Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book review: "An Abundance of Katherines," by John Green

An Abundance of Katherines (2006)
by John Green
Speak / Penguin

A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. This is my first of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; and indeed, after finishing it myself, I could easily see why John Green has in just the past few years rapidly grown into one of the most popular YA authors in history. And that's because this character-based relationship comedy and coming-of-age tale is literally as complicated and witty as any better-than-average adult novel out there, sort of a teen version of a Michael Chabon or David Foster Wallace book (complete with superfluous footnotes, no less), which of course is going to get eaten up by a crowd that's usually fed a steady stream of parent-friendly morality tales and vampire soap operas.

In fact, that's the best compliment I can give this novel, that it literally made me flash back to some of the deepest, most private moments I had in my own teen years (25 years ago now for me), moments I had completely forgotten about, a laser-precise look sometimes at the weird ways intelligence and naivety and hormones mix in the high-school years; and that's always a special and remarkable thing, when an adult author can tap back into those emotions as if they were there again, and especially astonishing when you add it to Green's natural mastery over plot, ultra-realistic dialogue, and creation of all kinds of fascinatingly unique elements while still adhering to the "rules" of YA fiction (like: find a plausible way to get rid of the adults as much as possible; be dark but not too dark; make the plot at least slightly more adventurous than most teens get a chance to experience in real life; examine sex mostly by way of examining sexual tension; etc). Green has a whole series of passionately loved character dramadies out now (to say nothing of the first project that got him a lot of notice, the million-person-watching "Brotherhood 2.0" online video experiment), and I'm highly looking forward now to reading more.

Additional thoughts, as far as my struggle to become a better YA author myself...

--So far in my research, this is the book I've most pictured as the kind of novel I myself will probably write; but that said, I happily admit that Green is a much better writer than I will ever be, which I actually find oddly inspirational for some reason, the fact that a guy this funny and smart is being so rewarded by his industry right now. (He's also a multiple award-winner, and the film rights to several of his books have now been purchased by Hollywood studios.) That's another big compliment I can give, that I really want Green to write a book for grown-ups now, so that an adult audience can also discover what a wonderful writer he is.

--For being a multiple award winner, I was surprised by how much subversive material there is in here: all the teens curse like sailors, most of them get drunk at one point or another without any repercussions, and there's even a scene where two teen boys come across another teen couple making love in a field completely naked, and end up watching them for a bit before making their presence known. I'm sure it's another reason why these books are so massively popular among teens themselves. Also, I was happily reminded while reading this that teens actually have a much more nuanced understanding of things like relationships than we tend to remember by the time we're in our forties; the characters seen here can get surprisingly jaded and adult in their observations about romance and the like. This is one of the nice things, of course, about a book like this becoming so popular, that it confirms that teen readers really are intimately connecting with the highly sophisticated writing style seen on display here. It's one of the things I'm starting to realize these days, that the entire YA industry is a much different thing than when I was a young adult myself in the early 1980s, and that the most popular YA novels out there (the ones specifically for ages 14 and up, that is) are routinely as large, complex and realistic as any adult book, just with teenage characters.

--Did I mention yet all the infinitely unique and utterly charming details that Green comes up with for this book, all while servicing the traditional blueprint for what a contemporary novel should contain? This is why he reminds me so much of the adult-lit author Michael Chabon, and especially that author's early hit Wonder Boys. I love how Green starts us out in Chicago, for example (in fact, just around the corner from where I live in real life), but somehow comes up with an entirely plausible way for our teen heroes to end up spending the rest of the novel in a tiny little hillbilly town in Tennessee, one that they just happened to randomly come across during an impromptu road trip. I love that the comic-relief best friend is an overweight slacker Muslim, filthy-mouthed and addicted to daytime television and who introduces himself to everyone with, "Hi, I'm not a terrorist." I love how the story ends up centering around a factory that makes the pull-out strings for tampons, and I love how that ends up providing this lovely, completely surprising, visually magical moment at the book's climax. I love how the main conceit is that our male hero has had 19 romantic relationships since the age of eight, and that every single one of them was with a girl named Katherine with a "K;" and I love how Green uses this quirky fact as an excuse for these long, (500) Days of Summer style reminiscences about them, all in the service of this science nerd trying throughout the course of the book to perfect a mathematical formula that can be used to predict the outcome of any new relationship. There's a hundred other details like these I could mention, but I won't.

--And finally, definitely one of the reasons Green has grown so absurdly popular is that he has a brilliant handle over teen stereotypes, and of all the massively complicated layers of personality that actually reside under that top stereotype in real life. Just to cite one example (and again, I could do more if I wanted), look at how our main female character Lindsey comes across at first as a typical redneck with too much makeup and who dates the town quarterback (literally); but how as we get to know her, we come to realize that she's actually an emotional chameleon, whose personality and even dialect changes radically based on who she's around; and how under that, there's actually a very rebellious creature who was once an angry junior-high goth; and how underneath all THAT, what really lurks is the heart of an intelligence-loving nerd, which is how it is that she and our nerdy male hero click so profoundly, despite the surface-level details of their lives being almost diametrically opposite. It's easy for adult readers to look at a character like Lindsey and imagine her as the sassy graphic-designer ingenue or cultishly loved punk-rock bassist she's fated to be; it's absolutely wonderful to watch Green so completely peg this type in the years before she grows into the person she was always meant to be. (And speaking of all this, that's the secret behind Green's miraculous feat of writing a relationship book that somehow appeals to boys as well: he makes the male hero an antisocial, book-obsessed former child prodigy who nonetheless has an insanely busy love life, manages to get the hot white-trash girl by the end, and actually beats up the town quarterback, a wish-fulfillment wet dream for nerdy boy book-lovers if I've ever heard of one.)

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