Pluralistic: Molly McGhee's "Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind" (08 Jan 2024)

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The cover of the Random House hardcover edition of Molly McGhee's 'Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind.'

Molly McGhee's "Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind" (permalink)

Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind is Molly McGhee's debut novel: a dreamlike tale of a public-private partnership that hires the terminally endebted to invade the dreams of white-collar professionals and harvest the anxieties that prevent them from being fully productive members of the American corporate workforce:

Though this is McGhee's first novel, she's already well known in literary circles. Her career has included stints at McSweeney's, where she worked on my book Information Doesn't Want To Be Free:

And then at Tor Books, where she worked on my book Attack Surface:

But though McGhee is a shrewd and skilled editor, I think of her first and foremost as a writer, thanks to stunning essays like "America's Dead Souls," a 2021 Paris Review piece that described the experience of multigenerational debt in America in incandescent, pitiless prose:

McGhee's piece struck at the heart of something profoundly wrong in American society – the dual nature of debt, which represents a source of freedom for the wealthy, and bondage for workers:

When billionaire mass-murderers like the Sacklers amass tens of billions of liabilities stemming from their role in deliberately starting the opioid crisis, the courts step in to relieve them of their obligations, allowing them to keep their blood-money:

And when Silicon Valley Bank collapses due to mismanagement by ultra-wealthy financiers, the public purse yawns open and billions flow out to ensure that the wealthiest investors in the country stay whole:

When predatory payday lenders target working people and force them into bankruptcy with four-digit APRs, the government intervenes…to save the lenders and keep workers on the hook:

"Debtor vs creditor" is the oldest class division we have. The Bronze Age custom of jubilee – the periodic cancellation of all debts – wasn't some weird quirk. It was essential public policy, and without jubilee, the hereditary creditor class became the arbiter of all social priorities, destabilizing great nations and even empires by directing production to suit their parochial needs. Societies that didn't practice jubilee (or halted it) collapsed:

Today's workers are debt burdened at scales and in ways that defy comprehension, the numbers are so brain-breakingly large. Students who take out modest loans and pay them off several times over remain indebted decades later, with outstanding balances that vastly outstrip the principal:

Workers who quit dead-end jobs are billed for five-figure "training repayment" bills that haunt them to the end of days:

Hospitals sue indigent patients at scale, siccing debt-collectors on people who can't pay – and were entitled to free care to begin with:

And debt collectors are drawn from the same social ranks as the debtors, barely trained and unsupervised, engaging in lawless, constant harassment of the debtor class:

McGhee's "American Dead Souls" crystallized all of this vast injustice into a single, beautiful essay – and then McGhee crystallized things further by posting a public resignation letter enumerating the poor pay and working conditions in New York publishing, triggering mass, industry-wide resignations by similarly situated junior editorial staff:

Thus we arrive at McGhee's debut: a novel written by someone with a track record for gorgeous, brutally insightful prose; incisive analysis of the class war raging in the embers of capitalism's American Dream; and consequential labor organizing against the precarity and exploitation of young workers. As you might expect, it's fantastic.

Jonathan Abernathy is a 25 year old, debt haunted, desperately lonely man. An orphan with a mountain of college debt, Abernathy lives in a terrible basement apartment whose rent is just beyond his means. The only thing that propels him out of bed and into the world are his affirmations:

  • Jonathan Abernathy you are kind

  • You are well respected and valued by your community

  • People, including your family, love you

That these are all easily discerned lies is beside the point. Whatever gets you through the night.

We meet Jonathan as he is applying for a job that he was recruited for in a dream. As instructed in his dream, he presents himself at a shabby strip-mall office where an acerbic functionary behind scratched plexiglass takes his application and informs him that he is up for a gig run jointly by the US State Department and a consortium of large corporate employers. If he is accepted, all of his student debt repayments will be paused and he will no longer face wage garnishment. What's more, he'll be doing the job in his sleep, which means he'll be able to get a day job and pull a double income – what's not to like?

Jonathan's job is to enter the dreams of sleeping middle-management types in America's largest firms – but not just any dreams, their nightmares. Once he has entered their nightmare, Jonathan is charged with identifying the source of their anxiety and summoning a more senior operative who will suck up and whisk away that nagging spectre, thus rendering the worker a more productive component of their corporate structure.

But of course, there's more to it. As Jonathan works through his sleeping hours, he is deprived of his own dreams. Then there's the question of where those captive anxieties are ending up, and how they're being processed, and what new products can be made from refined nightmares. While Jonathan himself is pulling ever so slightly out of his economic quagmire, the people around him are still struggling.

McGhee braids together three strands: the palpable misery of being Jonathan (a proxy for all of us), the rising terror of the true nature of his employment, and beautifully turned absurdist touches that are laugh-aloud funny. This could be a mere novel of ennui and misery but it's not – it's a novel of hilarity and fear and misery, all mixed together in a glorious and terrible concoction that is not like anything else you've ever read.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

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#5yrsago An interactive timeline of race categories in the US Census

#5yrsago More Americans get the vote today than on any day since sufferage

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#5yrsago The Science Fiction Writers of America inducts William Gibson as its next Grand Master

#1yrago Naomi Novik's incredible, brilliant, stupendous "Temeraire" series

#1yrago Social Quitting

Colophon (permalink)

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