John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines is a really funny book.
Now, the rest of you may find books truly, laugh-out-loud funny all the time; I don’t. Most novels that attempt any sort of comedy in this day and age commit some sin. Three examples off the top of my head would be: cutesy, goofy, and obvious-y. But Katherines is just plain funny. There’s straightforward gags, sweet boy humor, and hilarious brainy stuff. Not to mention the timing. It’s so hard to do funny banter in prose in any kind of sustained way. Green pulls it off and then some.
An aside: A lot of humor in novels and short stories is largely invisible. Have you ever been to a reading where the writer reads a piece that when you read it on the page you never even cracked a smile, but out loud people are cracking up at every semi-witty phrase? I’ve even been to readings where people laughed at things that weren’t funny–or intended to be–at all. Audiences at readings want to laugh, they seek out opportunities to find something funny. And sometimes the audience is right, sometimes these things are funny, but not so much on the page. Or not if you don’t have a firm sense of the writer or narrator’s voice to reveal what’s funny. I never realized how funny Karen Joy Fowler’s books were until I heard her read; knowing her inflections and speech patterns fundamentally changed my experience of her work. Anyway, if there are readings of this book planned, and you go, take a garbage bag along for protection*…
So back to Katherines. What’s it about? Former child prodigy Colin Singleton has just graduated high school and been dumped by his nineteenth girlfriend named Katherine. He’s not feeling much like a genius, more like the wallowing. Enter his best friend Hassan–the most lovable wise-cracking Muslim character of the year–and plans of a roadtrip. Bad things are said about Kentucky (Green’s own reversal on such smacktalk is on record), and the boys land in Gutshot, TN, after following a roadside sign to the grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, where they meet a clever girl who isn’t named Katherine but Lindsey. Lindsey’s tampon-string magnate mother hires them to help capture the town’s local history over the summer. Lindsey encourages Colin on his quest to complete the ultimate mathematical formula to predict how long a relationship will last and who will be the dumper. And, well, I think that’s about enough plot description. I hate plot description. (I just wanted to get to use the phrase "tampon-string magnate," in truth. Now I have: twice.)
One of the things I love most about Green’s work to date is that it’s set in a South I recognize, with dumb kids, yes, but with really, really smart kids too. It’s not gothic, it’s not twee, and there’s none of that Lil Abner shit. It’s fugging refreshing.
Katherines was the only must-acquire-ARC on my list at BEA and I must admit that (way back when) I started reading it there was a momentary groan at the sight of footnotes. BUT. They work. The clever footnotes work, Colin’s cleverer obsession with anagrams works, and the howlingly clever substitution of fug for fuck WORKS (see def 6). I highly recommend this novel to David Foster Wallace fans who think these techniques are dunt, or to DFW haters, who think they never worked anyway.
You’ll laugh, you’ll sigh.
Read it. (And read Looking for Alaska if you haven’t already!)
*From the spit-take of the person next to you, natch. I am in no way implying a resemblance between John Green and Gallagher.