I really, really wanted to love AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES.
My John Green kick started when a blogger whose writing advice I really respect raved about LOOKING FOR ALASKA. The next time I was having a really bad day, I bought myself a copy as compensation. Then promptly dropped it in a slush puddle, which actually did not improve my mood one bit.
But I liked that book quite a lot, so I started Green’s second book, AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES, not long after. And kept reading it, very slowly, for a couple of weeks. I’d wanted to love it, and yet I did not.*
The problem is with Colin, our protagonist.
His deal is that he’s an uber super genius worried about not living up to his potential who keeps getting dumped by girls named Katherine. He whines about this a lot. He whines about not living up to his potential with a mournfulness that can only be achieved by those who, despite all protestations, really do believe deep down that even though they may never live up to anything, their status as a genius is impervious to all such evidence, even though on the surface that’s precisely what they’re denying. And he whines about getting dumped by Katherines with a persistence that is true to life, but not necessarily to conventions of good fiction.
When Colin has his “Eureka” — the epiphany that one’s probability of getting dumped in any particular relationship can be derived mathematically, a “theorem” around which the rest of the book will be built — I was so disengaged that I somehow missed the point, and was quite confused when he kept talking about this “Eureka” over the next several chapters.
Also, because I am in fact an even bigger geek than Colin, I will tell you that what this book is really about is the dangers of statistical overfitting.
Anyway, at first I thought the problem was compounded by Green’s use of third person narration, an unusual choice in young adult fiction. But I think that’s actually symptomatic of Green’s own failure to fully get inside Colin’s head.
Over on his own website, Green says that each one of his books starts with a strong mental picture of a character. For AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES, that character was Colin’s best friend, Hassan. Interestingly, for LOOKING FOR ALASKA, it was also not the protagonist; Alaska, the character Green organized the book around, is a girl the protagonist, Pudge, is kind of obsessed with. But whereas ALASKA worked, KATHERINES, in my view, doesn’t quite — maybe because the reader is drawn into Pudge’s interest Alaska, whereas part of Colin’s problem is that, for much of the book, he actually is too self-involved to think about Hassan that much at all.
The thing, though? Hassan really is a fabulous character.
He’s a religious Muslim (so rare, except in books where that’s the whole point, like Randa Abdel-Fattah’s DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS?). He’s also totally crude, a damn good friend, and deeply hilarious. The times I like Colin are when he and Hassan are riffing off each other, and when Colin seems like he actually cares about his friend.
John Green really does know how to write friendships between boys; in particular, I like that he lets you see their genuine affection for one another without having them descend into sentimentality — or, if one ever does, he’s sure to get shit for it from the other.
Like, check out this scene, a turning point for Hassan’s character:
“…I’m a total non-doer. I’m just sucking food and water and money out of the world, and all I’m giving back is, ‘Hey, I’m really good at not-doing. Look at all the bad things I’m not doing! Now I’m going to tell you some jokes!’ “
Colin glanced over and saw Hassan sipping Mountain Dew. Feeling that he should say something, Colin said, “That’s a good spiritual revelation.”
“I’m not done yet, fugger. I was just drinking. So anyway…”
… and the scene goes on, but isn’t that a really well-done way to break up a heavy moment between teenage boys?
Sherman Alexie wrote in the ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN about how straight boys’ friendships are distorted by homophobia; John Green makes me feel the really heartfelt, intense emotions that teenage boys can nevertheless feel for one another. It’s a hopeful thing.
All this meant that I started really getting into the book in the middle, as I started to really believe in Colin and Hassan’s friendship. But — and I must now attach a spoiler alert, although I don’t think what I’m about to say will actually ruin much of the experience –
Sadly, the ending is really lame.
– Not only wrapping things up too patly for my taste, but doing so via every character taking life-changing inspiration from the Kindest Factory Owner in the World. You can’t see me, but I’m still rolling my eyes.
In a way, I liked the book itself less than it convinced me I would really, really like John Green.
I keep reading his books less because I like them, than because I think he could grow into an author I really, really love.
* It’s a bit like this one particular cafeteria at my school. It’s a beautiful space, with tons of sunlight — no mean feat in “high of -12″ Wisconsin — and I always want it to be good, and it just… isn’t. What’s somewhat remarkable is that it has such a wide variety of food, all of which is bad. I vacillate between being impressed at the thoroughness and consistency with which it snatches mediocrity from the jaws of pleasantness, and just being regretful.
Also: there is something wrong with my higher-order inductive faculties; every time I’ve eaten there, I’ve made a mental note to order something different next time, but I’ve never internalized the conclusion that I should just eat someplace else.