“Follow your passion, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This advice is doled out ceaselessly to those entering the so-called “adult world”. What a crock. One of the fascinating shifts of the post-pandemic era is how a certain kind of worker has come to perceive – and to express, whether by speaking out, by leaving their jobs or by what’s been called “quiet quitting” – that they’ve been sold a pup.
In the spring of 2022, Molly McGhee quit her job as an assistant editor at Tor Books, an imprint of Macmillan in America. Her first acquisition, a fantasy novel by Olivie Blake titled The Atlas Six, had shot to number three in the New York Times bestseller charts; yet, despite this success, and her eight years of experience in publishing, McGhee was denied a promotion, and even told she was unlikely to see any respite from administrative duties for at least five more years. How do I know all this? Because she posted her resignation letter on X, then called Twitter, and denounced a “systemwide prejudice against junior employees”.
At the time, McGhee was contending with another burden. Early in the pandemic, her mother had died unexpectedly and in plenty of debt, commitments for which McGhee was, in the midst of her grief, responsible – or so the people harassing her day and night told her. How do I know all this? She wrote a piece about her predicament, and that of so many others, in a trenchant Paris Review piece titled America’s Dead Souls.
These experiences, and Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 masterpiece of (almost) that title, all inform McGhee’s striking debut novel, Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind, dedicated “to the forgotten who have been worked to death”. Her hapless protagonist is unemployed, in debt, confined to a dank basement room beneath his landlord’s house. His life is stalled and hopeless, but Abernathy “desperately desires to be good”, so when opportunity knocks, he’s dead keen. A mysterious government agency offers debt forgiveness in return for unusual, yet surely interesting, work: he is to be a “dream auditor”, entering the night-time worlds of white-collar workers, and expunging elements of anxiety or distress so that they might be more productive for their masters.
In Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a one-time civil servant, makes a picaresque journey around Russia, “buying” dead serfs. Landowners were forced to pay tax on these workers – who were a step up from being enslaved, to put it kindly – if they hadn’t yet been removed from the census rolls. Chichikov’s work relieves them of this taxative burden; but his intention, as McGhee puts it in her Paris Review essay, is to mortgage their souls for profit – and this is precisely the theme she explores in Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind.
Its title springs from the desperate reassurances that 26-year-old Abernathy offers himself in moments of doubt. He is competent, he is well-respected by his community: he must believe in himself. He enters the surreal landscape of other people’s night-time odysseys (armed with a kind of vacuum cleaner to “package” up unwanted imagery), guided by Kai, a manager with bright green eyeglasses and bottle-red hair – and he begins to scent prosperity, a rise up the corporate ladder of the Dream Archive. Meanwhile, he falls into what seems like a promising relationship with his next-door neighbour, Rhoda, who’s a decade older than Abernathy, a single mother with a little girl to raise. The book’s denouement is unexpected, and quietly heartbreaking.
If the novel’s shifts between waking and sleeping worlds are sometimes elusive, this is intentional: who doesn’t know what it’s like to have work take over their every moment? McGhee’s writing is smart, slippery, angry, a compelling satire on the American culture now sold round the world as – well, a dream. “Jonathan Abernathy resolves to think of this work like so: he will try his best to use it without letting it use him. Like every American, he believes this is feasible, and like every American, he is wrong.” Molly McGhee has taken the matter of her life and used it with rich inventiveness: a rare and fine achievement.
Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind is published by Fourth Estate at £16.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books