty streets with Lucien attempting to push it faster and faster, I see Edie Parker running after it a little off to the side. She’s telling herself she’s having a swell time as she looks out for cops over her shoulder.”

This scene calls to mind Claire Vaye Watkins’ 2015 essay “On Pandering,” in which Watkins introduces the concept of “watching boys do stuff”:

“As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. . . I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.”

picture 3
This photo was featured in Watkins’ original piece.

When I first read Watkins’ essay, part of my experience that had remained a nameless frustration suddenly presented itself clearly. Friday nights during junior high and high school spent watching football games, in makeup and tight shirts, even though I didn’t like football. Going over to boys’ houses, only to get stuck watching them play video games. Studying abroad with boys who were always saying “take a picture of me here,” “Liz, can you videotape me doing this?” Senior year of college, sitting silently with my cup of whisky (all they had), listening to them debate in ever-louder registers about a random philosophical question. Primarily interested in each other as opponents, the girls mostly watched.

Reflecting on the social conditioning that leads to hours, days, collective months of forced spectatorship can be embittering. And Johnson understands that – and understood it long before anyone had started using the hashtag #watchingboysdostuff.

Of course, the practice of spectating and the art of writing are naturally intertwined. Baudelaire’s flaneur roams the streets at the turn of the 20th century, yet lives inside his mind – David Foster Wallace writes “Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers . . . They are born watchers,“ at the turn of the 21st. Johnson recognizes herself as a natural observer, quiet and watchful. But she moved in a community of writers, and, upon reading her eloquent prose, it seems should have had equal footing within it.

Thus Johnson explains not only what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society, but specifically how it feels to be an emerging female writer in a literary movement that prioritized the kind of writing that only (white, privileged) maleness afforded.

For example, on the first day of a creative writing class at Barnard, a male professor asked Johnson’s class of young women, “Who among you want to be writers?” Slowly, they all raised their hands. He responded, “I’m sorry to say this . . . first of all, if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You couldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight [trains, riding through America.”

picture 2
The young Johnson.

Johnson writes, “The young would-be writers in this room have understood instantly that of course there is no hope. One by one their hands have all come down.”

To read Minor Characters, then, is to be part of a victory – to bring to life a tale that was ignored and stifled for a long time. Moreover, to hear the unsexy account of how Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg moved through the world is unexpectedly heartening – it gives hope to the quieter type, the more socially-boxed-in person, that he/she can live fully, and write well, too.


[Photo credit:]

Photo 1: https://www.overdrive.com/media/209027/minor-characters

Photo 2: http://www.openculture.com/2013/02/kerouac_wore_khakis.html

Photo 3: https://tinhouse.com/on-pandering/

Photo 4: https://doitagaindreen.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/joyce-johnson-lets-dance-to-a-female-beat/




Articulating the Infinite: Patti Smith on Why She Writes

Patti is back, albeit in brief.


Devotion (2017) is the second volume in Yale Press’s new “Why I Write,” series, which launched in 2015 to publish the keynote addresses from Yale’s annual literary festival.

Smith’s slim treatise is tripartite. It opens with “How the Mind Works,” an account of a recent journey to Paris on a leg of her book tour. Next comes “Devotion,” a short-story about an ice-skating prodigy in WWII-era Switzerland, which Smith composes during the trip while riding the train from Paris to London. She closes with “A Dream Is Not a Dream,” a reflection on the story she’d written and a wrap of the trip.

Notably, Devotion contains Smith’s first published work of short fiction. Her recent, bestselling memoirs Just Kids (2010) and M Train (2014) are rendered lyrically and contain excerpts of poetry – but they are first and foremost glimpses of Smith’s life as an artist. In Just Kids, Smith writes of young, broke, wishful years in New York City with her dear friend, renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In M Train, she walks us through a day in the life of her present-day 70-year-old self, who wanders around New York City drinking giant cups of gas station coffee and finding inspiration in relics of artists past. But there’s little to suggest in these memoirs that Smith herself has any history of or interest in writing fiction. Thus Devotion presents something new and even unexpected: a parable about creativity and talent in which neither writing nor Smith herself are the focus.


