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Monday, December 10, 2012

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Release Date: Sept. 21, 2006
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Pages: 227
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
When it comes to relationships, Colin Singleton's type is girls named Katherine. And when it comes to girls named Katherine, Colin is always getting dumped. Nineteen times, to be exact. On a road trip miles from home, this anagram-happy, washed-up child prodigy has ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a bloodthirsty feral hog on his trail, and an overweight, Judge Judy-loving best friend riding shotgun - but no Katherines. Colin is on a mission to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which he hopes will predict the future of any relationship, avenge Dumpees everywhere, and finally win him the girl.

Welcome to the second installment of What Should Wes Read? This month, you selected An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, which put me in a somewhat precarious position. Considering her opinion of John Green, I’m pretty sure that Jessica would ban me from trading obscure pop culture references and, more importantly, convince Susan to ban me from Wastepaper Prose if I disliked this novel. Within six months, I went from never hearing of John Green to seeing this guy everywhere. The Wastepaper Posse discussed him often at BEA, he did a Reddit AMA, and now his latest novel is on prominent display every time I walk into a Barnes and Noble. Through all of it, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the dude. And so, I dove into An Abundance of Katherines knowing nothing except that he’s a swell dude, that Jessica said “star penis” to him at BEA, and that I faced exile if I disliked this book.

You’ve probably all noticed that I’m a bit particular about the technical accuracy of the books I read. I’m happy to say that An Abundance of Katherines gets all of the math spot on. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, considering there’s an appendix written by a math professor that explains all of the math in surprising detail. While the appendix is nice, what’s even better is that Green leaves all of the technical detail there rather than trying to shoehorn any of it into the narrative. The math described in the actual narrative is just detailed enough to frame Colin’s problem and track his progress towards the realization of his Eureka moment. Green even manages to use what little math is there to add to the generally playful air of the novel, with footnotes promising that there will be no more math and then glibly asserting that a later equation doesn’t count, because the mathematics of it don’t matter. Such a footnote1 is both funny and demonstrates that Green knows just where and when to use the math to prove his point. For what it’s worth, this book actually even managed to teach me something about math: the notion of families. I had no idea that was a mathematical field of study, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Computer scientists have been (annoyingly) obsessed with object oriented programming over the same timeframe, which is pretty much the CS version of mathematical families.
Considering my intellectual man-crush on David Foster Wallace, it should come as no surprise that I love that Green uses footnotes. Although, unlike DFW, his footnotes are always short and sweet, usually providing a brief aside that is either funny or illuminating. 
While the accuracy and tone of the book are both great, the heart of the novel, as with most great fiction, lies in its characters. Each of the three main characters represents a problem I remember encountering while growing up. The best part about the challenges he gives his characters is that, while they are all faced while growing up, they are all equally relevant for so-called adults.

I suppose we can start with Hassan, who is all about representing how easy it is to stop participating in life. He’s been out of school for a year, has no job, and lives with his parents. His parents are affluent enough that he never has to work a day in his life. He’s never put himself in a position to fail; as soon as he could avoid the possibility of going to college or making a choice about his future, he quit school. It’s always easy to be passive, but then you look back a year later and realize that, like Hassan, you haven’t grown in any meaningful way. Conversely, I think Green does a great job in illustrating just how easy pulling yourself out of that hole can be. Hassan gets his first girlfriend and, within days, has finally called out Colin about being a self-centered prick and gotten his life back on track by enrolling in college. Hassan is a great example of how the things we dread almost never end up being as bad as we expected once we decide to face them.

Of course, Colin is the exact opposite of Hassan: nineteen girlfriends to Hassan’s zero (and then one) and an inability to define himself by anything but achievement. Colin’s struggle, predictably, is also the most obvious: he’s no longer the smart kid. He’s always been defined by being a child prodigy, but he’s no longer a child and he never ended up fulfilling the expectations. Now, he has no idea how to define himself. We all have to face a similar situation eventually, whether it’s because we’re no longer the smartest, the most popular, or the best quarterback. What Colin misses for most of the novel (until he discovers that his definition for himself as a chronic dumpee isn’t true) is that, while frightening, such a crossroads is actually quite freeing. For the first time in his life, he gets to create his own definition for himself rather than being told by other’s how he’s defined.

Lindsey Lee Wells is interesting for the exact opposite reason as Colin: nothing defines her. As she says herself, she acts one way with our Colin, another with her Colin, and yet another with the employees of the Tampon Factory. She’s afraid that changing the way she acts means she has no personality that’s hers. In a way, I think she’s right. Some of her changes, such as speaking in a more Southern accent in certain company, is to placate others and fulfill their expectations of her because she wants them to like her. In such cases, she certainly is doing exactly what she fears and is letting others define her (which actually makes her problem more similar to Colin’s than I’d considered). It’s okay for someone to like playing football and act macho around his teammates and then also geek out about the latest Dungeons and Dragons ruleset and interact with his D&D group in a completely different fashion as long as he’s doing both because he enjoys them. It’s when one starts slipping between personas to appease others and starts letting others define them that such behavior becomes problematic. I don’t think Lindsey Lee Wells ever quite figures this out, but that’s okay: That’s why she gets her own roadtrip.

Considering the creative premise (I wonder if John Green said, “Eureka,” when he had the idea) and the well-drawn characters, the actual plot left me a little disappointed. I don’t at all mean to say the plot is bad, but it ends up hitting all of the standard beats. Of course Colin is going to overcome his Katherine obsession and start dating Lindsey; of course Hassan is going to end up going to college; and of course the reason the formula doesn’t work for Katherine 3 is because Colin actually dumped her. To be honest, though, any disappointment in the plot is really picking knits. Even as he passes all of the requisite signposts, Green takes decidedly unexpected paths to get there. For instance, while I expected the relationship between Hassan and Katrina to fail, only in this book would it fail because our duo caught her having sex in a graveyard while our duo is running away from hornets. Obviously Lindsey would have to break up with Colin 1, but I never would have guessed from the first 180 pages that the breakup would happen with an almost mythic 5-on-1 fist fight.

All things considered, this is probably my favorite of the books that I’ve reviewed for Wastepaper Prose. Thanks for the selection, readers! I hope your next selection for me is even better than this one.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really thoughtful review!

    An Abundance of Katherines is probably my favorite John Green book (though I haven't read TFIOS); it's certainly his funniest one, though all of his books have some humor even when they're darker overall.