Episode 12: An Abundance of Katherines - But Not a Remarkable AMount, I Guess
Episode 12: An Abundance of Katherines – But Not a Remarkable Amount, I Guess…
There’s this weird isolation that comes from loving a book most people you meet are wildly indifferent to. Undoubtedly, and you know this, it’s not a real solitude. You can still pick up your phone at any time and call a friend to go out for pizza or something. And this issue is so cosmically trivial that you can see it as the misperception that it really is.
And yet, if you are like me, an important component of your social repertoire is gushing about the things that you love, which is so much harder if not outright impossible when no one around you wants to listen.
Add to that, the weird feeling that comes from two factors. First, there’s a particular quote from the book being blasted all across the interwebs whose sentiment is somewhat dubious is the context of the story. Second, the author is a rather larger than life figure whose other books have a very enthusiastic following.
Not a great set up, but hey, I have a podcast.
(Music fades out)
Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 12.
(Music fades in)
Today, I want to talk about John Green’s second novel. And no, it’s not Paper Towns. But I can see why you might think that, particularly if you’re somewhat new to that section of the literary sphere. In a post Paper Towns movie era, it can be hard to remember the forgotten child of the John Green book family. (Pause) It’s not even the middle child anymore not since Turtles All the Way Down. Well, it doesn’t even have that going for it. That’s kind of sad.
No, I’m talking about An Abundance of Katherines, released in 2006 but not one I would have read for another six years or so. It wasn’t a poorly received book at the time of its release. You can go through the archive of vlogbrothers videos to relive some of its journey, or the highlights of it. Which doesn’t include the release, but there’s something weirdly poetic about that, though I can’t seem to put that particular thought into words. There was even a contest for a fan-designed cover at some point.
And yet, it fell to the wayside, through the figurative cracks of John Green’s many successes. Despite how well it was critically received, the fandom train has struggled to pull into the station, never mind out of it. According to fan reviews or forums, many of the people who stumble upon after reading The Fault in Our Stars or in a post-Fault in our Stars world have been…. Unimpressed. I could be a lot meaner about it. In fact, some people are, but you get my point.
I read—Wait, does An Abundance of Katherines not even have its own shorthand? Is that how neglected it is? I read Katherines after I read TFIOS. And to fully flush out the context, I read Looking for Alaska first, then TFIOS, then Abundance of Katherines, and then Paper Towns. Also I bought Turtles All the Way Down from my local bookstore when it was released, but I thought that went without saying. Only to say it anyway. So, according to the model I just described, I shouldn’t have liked it, right? His later books—works that have the advantage of years of additional practice and time baked in the mental oven of the writer’s psyche—should have geared me towards indifference, right?
Well, no. Formulas aren’t perfect indicators of anything, especially when they are still in their infant stages and haven’t been put through countless tests like the algorithms on YouTube and Facebook. Also, I purposely purged all high level mathematics from my brain after my business calculus class in college. I’m diving back into the subject, on my own terms (which may be why I like this book so much) I’m definitely not at formula generating levels. Never mind ones. That isn’t going to happen for, like, multiple decades.
I did like the book, in a way that many people seem to. Not to say that there aren’t valid criticisms of it. I saw a lot of that throughout the internet and agree with quite a bit of it. But it was still a reading experience I thoroughly enjoyed and still think about from time to time. Let me put it this way, there may be some ugly trees in the forest, but a nice drone shot can remind you that the forest itself is, well, pretty amazing. You can still be concerned about the ugly trees, particularly if their defects come from some sort of infection, but there are those of us that just want to look at the forest.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
So is this going to be a drone shot? Not really. Might have set myself up to fail with that metaphor, but it made my point at the time. Like a couple seconds ago.
I just want to explain what my perspective is. Not in a defensive way, though if you had asked me about that when I first read the book and made the mistake of looking into the digital void of online reviews, I might have had a different answer to that. Because you know, we generally want to be right about all things and that means other people need to agree with us. Or at least, other people should agree with us. Which we might say is for their own sake but really it helps affirm our egos. I know that at various points in my life I wanted to be right or could be outright desperate to be right. There’s a nice endorphin hit whenever other people tell you that you’re right. Like, it’s a really good feeling in an at times depressing world.
But honestly, I’m trying to care less about that. I just think there’s an important lesson lurking here that I wish I had learned sooner.
Colin Singleton is a child prodigy. One of many, you might be saying. We probably hear about child prodigies every few months or so. It’s a type of feel-good news story that still gets clicks, which—in a view-dependent news cycle—makes it worth publishing. But we seldom hear about what happens to these child prodigies after. It’s not a title that has a clear evolution into adulthood. Sure, maybe a lot of child prodigies grow into just being prodigies or geniuses. But others, just become normal adults.
