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Motifs of Decadence in Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness Essay

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Updated: Jul 31st, 2021

Since it was published posthumously in 2014, Marina Keegan’s collection of short stories The Opposite of Loneliness continues to enjoy much popularity with the reading audience. Probably the main reason for this is that the themes and motifs explored by Keegan in these stories resonate well with a number of unconscious “post-industrial” anxieties in readers. This implies that the literary work in question should not be regarded as being merely a personal account of different challenges that the author has dealt with while growing up and her reflective thoughts about what should be deemed these challenges’ discursive significance.

Rather, The Opposite of Loneliness should be seen as such that provides us with in-depth insights into what constitutes the most notable existential predispositions in the representatives of Generation Y (born between 1977 and 1994) as a whole. In the paper, the author will explore the validity of this suggestion at length while promoting the idea that Keegan’s collection of essays holds the actual key to understanding the ongoing geopolitical decline of the West, in general, and America, in particular.

Marina Keegan was born in 1989: the year that is now being commonly referred to as such that signifies the beginning of America’s rise to the position of the world’s only superpower. This means is that her formative years have been heavily affected by the discourse of this country’s “exclusivity.” After all, throughout the historical period in question, America was in charge of building and enforcing the “world new order.” (Knox 2).

What also contributed rather substantially towards forming Keegan’s attitudes in life is that throughout the nineties, American society was enjoying the unprecedentedly high rate of economic prosperity, with more and more citizens beginning to take such a state of affairs for granted. As the practice indicates, however, if people enjoy a good living for much too long, it becomes only a matter of time before they start turning decadent, in both intellectual and physical senses of this word (Alexander and Sysko 3). This, in turn, creates the objective preconditions for the society to begin experiencing socio-political tribulations.

There can be very little doubt as to both the high literary value of The Opposite of Loneliness and the fact that while working on her essays, Keegan proved herself as a talented young writer. Nevertheless, it also appears that the concerned stories’ semiotic patterns bear an unmistakable mark of decadence. The validity of this suggestion is best shown concerning Keegan’s nonfiction (autobiographical) essays in the second part of the book.

After all, as one can infer from reading them, the author was on the pathway of becoming a typical White “yuppie”: a well-educated, intellectually refined, and overly sensitive individual, who nevertheless is quite incapable of effectively addressing even the most basic life challenges (Kwon 69). For example, in the story Stability in Motion, Keegan goes a great length expounding on her inability to keep inside the car clean and tidy: “Empty sushi containers, Diet Coke cans, half-full packs of gum, sweaters, sweatshirts, socks, my running shoes. My clutter was non-discriminatory” (109).

The story’s context implies that Keegan believed this was another sign of her having been endowed with the artistic type of personality. There is, however, another way to interpret the theme of disorderliness that resurfaces through the story’s entirety: the author happened to have a weakened sense of self-discipline. This does not come as a particular surprise, given the fact that in today’s America, the very notion of discipline is considered politically incorrect (Meynell 802).

Another prominent pattern of thought in Keegan’s nonfiction essays is concerned with existential apathy and social alienation. The story Why We Care About Whales is probably the most exemplary in this regard. In it, the author has shown herself being smart enough to realize that people’s commitment to the cause of saving the whales (that have been washed ashore) has a fetishist quality to it. The reason why eco-activists preoccupy themselves with the activity is not that they are genuinely interested in helping the poor animals, but because it makes them feel better about themselves (Robe 99).

The hypocritical nature of the concerned practice is quite apparent to Keegan: “Our SAVES THE WHALES t-shirts should read SAVE THE STARVING ETHIOPIANS” (11). Yet, she is clearly unable to convey this concern of hers to others while preferring to “go with the flow”: she joins with eco-activists in an attempt to save a few dying whales, despite being aware that nothing much will come out of this.

This can be partially explained by the fact that, as it emerges from the story The Art of Observation, the author was no stranger to deriving a narcissist delight from being stared at by strangers in India. Even though she felt guilty for having been treated by the locals as being nothing short of a celebrity (because of the color of her skin), Keegan could not help enjoying her experience in this regard: “Some part of me still took pleasure from being stared at on trains and photographed in city gardens” (144).

