Monday, February 9, 2009

#2: An Abundance of Katherines

Librarians go nuts for it, but I've always avoided the Young Adult section like the plague. When I was a bona fide "Young Adult," the last thing I wanted to do was read books a bunch of old people figured I'd like; once I'd lopped off the "young" and lapsed into the general fiction demographic, books about teenagers held all the appeal of freeze-dried meal worms.

Thus, at age 28, my first foray into YA fiction. For my year of reading dangerously, of course: what's more dangerous than bottled angst? The plan was to wet my YA whistle with something allegedly not-awful, so I picked up An Abundance of Katherines, the second novel by Printz Award-winning YA Author John Green (who, coincidentally, lives in Indianapolis. Not that I am a stalker or anything. Nope).

In Katherines, 17-year-old prodigy and anagram fanatic Colin Singleton only dates girls named Katherine. After getting dumped for the nineteenth time by a Katherine, Collin sets out on a consolatory road trip with his best buddy Hassan. The pair make their way to Gutshot, Tennessee, where they encounter a nerd-in-hiding named -unpromisingly- Lindsey, her popular friends, and her powerhouse mother, Hollis. Hijinks, explicated by pleasantly dorky footnotes, ensue.

The Gestalt reminded me of a nice conversation you have with someone on an airplane: enjoyable, engaging in the moment, but ultimately forgettable. What I liked best was that Katherines didn't seem to feel the need slot itself into one of the prefabricated adult fiction subgenres. It was neither wordy/fraught in the manner of a literary novel, or taut/formulaic in the manner of a Romance, a Mystery, etc. Instead there was a generous scope for a silliness, as when Collin wallows in his pain:

"Eventually, he found the bed too comfortable for his state of mind, so he lay down on his back, his legs sprawled across the carpet. He anagrammed "yrs forever" until he found one he liked: sorry fever. And then he lay there in his fever of sorry and repeated the now memorized note in his head and wanted to cry, but instead he only felt this aching behind his solar plexus. Crying adds something: crying is you, plus tears. But the feeling Colin had was some horrible opposite of crying. It was you, minus something. He kept thinking about one word -forever- and felt the burning ache just beneath his rib cage

"It hurt like the worst ass-kicking he'd ever gotten. And he'd gotten plenty. It hurt like this until shortly before 10 PM, when a rather fat, hirsute guy of Lebanese descent burst into Colin's room without knocking."

Ah, but danger! I'm supposed to be charting danger, flagging the mines, winkling out the verbal TNT! The principal treachery of YA books is that it only takes one slip, one empathetic step too far, and suddenly you're whisked back 10 years, a pizza-faced geek with seventeen dictionaries and no dates. Or else, like me, you're mortified to confront a neurosis you'd never admitted to in the first place:

"...he couldn't help but feel that he would never be a genius. For as much as he believed Lindsey that what matters to you defines your mattering, he still wanted the Theorem to work, still wanted to be as special as everyone had always told him he was."

Yeah, OK, OK. So I grew up smart and it was hard -actually really excruciatingly hard- to realize I wasn't, after all, going to amount to much.


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