An Abundance of Katherines is a book about an anagrammatically-minded child prodigy struggling with the fact that he might not be so special after all. It’s also a book about a romance-predicting algorithm, a road trip, and coming out of your shell. Oh, and it’s kind of a comedy.
It’s a complicated – and excellent – book, is I guess what I’m saying.
Katherines is filled with John Green doing John Green things, so it’s no surprise that the writing is both accessible and enriching. Characters experience profound insights into the emotional hazards of outgrowing childhood and exploring those first few steps of ‘the rest of your life.’ And then they make dick jokes.
Part of why Katherines works so well is that, even at its headiest moments, you’re never too far from a zany twist or a burst of levity. There are even, for the mathletes among us, a few calculus jokes wedged into the narrative arc regarding the (attempted) creation of a mathematical equation capable of predicting the outcome of romantic relationships. And as something of a footnote aficionado, I’m thrilled to see Green indulging his inner Bill Simmons here and making great use of the technique’s comedic potential.
As his only book written from a third person perspective, Katherines certainly feels a little different than Green’s other books: admitting that the narrator is not necessarily the same as the author, Green himself somehow seems more impressive – both intellectually and comedically – when not placing himself behind the eyes of a sixteen year old.
That elevated viewpoint allows Green to deftly handle what becomes something of an inverted reiteration of the central quest from his first book, Looking for Alaska, namely the need to achieve something of significance. In Looking for Alaska, Miles Halter searches for a Great Perhaps, an as-yet-unknown experience that will reshape his worldview, while in An Abundance of Katherines Colin Singleton yearns for an academic achievement that will win him renown. Miles is searching for something external that will transform his internal self while Colin is looking within himself for something that will be able to transform the external world.
It would be easy to say that this conflict, the struggle to achieve something great either for yourself or for others, is an adolescent one – the earnest but overeager ambition of youth – and yet that would only be a part of the truth. The desire to achieve greatness, to make some kind of lasting mark in the world, and to improve ourselves as human beings may take shape during adolescence, but it also may last much longer than that. Part of what I love about Green’s books is that, knowing that the beginnings of journeys – those moments when the protagonist is finding their footing and taking their first few steps – tend to be very interesting, he writes about teenagers starting out on the journeys that will carry on throughout their entire lives. His protagonists may come to realize that changing the world (being named a genius in the case of Colin Singleton) is too great an expectation to carry and yet they also realize that – even though their expectations may have changed – the true quest, the real adventure, is still just beginning. They’re excited to see what comes next. Just as I am with Green, whose work continues to impress.