By acting in such a manner, the author exposed herself as a typical White “yuppie.” That is, a person formally committed to the cause of multiculturalism/political correctness, who nevertheless is unable to suppress his or her deep-seated belief in its own superiority over the people in the “third world” (Mumm 108).

One of the common features about these individuals is that they tend to hypertrophy the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle: hence, their preoccupation with “healthy eating” assumed the subtleties of a recurring pattern throughout Keegan’s essays. In the story Against the Grain, readers learn that the author is allergic to gluten and that she has experienced much suffering throughout her high school years because of it. However, there are clearly defined hysterical overtones to how Keegan perceives the dangers of gluten: “Gluten is hiding everywhere… even the tiniest crumb – the tiniest crumb of a crumb – could get me sick” (117). And, one’s tendency to feel highly emotional about the dietary issues has been traditionally seen as indicative of the person’s decadent leanings (Volpicelli 2017).

Still, it is specifically the fact that most of Keegan’s nonfiction stories radiate pessimism and negativity that contributes the most towards ensuring these stories’ overall decadent sounding. It is utterly unnatural for a young woman to be fixated on the subjects of death and dying, and yet the author’s essays are full of explicit references to the inevitability of non-existence and futility of existence. As she argued in the essay Song for the Special: “Someday the Sun is going to die, and everything on Earth will freeze… Everything will be destroyed no matter how hard we work to create it” (Keegan 148). Thus, it will not be altogether inappropriate to suggest that at least some of the unconscious anxieties that had inspired Keegan to proceed with writing were of unmistakably psychiatric nature (Le Marne and Harris 195).

Despite what has been said earlier, it would be wrong to think that the literary value of The Opposite of Loneliness has been exaggerated. After all, the reading of Keegan’s essays will come in extremely helpful for just about anyone interested in learning more about what causes many representatives of Generation Y to exhibit the distinctively “post-industrial” (as seen in the discussed essays) psychological traits (Hampson L.1.).

Moreover, these essays will prove truly enlightening in the sense of encouraging readers to adopt a scientific outlook on how the world turns around. As the author aptly observed in her essay Putting the “Fun” Back in Eschatology: “(Earth is) one of many planets racing its evolution against its sun – merely one in the galactic Darwinian pursuit” (Keegan 123). Keegan’s narrative style is succinct with the argument that the author makes being always straight down to the point (Gregory par. 5).

This, of course, makes it much easier for the audience to relate to the author’s self-reflective thoughts and her view of the surrounding social environment. As they read through Keegan’s essays, people grow ever more appreciative of the author’s endowment with a sense of intellectual honesty. Evidently enough, there is nothing incidental about the continual popularity of the discussed literary work with young readers. Unfortunately, there are also many reasons to regard it as being perceptually and cognitively decadent to a significant extent: just as it was shown earlier in the paper.

As it was suggested initially, Keegan’s collection of essays is best seen as the literary extrapolation of different irrational anxieties experienced by the well-educated representatives of Generation Y, known for both their pessimistic attitudes and their hypertrophied sense of personal ego. As time goes on, these people continue to become increasingly withdrawn, as the society’s fully integrated members. The conducted interpretative analysis of the themes and motifs in the author’s nonfiction essays appears to be fully consistent with this suggestion. Apparently, it indeed makes much sense linking the current geopolitical weakening of America to the decadent “weakening” of those who inhabit this country. The reviewed essays by Marina Keegan explain the actual mechanics of the latter process and presuppose its irreversibility.

Annotated Bibliography

Alexander, Christopher, and James Sysko. “A Study of the Cognitive Determinants of Generation Y’s Entitlement Mentality.” Allied Academies International Conference. Academy of Educational Leadership. Proceedings, vol. 16, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1-6.

In their study, Alexander and Sysko aimed to test the validity of different stereotypes concerning the psychological uniqueness of Generation Y. The authors were able to confirm the overall soundness of the popular categorization of Millennials, as the individuals naturally predisposed towards self-centeredness, narcissism, and egoism.

I plan to cite this article when arguing that the existential mode of Millennials does appear to be decadent to a significant extent. In particular, these individuals seem to experience a hard time when striving to act in a socially responsible manner.

