Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How To Live A Good Life

I am a member of the very, very small group of readers who were not bowled over by Looking for Alaska by John Green. In fact, I may be the only reader who wasn't bowled over by it.

But it wasn't because Green is a bad writer. He is a decent writer who wrote a book I didn't care for. That is perfectly acceptable. So I decided to give his second novel, An Abundance of Katherines, a shot.

Okay, first I'm going to talk about a negative so I can end on a positive note, which will be a novelty for me.

I found the book a little gimmicky. For instance, our main character is always creating anagrams out of names. Plus, the book uses footnotes, a great many of them particularly early in the book. I will admit I've read a few novels with footnotes that I enjoyed. But here they are distracting. A little of the material in the footnotes does pertain to the main story. It could easily have been included in the text. But a lot of it is merely fun, clever stuff that pulls the reader away from the story. Green has a good story here, much more original than in Looking for Alaska, and it's entertaining. But for a long time I didn't feel any compelling need to go back to the book because I couldn't stay in the story. I was always being pulled out of it by footnotes, anagrams, or subtitles warning us that a flashback is coming.

Of course, given that mathematics has such an important place in this story, perhaps Green was trying to make his piece of fiction look like a scholarly work, complete with diagrams, subtitles, and footnotes. That is a neat idea, but it sure wreaked havoc with the narrative flow.

On the other hand, I think Green had some great material here. Colin Singleton is a former child prodigy trying to come to terms with the fact that he may not do anything particularly significant with his life. (He also wants a relationship, but who doesn't?) We're coming off a couple of decades during which many, many kids were identified not as prodigies, perhaps, but as gifted. And what does become of them when they grow up? After having been singled out throughout their schooling and working their butts off (Colin worked many hours a day from the time he was three.), are they left scratching their heads and wondering what they're supposed to do with themselves that's all that different from what their classmates who were merely smart or even average are doing? We're talking a story for our time, wouldn't you say?

In addition, the whole how am I going to live my life? thing is one of my favorite themes, and it's the major question that drives An Abundance of Katherines. The three teen characters--Colin, his best friend, the marvelous Hassan, and the girl who is not named Katherine who they meet in a general store--are concerned with how to live a good life. A good life, not the good life. Work, relationships (of varying kinds), and faith are all issues they deal with.

Whatever flaws An Abundance of Katherines may have, it is thought provoking and witty. I guess I'll be reading John Green's next book, too.

2 comments:

Karen Day said...

I've thought a lot about this book since I read it two years ago (which says something, if I'm still thinking about it, right?) I love the boarding school, rich kid-poor kid, beloved teacher theme. And I liked the protagonist's voice -- he was appealing, accessible. It was a book I wanted to read. But somewhere a long the line I stopped reading. And I stopped about 20 pages after Alaska died. But I couldn't really put my finger on why. Could be that I got worn out by the whole "three weeks before," subheads and once the "event" happened, I lost interest. Could be that even though Alaska was intended, I believe, to be "unattainable" I felt I never fully "knew" her in a way that I should have (was she too idealized)? But ultimately I think I wasn't convinced with the grieving process. As writers we don't have to be therapists or PhDs to write about psychological traumas and their aftermaths; but it's really tricky and complicated, getting the nuances and psychology JUST right.

Karen Day

gail said...

"I love the boarding school, rich kid-poor kid, beloved teacher theme."
I think you're not alone on this, though I believe some people would add "dead classmate" to that list or even replace "beloved teacher" with it. That would explain why every ten or fifteen years we get A Separate Peace, Dead Poets' Society, The Secret History (which was private college, not boarding school, but still)Looking for Alaska, and probably many others I don't know about, to say nothing of movies using the same set-up. And then there's Harry Potter, which covers a lot of the same ground. I've always felt that a lot of that series' appeal was due to the boarding school setting.

I can understand the attraction intellectually--people are fascinated with that time of life when humans change from one thing to another, schools are supposed to facilitate change, boarding school teenagers are away from the protection of parents, which can only facilitate more change. Adolescence is the point of life when you first recognize status, social hierarchies, etc.

I can understand the attraction, I just don't feel it myself. Which is why I liked An Abundance of Katherines a whole lot more than Looking for Alaska.