America’s Dead Souls


First Person

Engraving from Gustave Doré’s 1861 illustration of Dante’s Inferno. Scanned, postprocessed, and uploaded by Karl Hahn. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

There is money to be made off the dead. Nikolai Gogol knew this when he wrote his masterpiece, Dead Souls, the story of a middle-aged man named Chichikov who buys dead serfs with the intention of mortgaging their souls for a profit. I chose to read this novel at the start of quarantine, when everyone else was reading War and Peace. I had already read War and Peace. It ruined my life. I wasn’t keen to have my life ruined again. I wanted some other grand, sweeping Russian epic to fill my time.

I wish I would have been more cautious in picking a book. Every time I read one of the Russian greats my life transforms into an eerie mirror of the work. I had already experienced a year of obsessive relationship analysis (Anna Karenina), six months beneath the thumb of a powerful boss whose political maneuvers were far reaching and whose requests quickly spiraled into the hellish and fantastic (The Master and Margarita), a week on the run with a depressive whose obsessive psychosis ended in a prison sentence (Crime and Punishment), a much-too-long friendship with a man whose preoccupations with his father were borderline incestuous (Fathers and Sons), and, after I finished War and Peace, years stuck in sprawling disillusionment that, unlike many characters in the novel, I have yet to overcome. Had I not learned my lesson? I wasn’t keen to fall into the trap of Russian literature again.

But, I reasoned, what could possibly happen to me while I read about Chichikov? Good, bumbling Chichikov, who purchased dead serfs in order to turn a profit. A man whose harmless scheming and bribing promised quick prosperity. We were in the middle of a pandemic. What relevance could this bourgeois con artist possibly have to my life?

Sound logic, I thought. Surely, surrealism is safe. Except shortly after I picked up Dead Souls, my mother died a gruesome, absurd death, and I quickly found that the surrealism of Gogol was not so surreal after all. Chichikov knew more of life’s truths than I did: no matter how poor, there is money to be made from the dead. The poor are worth more dead than alive.

At the end of her life my mother made less than $10,000 a year. Suffering from debilitating depression while caring for her aging parents, she found herself chronically unemployed, undermedicated, and overstressed. In our final phone call, as we navigated her looming eviction, she asked me, rhetorically: “Why are these people harassing me? What good does it do them?” I didn’t have an answer for her. Or I did, but it felt obvious and stupid to say out loud. They wanted money. Everybody wants money. The people in power don’t care if we live or die, as long as they get paid. My last correspondence with my mom was a $2,500 money order (two and a half months of my pay), which I hoped would buy me time to cobble together a more sustainable plan.

Her chronic delinquency with bills was publicly searchable in government databases and thus acted as a beacon to financial predators. She owed everyone. Or at least that’s what the letters said. They bombarded her daily with phone calls, notices, emails. The IRS garnished her wages for back taxes calculated from a years-old misfiling they refused to correct. And then, through a series of absurd events that would make even Gogol shudder, she died, and I inherited it all.

Well, not all of it. I didn’t inherit the assets. She didn’t leave a will, which meant the state of Tennessee inherited her house. What I inherited was her debt.

I suddenly found myself looking down a double-barreled future of doom and despair. The hospital where my mother died claimed I owed them more than a quarter of a million dollars. Wells Fargo held me responsible for a house I no longer had legal claim to. Creditors and housing developers knew about my mom’s death before my extended family did. I was a few months away from turning twenty-six. Two days after she died they began calling me.

There are horror stories online about the profit trap of dying youngish, poorish, without health care or a will. I invite you to read them. I hadn’t read any at the time. My only familiarity with the subject was the old saying about the IRS, which I now know can be applied to America’s debt-for-profit system writ large: they go after the poor because the rich have money to fight back.

Dead Souls is often called a masterpiece of bleak and comedic surrealism. Its publication in 1842 marked a noted departure from Gogol’s earlier work, which is widely considered to be the foundation of Russian literary realism. I get why Dead Souls is classified as surreal. But I personally disagree. In a world where one day of lost wages can compound into houselessness, the lives of the poor will always look surreal to the middle class and the wealthy.

From my vantage point, the only parts of Dead Souls that seem to be rooted in something other than realism are the moments when Chichikov imagines the lives of the souls he’s collected. He can’t seem to stop himself from reading a name and wondering about that person’s existence:

When afterwards he glanced at the lists, at the peasants who really had once been peasants, had worked, ploughed, got drunk, been drivers, cheated their masters, or were perhaps simply good peasants, a strange feeling which he could not comprehend took possession of him. Each list had an individual character, and through it the peasants themselves have an individual character too.

If only the con artists and thieves of America’s upper classes would wonder about the dead they’ve profited from. There are endless articles on why America has failed to curb the pandemic. The truth is simple. People profit from our death. Foreclosure companies, debt collectors, real estate agents, news corporations, health care tycoons, senators, and presidents, to name a few. After my mom’s death I found myself locked into a dentist chair, comforting the assistant of my dental hygienist. She wore a hazmat suit. In her plastic safety helmet, she sobbed through a panic attack. I weakly patted her gloved hand. Her father had died unexpectedly several months ago. She couldn’t prove he didn’t owe the debts they claimed he owed. She tried to tell the collectors her story (her father left no paperwork or will, he had died horribly and abruptly, she couldn’t afford to pay). Only one collector took pity on her. He explained it just wasn’t good business to believe her. If his firm believed every story they were told they would be poor men indeed.

What did I tell her to do? I told her to do what I did. Pretend you’re rich. Hire a lawyer. Open a credit card, if you have to. A meager amount of wealth will insulate you from a lifetime of woe, exactly as it was designed to. All my lawyer had to do was send a memo on official letterhead and my mother’s debts in death dropped 90 percent. More than a quarter of a million dollars was erased in an instant—an accounting that five weeks of my pleading, bargaining, reasoning, denying, uploading, scanning, begging, faxing, and crying had not been able to extract.

Professionalism and bureaucracy shield contemporary death-for-profit workers, administrators, and executives so that they may staff cruel systems without experiencing feelings of culpability, not to mention empathy or curiosity. Yet I still find myself hoping at least one of those infinite bureaucrats saw my mother’s name on a list and, like Chichikov, took a moment to reflect upon her humanity. Should they have struggled with where to begin, I would have offered this as a starting point: Her humor and her rage were unmatched. In the evenings, against the setting Tennessee sun, she liked to drink red can Cokes in the garden while snuffing cigarettes out against the yard’s ant colonies. She could reckon with anyone just by looking them in the eye. Men were terrified of her, rightfully so. She was sweet. In the last week of her life, when she couldn’t understand where she was or who she was talking to, she greeted everyone the same: “Hi, pal. Hope you’re doing okay. When can you come pick me up?”


Molly McGhee is from a cluster of unincorporated towns outside of Nashville, Tennessee. She completed her M.F.A. in fiction at Columbia University, where, in addition to receiving a Chair’s Fellowship, she taught in the undergraduate creative writing department as a teaching fellow. She has worked in the editorial departments of McSweeney’s, The Believer, NOON, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and she now brings the strange to life at Tor. Currently living in Brooklyn, Molly is at work on a novel about the inherent absurdity of debt. This is her first publication.