Gregory, Alice. “. The New Republic. Web.

In her article, Alice describes what kind of a person Marina Keegan used to be and promotes the idea that the young writer’s tragic death due to car accident was a great loss to both the country’s writing community and ordinary readers in the US. According to the author, Keegan possessed a talent in noticing patterns in the routine of people’s everyday lives. This, in turn, contributed significantly towards amplifying the humanistic sounding of her essays and stories.

I intent to cite this particular article when outlining the literary strengths of The Opposite of Loneliness, such as the author’s propensity for using a highly metaphorical and yet easy-to-understand language in her written pieces.

Hampson, Sarah. “The Afterlife of Marina Keegan.” The Globe and Mail, 2014.

According to Hampson, Keegan was not only a talented writer, but also a political activist genuinely interested in making this world a better place to live. Because of it, the author suggests that there is a good reason in referring to Keegan as a person of a high social significance, whose writings contain clues into how humanity should be addressing the pressing issues of a global magnitude.

I will refer to Hampson’s article to substantiate the validity of one of the paper’s argumentative claims, as to the fact that it is indeed appropriate to discuss Keegan’s literary legacy in conjunction with what account for the psychological traits of Generation Y.

Robe, Christopher. “The Convergence of Eco-Activism, Neoliberalism, and Reality TV in Whale Wars.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 67, no. 3, 2015, pp. 94-111.

The article’s main idea is that eco-activism serves the purpose of helping the ruling elites to divert people’s attention from the social issues that matter, such as the rapidly widening gap between the rich and poor in the West. This, in turn, makes it easier for the former to maintain their dominance over the society.

I am going to provide reference to Robe’s article while discussing what should be deemed the discursive implications of Keegan’s stance on eco-activism, in general, and her understanding of the systemic relationship between the society and the surrounding natural environment, in particular.

Works Cited

Alexander, Christopher, and James Sysko. “A Study of the Cognitive Determinants of Generation Y’s Entitlement Mentality.” Allied Academies International Conference. Academy of Educational Leadership. Proceedings, vol. 16, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1-6.

Gregory, Alice. “Reviewing the Unreviewable. The New Republic. Web.

Hampson, Sarah. “The Afterlife of Marina Keegan.” The Globe and Mail, 2014.

Keegan, Marina. “Against the Grain.” The Opposite of Loneliness, edited by Anne Fadiman. Scribner, 2014, pp. 116-122.

—. “Song for the Special.” The Opposite of Loneliness, edited by Anne Fadiman. Scribner, 2014, pp. 147-149.

—. “Stability in Motion.” The Opposite of Loneliness, edited by Anne Fadiman. Scribner, 2014, pp. 108-111.

—. “The Art of Observation.” The Opposite of Loneliness, edited by Anne Fadiman. Scribner, 2014, pp. 144-146.

—. “Why We Care About Whales.” The Opposite of Loneliness, edited by Anne Fadiman. Scribner, 2014, pp. 112-115.

Knox, Allison. “Mapping a New World Order: The Rest Beyond the West.” International Social Science Review, vol. 94, no. 2, 2018, pp. 1-3.

Kwon, Jieun. “White Male Crisis and its Discontents.” The Explicator, vol. 77, no. 2, 2019, pp. 63-81.

Le Marne, Kristina, and Lynne Harris. “Death Anxiety, Perfectionism and Disordered Eating.” Behaviour Change, vol. 33, no. 4, 2016, pp. 193-211.

Meynell, Letitia. “On Political Correctness.” Dialogue, vol. 56, no. 4, 2017, pp. 799-804.

Mumm, Jesse. “The Racial Fix: White Currency in the Gentrification of Black and Latino Chicago.” Focaal, vol. 2017, no. 79, 2017, pp. 102-118.

Robe, Christopher. “The Convergence of Eco-Activism, Neoliberalism, and Reality TV in Whale Wars.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 67, no. 3, 2015, pp. 94-111.

Volpicelli, Robert. “The New Decadence.” Modernism/Modernity, vol. 26, no. 1, 2019, pp. 213-218.

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