Nerdette Book Club is kicking off a new year of reading with Molly McGhee’s debut novel Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind. It’s a searing critique of late-stage capitalism that also manages to be funny and tender.
Our protagonist, Jonathan, is completely subsumed by debt. He inherited debt from his parents. He has student loans. Rent is tricky, and food is scarce. So when a very strange and mysterious job opportunity arises, he can’t exactly say no. As part of a government loan forgiveness program, Jonathan is tasked with editing the bad dreams of middle class workers.
Here is an excerpt from Nerdette host Greta Johnsen’s conversation with the author, edited for clarity. Book Club will be back on the last Tuesday of the month with a spoiler-filled panel discussion.
Have you ever kept a dream journal?
I’ve never kept a dream journal, but all of my fiction ideas come to me in dreams. With this novel, the idea of it came to me fully formed through a recurring dream that I kept having as an anxiety dream. And when I find myself having a recurring dream like that, one that just sort of won’t go away, that’s when I begin a project. So I guess I don’t have a dream journal, or if I did, it would be a very public dream journal because you guys get to read about it when I write it down.
I really loved the idea of dreams being characterized as the next American frontier to colonize.
That’s our only private time, right? I mean, we’re increasingly becoming a society that does not value privacy, and does not allow for privacy. So it would make sense that the next place that we would try to squeeze capital out of is the most private thing that one person can experience, which is their dreams. Plus, they are totally impossible to communicate effectively to other people. I think that notion of having a part of your life that’s uncommunicative is very anti-American. I think Americans like to think that if we try hard enough, we could communicate anything. I don’t think that’s true, necessarily.
So there’s a line in the book that talks about success. It goes, “what does it mean to be successful? People ask themselves this question to the point of obsession. They believe it is their mission in life to succeed, as if life is something to be climbed on top of and bested.” What does success look like for you these days?
When I started writing this book, a lot of these questions were coming up for me. My mom passed away in 2020. It was a rough time for all of us. And I found myself really regretting how much time I had spent in the pursuit of publishing a novel, which was at that point, I think, like 10 years, and how much distance that had created between my mother and me.
I’m from rural Tennessee, and I moved away to pursue this hope of becoming a novelist. It was only after my mom passed that I had that classic understanding that you hear a lot of people having when a really close loved one passes away for the first time, which is like, ‘Oh my God, I wish I would have spent more time with them.’
Before I wrote this novel, I wrote another novel, and I couldn’t get it published. And I found out that it was rejected right when my mom passed away. So I was experiencing a lot of things on top of one another while I was writing Jonathan. It created this sort of funny reality where by the time I did get my wish of publishing a novel, it was at such a great emotional expense.
I actually find myself at this point trying to value the time I spend with my loved ones more than my career. It’s tough because you have to figure out a way to balance making money and spending time with people. How can you honor your obsessions while also honoring the people in your life and your responsibilities to them? It’s all very complicated.
So I think for me, success looks like a place where I can love the people I love fully, and I can be brave enough to be present so that they can love me.