As an addition to the “writers on writing” sub-genre, Devotion is a unique offering because it explores the question of why we write, rather how to write. Instead of breaking down her daily routine, sharing tales of early failure, and offering neatly packaged advice (“write shitty first drafts,” “kill your darlings”), Smith explores the origins of creative passion – where it comes from, how it feels, why it captures us.

Through a young figure-skating savant named Eugenia, Smith describes what it feels like to first discover one’s creative calling:

On my fifth birthday [my uncle] took us to an ice pageant. I remember this most of all. 

After I saw the skaters I cried for three days and three nights. . . Perhaps I recognized my destiny but was too young to fully comprehend what that meant . . . When I first stepped onto the ice I faltered, not out of fear, but excitement, for something wonderful happened. Everything I needed was revealed to me in a split second, like suddenly knowing all the answers to a difficult test, or the exact route to an impossible destination . . . 

Smith’s vision may seem a bit grandiose here – perhaps even unrealistic. For me, it calls to mind the myth of another young prodigy by the name of Will Hunting…

Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.

As in any proper parable, these storytellers exaggerate certain details to highlight the point. And the point is not, as one might think, how convenient it would be if things like organic chemistry or pianos immediately made sense.

The key lies in a minor admission Will makes earlier in this exchange. He concedes that he has studied organic chemistry before. “For kicks,” he says. Skylar responds, “Are you mad?”


That’s the point. See alternate title for Smith’s book: Devotion (Am I Mad?)

So, why does Eugenia skate? Why does Will study organic chemistry in his free time? Why does Patti write?

Smith shows us that the mystery is the reason. In the pursuit of our particular, randomly-given talents and/or passions – whether for ice skating, mathematics, or writing – we encounter Truth. For Eugenia, the ice is a point of divine contact:

I saw it all before me, in an instant that instantly disappeared, yet made it’s mark. I intuited that when I was ready I held the key.

Importantly, the sublime glimpse is no more than that – a glimpse. Finding one’s passion is not a gateway to total, unimpeded understanding. It does, however, contain the promise of understanding, which is enough to sustain a life. Whether one responds as Eugenia, heeding the call and building a daily practice (yet forestalled by the evil forces of the world) — or as Will Hunting, denying the call’s centrality (impeded by shame and unworthiness) — the Truth can’t be unseen.


Indeed, Smith affirms this answer in the nonfiction, third part of her book, “A Dream is Not a Dream:”

What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exits.

The dream gives meaning, purpose, and a shape to one’s life.  It imparts confidence in one’s unique beauty — in being wanted and loved by the universe. It’s attainment is nothing less than communion with the world (however brief) – which is the ultimate joy.

Smith’s final line: “Why do we write? . . . Because we cannot simply live,” affirms our fundamental condition as seekers. As someone who seeks through writing, the story resonated deeply. As someone who has never committed a creative act on ice, I can’t speak to whether this parable rings true beyond the writing few.

If you want to find out, I’ll mail you my copy.


Anne Lamott’s Latest Falls Short

I first discovered Anne Lamott last fall, when I mentioned to my friend, Grace, that I was “getting into Catholic writers again,” like Mary Karr and Thomas Merton. Grace recommended Christian writer Anne Lamott and suggested I start with her recent spiritual memoir, Small Victories (2014).

I liked Lamott immediately. I found her witty tales of growing up among the liberal literati familiar and enlightening, and her story of addiction, recovery, and faith inspiring.  I picked up three more of her shorter books: Help Thanks Wow, Stitches, and Bird by Bird. As I continued to enjoy her flippant yet humble storytelling, I pre-ordered her new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, several months ahead of time (unprecedented).

When the much-anticipated title arrived on April 4, I smiled at it’s salmon-and-silver jacket. Flipping through the purple typeface, I thought “wohoo, Anne is back!”


Or was she?

After reading the first few pages, I had no memory of what I’d just read. I read and reread the sentences, but they weren’t cohering. Did I need sleep? Coffee? Exercise? Earplugs?

