…he always had books. Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they’ll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back.
This is a favorite quote from John Green’s hilarious novel An Abundance of Katherines. When I heard John Green speak at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County back in October, an audience member asked him if he ever thought about writing fantasy or science fiction as opposed to realistic fiction. In his response, he used this novel to explain that not all of his novels are realistic, but what he calls “hyper-realistic” or exaggerated realism.
The premise of the novel involves Colin Singleton’s therapeutic road trip while he reels from the breakup with his most recent girlfriend, Katherine, the nineteenth girl named Katherine to break up with him. Colin, an extremely intelligent young man, attempts to develop a mathematical theorem that can predict if and when two people in a romantic relationship will break up. Colin and his unambitious and sarcastic Sunni Muslim friend, Hassan, head south from Chicago with no intended destination. They end up in the small community of Gutshot, Tennessee when they pull over for a tour of the grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the one whose assassination started World War I. That the Archduke would be buried in Gutshot, Tennessee is another example of exaggerated realism.
Colin’s musings on relationships in general and his relationships with the nineteen Katherines make up the majority of the novel. One of his more memorable thoughts to me involved his dislike for coffee:
He liked the idea of coffee quite a lot – a warm drink that gave you energy and had been for centuries associated with sophisticates and intellectuals. But coffee itself tasted to him like caffeinated stomach bile. So he did an end-around on the unfortunate taste by drowning his java in cream, for which Katherine gently teased him that afternooon. It rather goes without saying that Katherine drank her coffee black. Katherines do, generally. They like their coffee like they like their ex-boyfriends: bitter.
Throughout the novel, Green uses the technique of footnotes to give little asides to the main storyline – 87 of them to be exact. One of the footnotes explains how Colin came up with a sentence using words that each begin with the letter of the alphabet that corresponds to the first 99 digits in the number pi. I’d love to post it here, but it would just take up too much space. I couldn’t decide whether this use of footnotes was annoying or funny. Because I still can’t decide, I’m going to take that as a sign that it at least leans toward annoying. I have to admit, though, that it perhaps is a brilliant way of presenting Colin in all of his philosophical teen angst as at least a little annoying. Another of Colin’s quirks is his ability to quickly anagram words and phrases. In a Q & A section at the end of the book, Green indicates that he was fascinated by the fact that the word PRESBYTERIANS could be anagrammed into BRITNEY SPEARS.
I didn’t find this novel as moving and well-crafted as Green’s more recent novel The Fault In Our Stars, but it had it’s own kind of genius – much like Colin’s. The story reaches a climax during Colin and Hassan’s feral pig hunt with some of their Gutshot friends. In reflecting on this experience, Colin comes up with some interesting ideas about life, love and the importance of stories:
…say I tell someone about my feral hog hunt. Even if it’s a dumb story, telling it changes other people just the slightest little bit, just as living the story changes me. An infinitesimal change. And that infinitesimal change ripples outward – ever smaller but everlasting. I will get forgotten, but the stories will last. And so we all matter – maybe less than a lot, but always more than none.