As someone who became a normal adult, this idea isn’t distressing, though it may be because I wasn’t a child prodigy, but for Colin, it’s a nightmare. An existential boogieman lurking in the closet type nightmare. He needs to maintain his genius because it was the only identity he felt he had, meaning that the stakes of losing it are far higher than anything he could justify paying.
Like many young people, he thought he could fill the void or a void by dating the right person. Specifically the right Katherine, but he got dumped by all nineteen of the Katherines he dated. Yeah, that’s a weird quirk to the story. One that I struggled to accept, but it’s not an integral part but almost like a very obvious Easter egg for you to chuckle at. It’s through this experience that Colin’s fears find something to hold onto. He doesn’t want to be alone, living a half-existence. Either, he’s going to find a partner to love him and make me feel home or he’s going to confirm his genius by having a “eureka” moment. Preferably both, but he’s still pretty young, so either will work for now.
Colin has just graduated high school, so he’s also living in the midst of this pretty sizeable transition. Which might make someone think that this is the time to orchestrate the grand changes they wish to live. And… that’s what I did. As for Colin, his best friend Hassan convinces him to mark this occasion with a road trip. Always a better alternative to beating your head against the wall for a moment of genius, and by beating your head against the wall, I mean either literally or figuratively.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Confession. I’ve never been on a road trip. It sounds great, sure, but it took me a long time to get my driver’s license. And the ethics of going on a road trip when you cannot contribute to the act of driving is something I’m going to need to have spelled out for me. Like a manual would be great. Until then, I’m going to have to respectfully keep my distance.
But there’s something beautiful about the idea. Not just of seeing the country, whatever country you live in, and not just about spending time with people you care about. Because if my experience travelling is any indication, you don’t always like those people.
What sets road trips apart, I think, is the act of movement without the pressure of a destination. Sure, you might road trip to a specific location with purpose, set schedules, heavily annotated maps and all that jazz. But what we see in this book and what I think of when I think of road trips is driving without any of that. To justify that thought, let me just explain, that from my perspective, if you are on such a set timetable, there are other means of travel far more reliable and thus preferable to loading up your car and hitting the road, hoping that you’re car can get you there. Then again, I spent most of my life being ferried around in the king of unreliable cars. But whatever, look, in today’s day and age, you generally have options and can pick whatever suits your needs.
Colin and Hassan are what I imagine to be the typical road trip travelers, open to experience and just follow the invisible current of the open road. I guess, this idealized image of road trips is why I like them so much.
When I travel, it’s always with intention and flights. Maybe you haven’t been to an airport before or recently. If so let me give you some sort of spark notes to convey the experience. (Pause). It sucks. It’s a lot of running around to different stations just to deal with sticky and somewhat unresponsive kiosk screens or employees who have already been cussed out at least once today and REALLY don’t want to be there. Or deal with you. Which is understandable but I will say is a bit surreal when I also am fully immersed in that “I don’t want to deal with anything that could be vaguely described as nonsense” mood as the person in front of me fails every task involved in security screening. Or, bonus points for the guy who was at the airport on the day after Saint Patrick’s Day a couple years ago who was so drunk that I and woman next to me in line were running a very concerned commentary on his ability to stand. It wasn’t great of us to do, but it was the only way we could cope with the stress of the smell of alcohol or wondering if he was going to fall down the escalator or projectile vomit all over a very crowded area.
I think the worst part, though, is the weight of the clock as the time seems to stare you down. It can feel in a figurative sense much like humidity feels in a literal sense: constricting, smothering, and otherwise making your day so much worse. But you don’t have that with a road trip.
But you do have that with the larger journey that is your life.
That’s a weird way of putting it. Or that’s what I’ve always thought when I heard that expression. The expression: life is a journey or an adventure. The problem that I had with this was that—you know—what’s the destination supposed to be? Retirement? The grave? Looking back now that I’m slightly older, I think the figurative “they” meant that the destination can be whatever you want to be or whatever dream you have. Fair enough, I guess. For most people.
The longest “journey” I’ve ever taken, I guess, would be back when I pursuing a career in law. That would have started my freshman year in high school until my sophomore year in college. And… that was the worst trip I had ever taken, and I was stranded in LAX once for two nights when I was old enough to not be an unaccompanied minor entitled to help from the airline but too young to check myself into a hotel. Yeah, it’s weird that this crack exists.