I put the book down. I’d try again later.

To regain confidence in my reading comprehension, I picked up Elif Batuman’s new book The Idiot. My quest was a success – The Idiot is not only intelligible, but one of the best novels I’ve read in the last few years (review to come).

A week later, I opened Hallelujah Anyway again. I started from the beginning, hoping for a fresh start.

Again, I met frustration. It soon became clear that Lamott’s writing – the very same writing I had grown to love and trust in Small Victories, Stitches, and Help Thanks Wow – was at fault. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Take the excerpt on the back cover, for instance:

“I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

This should’ve been the first clue.

That is eight adjectives to describe mercy, the majority of which conjure abstract concepts. Anne invites us to “rediscover mercy” via the dictionary.

Sentences like the one above comprise seventy-five percent of the book. Lamott flits from line to line, paragraph to paragraph tacking so many different descriptors to mercy that the word begins to fade out of focus.

“Mercy means radical kindness. . . Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten. . . Mercy, grace, forgiveness and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves – our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice.”

Lamott’s writing does not live up to the promise of its deep purple font.

Lamott gives us too many options. Mercy is a, b, c, and maybe also d; it’s the f and g of h and j. Her sentences feel urgent and unsettled, losing the reader with sharp turns at each comma. I found myself re-reading often, searching for the elusive pearls of Lamott wisdom I had come for. But by the next sentence, Lamott had apparated elsewhere, leaving me sighing with annoyance.

There are moments where Lamott slows down, where glimpses of her former self appear. These are instances in which she approaches mercy anecdotally. For example, Lamott tells the story of her Jesuit priest friend Tom’s experience at an AA meeting in LA, in which a drunk man soils himself walking into the meeting and a team of people help him shower and clean up. She describes retail exhaustion in Zoologie (surely a thinly disguised Anthropologie) in which a salesgirl finds her on a couch and offers a tiny paper cup of water.

Unfortunately, these stories are few and far between. One must trudge through the muck, braving confusion and whiplash:

“Something is at work mending the cut on my hand right now, as if hidden in the skin with atomic knitting needles. Over the years, when it has been in the mood and has its nursing cap on, this something has imperfectly patched up the rifts in my damaged family, the deeper dents in my heart, let alone evil in South Africa, has transformed us from clenched, victimized, and shut down, to taking gulps of fresh air like a baby pinking up.

“Horribly, it does not issue printed schedules.”fullsizeoutput_244c

As Washington Post contributer Anne Bauer aptly put it in her review: “I’m sorry. What?”

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994), Lamott likens writing to hosting. She suggests that readers arrive at one’s pages seeking communion, and it’s the writers’ job to welcome them home. In Hallelujah Anyway, Lamott is a well-meaning but harried host – multi-tasking and inattentive. She’s dodging through rooms greeting newcomers, moving appetizers in and out of the oven, rearranging the shoe pile, looking for a ladder to fix a burnt-out bulb. One wishes she would put it all down, come sit by us on the couch, and do what she does best: tell a story.

Lit by Mary Karr

For the first few weeks after reading Lit by Mary Karr, I could not walk into a restroom without thinking of prayer. While struggling to accept the customary Higher Power imperative of her 12-step AA program, Karr reluctantly offers her first prayers on the cold tiles of more than one bathroom. One such prayer closet lies within the same Cambridge “loony bin” (Karr’s term) where poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton may too have knelt during their respective stays.


Published in 2010, Lit is the third of Karr’s bestselling memoirs. While The Liar’s Club (1995) and Cherry (2002) delve into the author’s turbulent childhood and teenage years respectively, Lit traces the journey of the adult Mary Karr from low-income college student at a Midwestern LAC to acclaimed poet, memoirist, and professor of creative writing. Lit‘s 386 pages primarily contain Karr’s first marriage and subsequent divorce, her struggle with alcoholism as a young mother – transitioning her journey to sobriety and religious conversion.

