If it wasn’t for the few emotional moments, An Abundance of Katherines would have read like a parody of John Green. All the familiar ingridients are there, but Green uses them to explore different themes and ideas. It’s not a problem of repetition so long as Green is still good at his expressing his ideas, and has new ones in each book. Unfortunately, the only time Katherinesis successful is when it stops to give us snippets from Green’s upcoming collection of essays.
Stopping a novel to deliver a teaser for an essay collection is bad writing. It shows the author couldn’t express his ideas using the story. In Katherines, these snippet highlight a different problem. Once you get over the fact you’re reading an essay, it’s pretty good. Green’s mediatations on being different and weird are well-written and interesting. He treats the subject with the seriousness it deserves. He sometimes slips into taking it too seriously, but most of the time he captures the confusion that weird kids feel and finds solutions that are not the way out. Once you get back to the novel, all of that depth is gone.
Calling An Abundance of Katherines a cartoon will compliment it. There are plenty of cartoons out there who will make their characters actually struggle. In Katherines, everything is solved nicely for the characters. There are worse things than getting dumped, but being a weird kid can’t be as great as Green makes it out to be. Blowing a problem out of porportion is just as bad as painting it much easier than it is.
Weird kids’ struggle with girls is a hilarious subject. These are people who are in this absurd catch-22 where there’s no way out, and the only solution is to give up on women. Weird kids are not special in the mysterious, sexually attractive way. Their quirks will just be overbearing, whether it’s an obsession with music or proving God doesn’t exist. They have slightly more content than your ‘popular dumb jock’, and it’s not enough to compensate for not being hot. Lack of social skills also means a lack of charisma and the ability to maintain a conversation. Add to that the fact males are generally expected to initiate, the ones who will ask out and the ones who will try to kiss first, and you’re left with people who have no hope of ever being in a relationship.
Colin doesn’t have to worry about that. Colin doesn’t have to agonize over how to approach a girl. Almost all of them ask him out, and there are 19 Katherines in this novel. For weird kids, actually getting rejected would be a step forward. It would mean they at least tried to approach. Getting dumped is Acheivement Unlocked. Even though Colin’s relationships tend to be as short as a pop song, he still had these moments. Girls still asked him out and kissed him out of their own initiative. From the point of view of the weird kids, this looks like a pretty nice life.
Green writes about weird people not to examine them, but to make himself feel better about being one. There is a reason why unpopular kids are unpopular, and the problem is not just the evil hot jocks. Colin and Hassan are both unpleasant creeps who act like they don’t really like each other and can’t relate to the world. They both think that by being quirky and weird, they’d somehow be able to get by and be loved. It’s a comforting message, but it’s a bad one.
There are moments in the novel where Green is aware of how terrible his main cast is, but the story disagrees with him. The characters undergo little change. They understand that perhaps they should try a little harder to relate to the world, but the message is still ‘be yourself’. Hassan and Colin don’t really confront their unplesant weirdness. Colin does some heroics and Hassan decides to be a little more active, but Colin wins the girl because of who he is, not how much he improved.
The worse comes when the jock reveals himself to be an exact stereotype. Green couldn’t try to look beyond his fantasy of getting the jock’s favorite girl. Lindsey’s boyfriend is actually nicknamed The Other Colin, and Green encourages us to view him as that. He’s the other, the different one who is not as cool like us, therefore he’s an asshole. Oh look, isn’t that how people describe nerds?
There are various other failings, but they’re expected when this is just a bad nerd empowerment fantasy. There’s a plot thread involving Lindsey’s mom that is dropped off after it’s hinted it might lead to the big climax. The quirks are much more forced, including Hassan and Colin inventing a code word for when they criticize each other too much (Dingleberries, if you can believe it). There are two characters who add nothing but their name to the word count. The romance is forced. Green should have kept this Theorem thingie for a humrous essay. The appendix at the end that explains it is actually pretty amusing. The punchline at the end is also great. It almost makes it worth it.
What made Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars good is that Green puts his young protagonists through a struggle and watched them cope with it. They weren’t wish-fulfillment fantasies (Well, Alaska is, bit). In Abundance of Katherines, the characters have no struggle and no serious conflict. They just win, like DJ Khaled. Everything is wrapped tight at the end as if the tragedy never occurred, while in the aforementioned novels the characters have to go on and live with it. The only explaination for the novel’s birth is that the publishers were impatient after the success of Alaska. This is a wish-fulfillment fantasy Green wrote for his own amusement spliced with teasers for his essay collection. There’s no way the former was meant to be published.
2 Katherines out of 5
Also posted in my blog