And honestly, what was the pay off? To the lawyer thing. Not to the LAX thing. Exhaustion and discontent. As much as we may want to hate or mock attorneys, it’s not an easy path to success. Especially in this job market. You have to bust your back to become the rich, soulless stereotype we have in our heads. And yes, I’ve worked with attorneys before. There’s some accuracy to that stereotype, but still, it’s not something that just happens overnight. And it’s not something you should do because other people have told you to do it.
I wonder how much of this is true for Colin, too. How much of his desire for a genius status or a relationship came from being told that this is what he wants? That’s a weird metaphysical rabbit hole to fall into. And it’s not one that is ever going to yield any sort of satisfactory answer. The desires we have are undoubtedly heavily influenced by those people around us when we were growing up, but it’s also through them that we can in any way become aware of these things we could want. They might tell us what to say sometimes, but they also give us the language. So maybe they told what to want but without them, would we know about any of these things? How capable are we of intrinsic wants?
I don’t doubt that Colin wanted to matter to people. It meant having some sort of social network, and human beings need social connections to live. And sure, maybe society told Colin he needed a girlfriend to feel whole, but also, having a partner to walk through life with makes even the worst of it a lot more bearable.
To me, the idea of being called a “child prodigy” your whole life is crossing the line. Not saying that this happened to me. Farthest from the truth. But as an outside observer, I think that this term is a loaded one. It carries a lot of expectations and hopes just to dump them on the shoulders of a being that both can’t fight back and is dependent on the willingness of those around them to support them in order to survive. Expectations that maybe just can’t be met or likely won’t be no matter how hard to work.
Look, if you want to aspire to be the next genius, put in the work, and I have no problem with that. But I don’t think anyone should be told that this is what they want. I was told to be a lawyer, and let me reiterate, I am beyond thankful I didn’t go down that route.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Adolescence is a weird time. Or I think it is. It’s a time of transformation. Usually but not always. I guess there are some people who have always been what they wanted to be. They fell into the right mold with a supportive family and only had to do some slight modifications. But on the other hand, there are those of us who have to almost start almost from scratch, ripping up everything on the foundation and starting over.
Where Colin is on the spectrum, I’m not sure. He clearly has parents that love him, which isn’t the case for everyone. It’s just the title of child prodigy that could have beaten him down, I guess. What doesn’t need to be guessed is that this need to matter is at the core of everything he does. Including this road trip, part of which he spends trying to develop a formula to predict the success of any future relationship.
At first, nothing really changes. Well, the location changes. Someone’s been transplanted rather than developed.
(Music fade out)
There’s a premise there that you might not agree with. Namely, that trips are supposed to help us grow. Somehow. And fair enough if you don’t agree. Just don’t strawman me and say that I think all road trips have to be life changing. I don’t think that. But this is a book, one in which the exact nature of reality doesn’t need to be followed to every last detail.
This one is trying to document Colin’s development, the process of him reevaluating this belief that he has made the focal point of his life. Physically moving from one place to another didn’t do that for him.
And it didn’t do that for me, either.
(Music fades in)
I left Phoenix for college when I was eighteen and not old enough to think looking back had too much value. I left and became a different version of myself, one who had to revise my visions of the future from the one I had been told to want to one I actually wanted. Which wasn’t easy. And I think I went through like thirty ideas or iterations, but here’s the point. If moving had been enough, then I would have set foot on the soil of the corn-filled Midwest and immediately realized that there was no way that I could be an attorney and would have picked something else. However, nothing in life is that instantaneous. Not even the ramen noodles I made for lunch. (Pause). Look, I just like the taste, okay?
It helped that I had people around me who didn’t focus on any factor that they couldn’t immediately see when looking at me or that I didn’t immediately bring up. That this fresh start meant conversations free from the baggage I had carried with me throughout my life at that point, items that I couldn’t even remember getting or where they might have come from. I think I left most of that in Phoenix. Sometimes you just have to pack light, and maybe those are the best trips.
College was a stroll into an unfamiliar world with people I had never met before but feel blessed to have stumbled upon. We talked, not just at night in dorm rooms with unspecified liquids pouring forth. You know, my college had some of the best lemonade around, I’ll tell you that much. That happened, but there were other people, other places, times and conversations. I’m a better person for my time there. But I don’t think I could have predicted that. And it’s not because I’m bad at math.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
There is something attractive about predicting the future. I’m not going to pretend that isn’t true. Colin’s fixation with the concept of a “eureka” moment is an extension of this need, I guess. Obsessing over the past to the point of being desperate to recreate it is an extension of this. Actually, it might be one phenomenon. We want the safety that comes from knowing what will happen. Even if it’s just a protection against a relationship breaking up or any mild heartbreak. If we know, then we can prepare ourselves and everything will be okay. We can actively choose to make everything okay. We can act on what we want, and we can make everything okay. We just want everything to be okay. Or at least, we want to minimize the damage.
