Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The value of personal narrative over formulaic thinking (Books - An Abundance of Katherines by John Green)

At the tail-end of 2008, our late book blogging friend, Dewey, introduced me to YA author John Green and his Paper Towns, which was delightfully smart and funny. An Abundance of Katherines written by Green in 2006 is very much cut from the same cloth. An anagram-obsessed child prodigy who feels his best days are behind him, having just broken up with the nineteenth girl he has dated named Katherine, and having somewhat smotheringly sympathetic parents, goes on a road trip with his Arab-American friend Hassan to escape their sympathy and to figure out why he keeps getting dumped. They end in Gutshot, Tennessee, where the Archduke Ferdinand is claimed to be buried. Whether or not he figures out the mystery of relationships with other people, especially those named Katherine, is the substance of the book, so I'm not about to spoil it here.

"Do you think the people of Gutshot, Tennessee, have ever seen an actual, living Arab?"

"Oh, don't be so paranoid."

"Or for that matter do you think they've ever seen a Jew-fro?"

Colin thought that over for a moment, and then said, "Well, the woman at Hardee's was nice to us."

"Right, but the woman at Hardees called Gutshot 'the sticks,'" Hassan said, imitating the woman's accent. "I mean, if Hardee's is urban, I'm not sure I want to see rural." Hassan rolled on with his diatribe, and Colin laughed and smiled at all the right places, but he just kept driving, calculating the odds that the Archduke, who dies in Sarajevo more than ninety years before, and who'd randomly popped into Colin's brain the previous night, would end up between Colin and wherever he was heading. It was irrational, and Colin hated thinking irrationally, but he couldn't help but wonder whether perhaps being in the presence of the Archduke might reveal something to Colin about his missing piece. But of course the universe does not conspire to put you in one place rather than another, Colin knew. He thought of Democritus: "Everywhere man blames nature and fate, yet his fate is mostly but the echo of his character and passions, his mistakes and weaknesses."
Green has masculine adolescent nerd banter down to a science. Much of the dialogue in An Abundance of Katherines , as was true in Paper Towns, is quite funny, although sometimes it just skirts cute. I was a little surprised to see a road trip come up in this book, as that had been one of the strongest parts of Paper Towns. Seeing the device used again left me fearing that the book might end up fitting some sort of John Green template, but the characters and settings were original enough so that it didn't seem that way. Adult readers will probably find much of the plotting obvious, but one could say the same about most commercial feature films and that doesn't stop them from being an enjoyable confection. Green creates believable contemporary teenage characters whose banter is a joy to read. He tells a swift-moving yarn with some good growing-up messages for that aged reader about how we can know each other through personal narrative - that is, the value of a good story over formulaic thinking - a good message for the sensitive and clever reader for whom Green seems to write.


theliterarylollipop said...

This looks fantastic. I've yet to read anything by Green, though I've been noticing his bookish presence on the blogs this past year.

Ted said...

LL - It was fun, although I enjoyed Paper Towns even more.