Author Playlists

Molly McGhee’s playlist for her novel “Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind”

“When I was writing Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind I saw it like a film in my mind, and like most films, there was music. And that music informed what I saw.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Molly McGhee’s novel Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind is a breathtaking debut, a stunning satire of late-stage capitalism.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“[Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind] is a brutal examination of the psychological pressures and ethical complexity required to survive under late capitalism, [but] McGhee’s wry humor, tenderness, and razor-sharp writing keep it from veering into nihilism and infuse it with a real, if melancholy, kind of hope. Upton Sinclair meets modern workplace satire—with a lot of heart.”

In her own words, here is Molly McGhee’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind:

I am a visual person. I imagine things in cinematic detail.

One of my favorite essays is an onslaught of visual rememberings called Once More to the Lake by E.B. White, who is best known for his children’s novels. Children’s novels that deal with death and growing older and the beauty of life, like Charlotte’s Webb

White has a very simple, straightforward prose style. In Once More to the Lake he renders vision after vision of a lake he went to as a boy. He insists things are the same. The simplicity of his visions and his insistence allows something more elusive to grow on the page, slightly out of sight. He visits again with his son and claims the cabin is the same. He claims the water is the same. Even the tar that leads to the lake’s shore, he says, is the same tar. This sameness, he insists, is meaningful. Time is so fluid, he insists, and so unchanged that when he revisits the lake time itself overtakes him. He is at the lake and he cannot tell the difference between himself and his son.   

There are three moments where this illusion is interrupted. Each has to do with human preference for technology that did not exist when White was a boy. The first is the girls at the diner who, having been to the movies, began to wash their hair. Women, when White was a boy, had not seen the movies. Things like shampoo and conditioner were not household staples. They looked like themselves, not like the girls projected to them on a screen. 

The second is when he goes with his son to the little store at the end of a forked path. He laments that though there used to be three paths, now there are only two. When he arrives at the store he finds it no longer stocks sodas of his childhood. Instead the store only sells Coca-Cola. 

The third is the lake itself: it is filled now with the sound of outboard motors. Much louder than the boats of his childhood, the noise prevents his reverie. 

I read this essay years ago, in a poetry class, when I was nineteen. I have been hung up on the image of the girls with clean hair and the Coca-Colas since. Why? I’m not sure. I guess I’ve been thinking of White’s son, who would, presumably, go on to take comfort in the symbols that interrupted White’s fantasy. White was writing in 1908. His son would be White’s age in the 1950s. The inverted symbols of White’s youth would go on to be revered symbols of the son’s youth. These symbols would be altered yet again by time and technology. By the time the son had a son to bring the lake, the world would be different, but not too different. Uncanny in its resemblance and divergence from the past.  

Perhaps this is not related, but before I could read I watched movies, and so, like the girls in the diners, I came to books with movies already in my head. 

Such an innocuous line: the girls with the clean hair—but it encompasses so much. It raises so many questions. What was it like before women cleaned their hair? How did hair look? What did hair feel like? How powerful was this technology that it was capable of sweeping out into the rural parts of Maine? I cannot imagine a reality where I did not wash my hair weekly. Yet here is White, lamenting over it. In less than twenty years, cinema completely changed the way women understood beauty and the way men would remember their youth. 

Shampoo strips hair of its natural oils and makes you reliant on the process. Has cinema stripped me, in this way, too, so that my approach to novels is inhibited by the visual? What was it like to experience novels as pure language? Have I always been a visual person or am I a visual person because I live in a visual age? The generation before me, surely, remembers what it was like to have books unencumbered by the expectations of film. Will I ever be able to escape the framework of my time to “see” a story without the overlay of cinema on top of it? Will my generation of novelists be the last to remember that TV was, once, to our parents, new? 

And what does all of this have to do with the playlist I’ve provided above? 

When I was writing Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind I saw it like a film in my mind, and like most films, there was music. And that music informed what I saw. It is recursive in this way. That is a strange thing to write, as a novelist. Often we imagine that books come into being in a vacuum, but of course they don’t. Any book we write is an extension of the time we’re in. And time is recursive. Time is tricky. Time is informed by what is happening to us, and at a certain point we, as humans, can no longer remember what it was like before. 

I have collected a few songs for you here. I wonder what it would have been like to write a novel without them. 

For book & music links, themed playlists, a wrap-up of Largehearted Boy feature posts, and more, check out Largehearted Boy’s weekly newsletter.

Molly McGhee is from a cluster of unincorporated towns outside of Nashville, Tennessee. She completed her MFA in fiction at Columbia University, where, in addition to receiving a Chair’s Fellowship, she taught in the undergraduate creative writing department. She has worked in the editorial departments of McSweeney’s, The Believer, NOON, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Tor. Currently living in Brooklyn, her work has appeared in The Paris Review.

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