Prior to Lit, my personal exploration of Karr’s work was limited to The Liar’s Club and her most recent poetry collection, Sinners Welcome (2009). Yet again, I found Karr’s particular gift to be a profound, pleasantly irreverent voice and a figure skater’s finesse with a sentence. For example, standing in the kitchen, pregnant with her first child, and just having learned that her first poetry book would be published:

“I chew my caramel, satisfied as a brood sow in a mud wallow. Neither good nor ill can reach me.”

While skilled with imagery, Karr also knows how to drop metaphoric fluff to great effect:

“I keep getting drunk. There’s no more interesting way to say it.”

Despite Karr’s engaging wordsmithery, I sometimes found her adult emotional life difficult to access. For example, Karr repeatedly emphasizes that her son, Dev, is the reason she was able to become and remain sober. Dependent-free twenty-two-year-old that I am, I found myself wondering: What do you mean you looked at him and knew you had to stop?

I imagine a collective sigh from mothers around the world as they look wistfully past my genuinely confused face, and offer former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz’s poetic yet unhelpful description of Notre Dame:

“If you’ve been there, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, none is adequate.”

I raise this only because I’ve recently read the mother’s perspective better conveyed. Creative nonfiction writer Maggie Nelson excels in this area in The Argonauts (2015), in which she explores every detail of having a child in a way that challenges and enlightens. After a thorough description of giving birth to her son Iggy, Nelson writes:

“He is perfect, he is right. He has my mouth, incredible. He is my gentle friend. He is on me, screaming.”

There is much to discuss with Nelson – a blog for another time.

Yet I didn’t pick up Lit for Karr’s journey to sobriety, her account of motherhood, or even her story of becoming a professional writer – I picked it up because of one line on her Wikipedia page: “[Lit is] my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.”

Seems to have the secrets.

Prior to reading Lit, I mentioned my interest in Karr’s “unlikely Catholicism” to a friend. His response: “This might be what does it: Liz the Catholic.” Despite 16 years of Catholic schooling and a genuine interest in spirituality, I had taken a well-advertised break from Catholicism while in college. As someone who had recently bowed-out (with a bit of sound and fury), I had to know: why would someone choose Catholicism after having no religion for 30+ years?

Flipping through my crinkled copy of Lit, which had been baptized with coffee, I notice that my annotating hand was particularly drawn to passages that confess spiritual reluctance. Karr calls this her”outlaw ethos.” Rather than delving into disagreements with doctrine or skewering corrupt popes, she openly discusses a deep aversion to the basic idea of God.

For example, “I’m trying to start hearing the word God without some reflexive flinch that coughs out the word idiot.”

Any word on whether kindles are coffee-proof?

Karr’s hilarious forthrightness about her internal ego battle is the highlight of Lit. In successfully living beyond addiction and igniting spiritual healing, she is particularly accessible for those (like myself) who have become flippant about religion due to various news items, life events, etc. More than ‘we the flippant’ would like to admit, spiritual isolation can be a painfully empty feeling, and it requires a major push to turn around and proceed in the opposite direction. Perhaps surprisingly, it may help to read every possible facetious comment articulated by a well-respected poet.

Following a prayer journey begun in a bathroom, Karr delivers a glimpse of the other side: “The spiritual lens . . . is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved.” Karr’s is a narrative worth encountering.






Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl

REVIEW: Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

One cannot walk very far into a bookstore these days without spotting a new memoir by a familiar, talented, currently successful woman. A happy development, as I see it. I have been snatching them up ever since the debut of Tina Fey’s Bossypants – titles including Amy Poehler’s Yes Please!, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and Why Not Me?, etc. (Slighly outside of this category is Patti Smith, whose 2015 memoir M Train I recently devoured on the plane home for Christmas.) Today I want to briefly discuss a new nonfiction writer on the scene, Sleater-Kinney guitarist and Portlandia creator, Carrie Brownstein.


I first spotted the chalky black cover of Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl near a Joan Didion biography in an exceedingly well-curated bookshop in St. Louis, MO called Subterranean Books. Intrigued but easily distracted, I ended up leaving that bookshop with a pocked-sized copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Two weeks later, a friend recommended the Amazon TV series Transparent (Jill Soloway, lots of awards, great show) in which Brownstein acts, and I threw Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl on my Christmas list.

