Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind, out today from Astra House from debut author Molly McGhee, gets off to a slow start, but don’t let that betray its brilliance. Full of magic, mystery, and an eerie mysticism, this novel twists and turns in unexpected directions as its protagonist, the titular Jonathan Abernathy, navigates the Archive of Dreams, trying desperately to pay off his debt—as many young Americans are—from his college education and the general, exhaustive cost of living. Hoping to make some quick cash, he takes two jobs: one, as a hot dog-slinging short order cook in a mall kiosk; and the other, as a dream auditor, which leads him through a surprising turn of events that ends up being interconnected, surprising, and meaningfully complex in the way that all the best novels inevitably are.
Jonathan Abernathy is an unlikely hero—he is a loser, disliked by almost everyone he meets, but as he finds chosen family in his neighbor, Rhoda, and her prepubescent daughter, Timmy, we the readers begin to root for him and his tentative romance with Rhoda, mostly unrequited and impossible. She is ten years his senior, still involved with her ex-husband, and wracked with grief over the way life has treated her, but he still carries a torch for her, and one of the joys of this novel is the painful and honest way that McGhee portrays this pitiful love. As a dream auditor, a job which doesn’t exist and yet is obvious in its necessity, Abernathy audits nightmares out of the heads of the American public, ostensibly making them happier, less anxious and more productive. The company he works for, however, has more sinister plans—behind the scenes, they are hoarding nightmares, profiting off of the removal of bad dreams, a B-plotline which, unfortunately, is never entirely resolved in the novel.
It’s easy to overlook these small plot holes, for the novel takes the dream auditing as far as it can go, and explores the concept of debt to its natural—and perhaps unnatural—conclusion, in a riotous and emotional climax which pushes believability (as if dream auditing wasn’t enough) and tugs at the heartstrings. A remarkable stylist, McGhee keeps the omniscient voice of the narrator, almost like a TV announcer, powerfully in control throughout the novel. The quirks of style and form feel reminiscent of an essay or other hybrid form; this novel is a feat of structure and scaffolding, immaculately laid out and paced to perfection. One gets the sense that McGhee is in cruise control throughout; she glides us from opening—sharp, funny characters with memorable voices and traits we will follow throughout the novel—to an emotionally satisfying closing with no turbulence and few to no bumps on the ride.
The dreams themselves can delve into the theatrical, but perhaps this is a side effect of the genre. Wildly imaginative in most aspects, we can forgive some dramatics when it comes to certain aspects of the descriptions—and ultimately, aren’t dreams a reflection of the most over-the-top versions of our mindscapes? Not only in dreams, but throughout, this novel feels self-aware, taking on concepts of debt from a new angle, and examining our own minds from new perspectives—be it emotional, social, or professional. Rejecting stereotypes, Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind isn’t just rewriting the narrative of what a workplace novel can be—it is taking the workplace novel out of the workplace and into the real world.
Although it may take time for the reader to get adjusted to McGhee’s tightly reined-in, highly stylized voice, I encourage readers to bore through the first few pages of Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind. Jonathan Abernathy is not a likable narrator, nor is he the kind of narrator you typically root for, but he is, in fact, kind. And as McGhee takes us on this journey through the human psyche, you will find yourself hoping that he perseveres, figures things out, and pays his debts. This is an exciting debut, a brilliant showing, and only good things will come from McGhee next, I am sure.
Publisher: Astra House
Publication Date: October 17, 2023
Reviewed by Joanna Acevedo.
Joanna Acevedo is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. Read more about her and her work at https://www.joannaacevedo.net.