It’s for that reason that I try not to be too critical of people who like psychics or whatever method of future prediction they prefer. It’s not a matter of being stupid or ignorant. It’s a matter of being vulnerable. And goodness knows I have my own vulnerabilities.
Most of what Colin does in this novel is about his vulnerability and fear, even if he can’t admit it. He’s afraid of what happens when he steps outside of mold that is “being a child prodigy with a girlfriend named Katherine.” Just like I was afraid of being, well, not what everyone wanted me to be and being alone as a result of being a prolific disappointment. But being that he’s a brilliant young man, he tries to make the most of it. He tries to make a tool that will—one—be brilliant and—two—help him avoid any and all relationships doomed to fail.
Now, let’s say that he has all the tools he needs to do this perfectly. He’s got the methodology that is beyond my understanding and all the necessary data points. I still think he’d get it wrong.
Because his approach seems to depend on constants that may not always be constants. There’s just something fickle about the human experience that makes this impossible.
Despite my earlier jab, Colin does grow. Not because his friend Hassan loaded them up into the car and took them across America on a whim. No, he meets people, he has adventures, he confides in people, and he anagrams things. Actions have consequences, which isn’t always a bad thing. The term “consequences” gets a bad rep, but it just means that something happens after one has taken an action. In this case, they can be good. The consequences of your choices may be a profound and necessary personal growth. That’s what happened to me and to Colin.
But ultimately, this is where Colin’s formula falls flat. Because maybe pre-Tennessee Colin could have used it, but he’s a different person now. This Colin may be able to make a relationship work that the other Colin would have let fall apart. Maybe pre-college me could have been a good lawyer. Actually, me now could still be a good lawyer. Maybe. Possibly. I mean, maybe pre-college me could have been happy as an attorney. Somehow. But I grew and changed, and now that potential career is somewhat of a nightmare.
And maybe he accounted for that personal growth. Maybe he built in personal development into the formula and I just overlooked that part. It could happen, but considering Colin’s perspective, (Music stops) I’m inclined to doubt that or write it off as something that doesn’t fit with his perspective. (New music fades in) Because remarkable people don’t change. Well, the people do change. But when someone enters the pantheon of exalted persons, they lose the right to control their own mythology. They become an image in the shared consciousness. Images don’t evolve. Not always. And usually not for the better. But as time goes on, these images are further sealed in stone. They will not change. They will not grow. They become as an extension of this, perfectly predictable.
Assuming that person did get to live out their own life while all that was happening, it may not be a bad thing. Because it’s an image. Images don’t have feelings that need to be accounted for. As for everyone else in the larger society, people do well with heroes or villains or anything of the sort. Figures that give them anchors onto which they can hitch their hopes, fears, or dreams. Maybe we do need remarkable people. If only because, there’s still deficits in our language that can be filled with pictures far more easily than they can be filled with words. So if Colin wanted to be remarkable not just a remarkable figure but a figure with an internalized remarkableness, that’s the price he’d have to pay. And he seems willing to pay it. If only out of desperation.
But he’d still want a life partner of some sort. Because, like I said, having someone to walk through life with can make the trials of everyday a lot more bearable. So… he’d still need the formula that composed his “eureka” moment. But let’s take the emphasis away for a moment. Say that Colin makes a discovery that truly makes him remarkable but doesn’t depend on the success of his formula. He’s a static figure, largely. The formula can accommodate him and does so rather nicely. What about the other person? What about the changes they go through as they go through their life as a person, not a living picture? How much of a change could the formula still account for? Could you run the formula for each person or each iteration of a person and get the same result or at some point do you have to bite the bullet and accept that you’d need a new one? How many new ones? At some point, it begs the question about whether or not it is worthwhile.
And then you look up at the clocks staring down at you. The hands twirl around, creating a current that threatens to blow you away.
How much stress do you need to endure in pursuit of your destination before you set your bags down and decide that the trip isn’t worth it? Ultimately, you can think that this is the best way to travel, and if it is for you, then I have no right or even reason to persuade you that this isn’t true. I would just say that there are things about it that some of us might deem not worth the investment. And with that being said, we may choose to step back and be content with our choices. Even if we choose to not matter in a cosmic sense.
It’s a choice I don’t regret making. And I’m glad I have a book that supports me.
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Oh, and by the way, the Saint Patrick’s Day traveler made it onto the plane safely if you were wondering. He was on my flight, actually. Also he had sobered up a little bit by the time we got to our destination. So I’m pretty sure he made it okay.