I began Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl hesitantly even skeptically. Would it be interesting to me at all? A book focused on the history of a band I had never heard of until recently?

Then I read this line on the first page of the opening chapter: “My story starts with me as a fan. And to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.” With that gem of a thought, I committed to the journey. Brownstein seeks to make her journey as a young artist accessible, thought-provoking, even philosophical.


I’ve read the occasional music memoir – most recently Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Though reading about Kiedis’ struggles with addiction, fame, etc. was a worthwhile empathetic experience, at times it felt like an extended Rolling Stone interview: “Tell the readers EXACTLY where you were when the lyrics to ‘Under the Bridge’ came to you.”

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is more than a simple chronology of album releases and subsequent tours – it is an introspective exercise into the creative process, an intentional dispelling of rock-and-roll mythology, and generally, a portrait of a young artist’s life. She discusses her transformation from concert attendee to performer, from student to creator, from fan to icon.

Not graduates of a Hunter Safety course.

For example, Brownstein discusses the “codified language” of the indie music culture of 1990s Olympia, Washington. It’s a familiar concept, this snobbish side-effect of knowing a little bit too much about a particular thing. “You know [insert obscure band]?” “Cool, you should also check out [even more obscure group], they just started playing today and only like three people have heard this song.” I’m sure most people can think of a category in which they are guilty of dismissing newcomers and subtle one-upmanship. One of Brownstein’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to identify common social tendencies – particularly those within the music scene – and to nudge readers to reexamine them. (Relevant Portlandia clip: “Did You Read It?”)

Brownstein is an insightful writer and an appealing – if at times overly self-deprecating – personality. She discusses struggles with inattentive, independently troubled parents, anxiety and depression, and loneliness in early adulthood. Her story is relatable and strikingly modest. Additionally, and importantly, Carrie is a killer guitarist. One won’t find a trace of self-promotion in the novel, but evidence can be found in the song “Entertain” from Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 album “The Woods.”

Leave Marcus Aurelius on the shelf (to collect the dust of good intentions) and take Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl to the checkout.  If nothing else – listen to Sleater-Kinney’s new reunion album, No Cities to Love (2015). Carrie says it best: “To become a fan of something, to open and change, is a move of deliberate optimism, curiosity, and enthusiasm.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl? More like gone are the three days I wasted reading this terrible book.

gone girl
Publisher: Crown June 5, 2012 ISBN: 978-0297859383


Gone Girl has been everywhere this year; it’s ominous black and red color eyeing me from bookstore windows, appearing on magazine bestseller lists, and invading my email inbox via Amazon, Powells, and Abebooks… but for a long time, I resisted reading it. Crime fiction has never been particularly compelling to me, and I’m currently anxious to continuing crossing books off my “classics to read” list.

Upon hearing that Ben Affleck was directing and starring in the movie version, however, I finally caved and bought the damn book.

Does he look like someone who would star in a bad movie? (Oh wait... Gigli...)
Does he look like someone who would star in a bad movie?

Essentially, I hated it.

It’s unusual for me to vehemently dislike a book. Especially a book that the New York Times and the Huffington Post (to name a few) have identified as one of the best books of the year, and that the New Yorker described as “absorbing” and “masterly.”

So it’s possible that I’m missing something here. But for what it’s worth, I would put this on a list titled: “Shitty Book That Everyone Is Reading.” (Right next to Fifty Shades of Grey.)

Quick plot intro:

Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. Outwardly, they are two beautiful, successful, smart people. Behind closed doors, their marriage has been strained following layoffs, relocation, and parental illness. On their fifth wedding anniversary, things take a turn for the horrifying when Amy disappears from her home, and the police begin to suspect foul play. The nation gets swept up in the story (Casey Anthony style) and Nick, while claiming innocence, looks increasingly suspicious. But could he really be guilty of homicide?

Implicit answer: The only way to find out is to buy this book! Only $10 in paperback!

Thanks to this mosquito-bite of a summary, Gone Girl became a New York Times Best Seller because everyone is itching to find out (ha): What happened to Amy?!

Let me assure you, you don’t need to know.

Why? Because during the revelation process, you will encounter the following:

  • Poor characterization. Even after 400 pages of first-person narration that alternated between Nick and Amy, I could not understand, connect with, or empathize with either of them. Their personality traits changed from chapter to chapter, conflicting and rearranging so that by the end of the book I still found myself asking: “Who are these people?”
  • Predictable plot. For a book that’s supposed to be “shocking” and “wickedly-clever” and “irresistible,” I found it surprisingly easy to anticipate what was coming next. This was no Michael Connelly plot, with surprising twists and brilliant sleuthing by lawyers and law enforcement. It slowly, painfully, unfolds and continues to disappoint.
My advice to crime fiction lovers: stick with these.
My advice to crime fiction enthusiasts: stick with these.
  • Ultimate shallowness. This book is full of one-dimensional characters living shallow, uninteresting lives. Nick and Amy aren’t vulnerable; their struggles aren’t inspiring. And because the reader is stuck inside these dreary minds throughout the novel, the rest of the characters appear equally flat. I spent the whole novel searching for depth and came up empty-handed.

(Note: I read Gone Girl right after Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which had some of the most well-developed, sympathetic characters I have ever encountered. So it’s possible that my expectations regarding depth of meaning were temporarily heightened. But still.)

Read this instead!
Read this instead!

My advice: Don’t waste your time. If you still feel an intense need to know what happened to Amy, wait for Ben Affleck to revive her in theaters this fall. At least there will be popcorn.

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Publisher: Scribner (April 8, 2014) ISBN: 978-1476753614
Publisher: Scribner              April 8, 2014                         ISBN: 978-1476753614



“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.”

– Marina Keegan (1989-2012)

The Opposite of Loneliness is a 200 page collection of short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by Marina Keegan, a brilliant twenty-two-year-old writer who died tragically in a car accident five days after graduating from Yale. Though Marina’s heartbreaking death undeniably casts a shadow over the book, her humor, creativity, and insightfulness infuse her stories with stimulating energy. Her most memorable tales include “Cold Pastoral,” in which a young woman in college must navigate the tragic death of a “not-quite-boyfriend;” a short and poignant poem that begins: “So what I’m trying to say is you should text me back,” and “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” an essay in which Marina discusses the shocking statistic that 25% of Yale graduates dutifully march on to work for consulting firms after graduation.

The consulting firm machine
I too fear the consulting firm machine

Marina’s creative plots invite readers to reflect on the human condition within the context of relationships, including romantic, parent/child, human/technology, and even car/driver. She is readable, she is wise, she is witty, she is someone with whom I want to drink coffee and discuss politics. Remarkably, she combines a spirit of youthful progressivism with the wisdom of a seasoned college professor.

As a college student and an English literature major, I spend a lot of time reading things from distant eras filled with unfamiliar landscapes, outfits, speech patterns, and histories. This forces me to spend an unfortunate amount of time whipping out my iPhone to Wikipedia words, peoples and places, attempting to connect the dots and make the story more accessible. (Then I inevitably end up texting my roommate or ordering books on Amazon, and two hours later I realize that I’ll have to stay up until 4am if I want to finish Beowulf.) One of my favorite things about The Opposite of Loneliness was that it rendered google unnecessary. Those born in the late eighties and nineties will find it effortless to engage with the topics, phrases, and references Marina utilizes. She mentions “The Dark Knight,” group iMessages, and the confusingly noncommittal dating culture in college, to name a few.

This book is perfect for:

  • College students, late teens and twenty-somethings
  • Progressives, liberals, radicals
  • Thinkers, readers, careful observers of people
  • Minds that thrive on navigating gray areas, doubting, and questioning
Marina drove around the Northeast with some version of this sticker on her 1990 Toyota Camry
Marina drove around the Northeast with some version of this sticker on her 1990 Toyota Camry

The way I feel about Marina Keegan the author, her plots, and her beautiful prose is perfectly captured in the following quote from the beginning of her book:

“And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.”