Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Abundance of Stories

John Green is a crazy-good storyteller. He’s the kind of writer whose work both inspires me to be better at what I do...and convinces me that I might as well give up now because I could never possibly be as good at this as he is.

Colin Singleton, the protagonist in Green’s 2006 novel An Abundance of Katherines is not a crazy-good storyteller.  At least not at first.  He “wanders” when he tells a story.  Focuses on inconsequential details. Goes off on tangents. Lacks focus, purpose, and (usually) a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

But that’s okay, because what he lacks in storytelling skills, he more than makes up for in general prodigy-ness.  He learned to read and write (among other things) much earlier than most (like, starting at age two). His brain’s a sponge that readily absorbs information.  He reads several hours a day. He anagrams words, names, and phrases for fun. And throughout the novel, he tries very hard to make some sort of lasting contribution to society, something he’ll be remembered for so that he doesn’t end up being just another forgotten child prodigy.

The story begins the day after Colin graduates from high school (and the day after his nineteenth breakup with a Katherine).  Colin has only ever dated Katherines (spelled K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E), and most of the relationships were short-lived. But Katherine XIX was different. He’d been with her for almost a year, and she was, in his mind, the one.

His Judge Judy-loving best friend Hassan (who took a “year off” after high school, but has yet to register for any college courses in the coming term) convinces Colin to take a road trip with him—something to snap Colin out of his funk.  They’re not on the road for much more than a day when they come across the small town of Gutshot and are tourist-trapped by a sign claiming the remains of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—a figure our young prodigy had coincidentally just been thinking about—were buried there.  Colin’s doubtful the remains are authentic, but he’s curious nonetheless. 

While in Gutshot, they meet Lindsey Lee Wells and her mom, Hollis, who hires Hassan and Colin to record stories of Gutshot residents (especially those who work or worked at a textile plant that Hollis’s family has operated in town for decades).  Hassan, who has never made the kind of money Hollis is offering (with free room and board to boot), convinces Colin that they should stay.  Colin agrees, under the condition that he has time to do his “work” every day.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Dutton, 2006
Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen
His work is to develop a formula that predicts the rise and fall of relationships. But really, his work is to prove he matters. Early in the story, we learn from Colin the distinction between a prodigy (who picks up on things other people have already mastered quickly and at a very early age) and a genius (who does something phenomenally well that no one has ever done before).  Colin is the former and is concerned that he’ll soon be past his prime. He wants to leave his mark before it’s too late. Maybe cross over into genius territory.  And to him, successfully completing this formula will help him do just that—and maybe even convince Katherine XIX to get back together with him. 

The novel is stylistically interesting. It’s told in limited/close third personal narration (deep inside of Colin’s head and closely linked to his personality).  There are footnotes on most pages, offering amusing tidbits of information about mathematics and history, as well as insights into Colin’s personal history (especially with the Katherines).  The characters are exceptionally well drawn (as are most of Green’s characters).  Colin’s quirks—like his interest in anagramming—are as annoying as they are endearing.  Hassan is a “devout” Muslim, but also very much an American young adult, who (as I’ve already mentioned) loves sitting around and watching Judge Judy. And the boys’ friendship is depicted honestly and authentically.  After being best friends for several years, they’ve developed their own language—both verbal and non-verbal.  Their banter is at once cruel and kind.  They pull no punches when discussing each other’s flaws, but they only take such jabs in the first place because they care about each other. 

Which is another reason Green is such an amazing writer—the way he balances humor and gravitas.  His stories are totally readable, completely amusing. But they also matter.  And they communicate stuff that matters—about life and death and relationships...and storytelling—in a way that’s palatable, especially for young adults.

For example, early in the story, Colin offers a categorical breakdown of the messages scrawled in his yearbook (how many “Good luck,” “Great to know you,” and “Wish we’d hung out more” messages there are, etc.).  But then there’s Katherine XIX’s message, which is sweet and completely personal, and sums up their relationship well, in just a few words, without being sappy (or at least, acceptably sappy). This moment underscores Colin’s quirks, glimpses the relationship he had with Katherine XIX, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Throughout Katherines, we get pieces of the beginnings, middles, and endings of Colin’s relationships. We feel the ups and downs: the euphoria of the peaks and the dejection of the dumps. And Colin’s pain over the loss of Katherine XIX is absolutely believable.  It’s easy to caricaturize a teen breakup—angst, melodrama, over-expression of loss. But Green gets it right. The breakup feels real. Colin even misses the imagined future he might have shared with Katherine, as they both headed to Northwestern in the fall (and beyond). He believes, “You can never love people as much as you can miss them.”

One of my college roommates was (and presumably still is) a masterful storyteller.  We spent many evenings around a table in the cafeteria, rapt as he told us about his childhood and teenage shenanigans. Certainly, his material was good and unique, but no material is so good or so unique that it inherently makes a good story. Take, for example, any of many Hollywood films “based on actual events”—regardless of the source material, some are great, but most are duds. On the other hand, there are fantastic stories that grow out of the smallest, most insignificant-seeming premise.

So what makes a good story?

Developing characters? Establishing place and tone? Raising stakes? Amusing and surprising your audience? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But it’s also about making connections.

Colin may struggle with organizing his stories. He might focus on the wrong things or get lost in insignificant details.  But he’s good at seeing connections—like one might pick out constellations in a sky full of stars. And by the end of the novel, he understands the importance of connections. And the importance of story, in general.

The formula he’s trying to develop—the graph that it forms—tells a story.  And whether or not the equation works, whether or not a relationship works, the story of a relationship is always there. Stories remain when everything else is gone.

So really, An Abundance of Katherines is a story about storytelling.  Literally, because Colin and Hassan and Lindsey record the stories of Gutshot residents and Colin recalls the stories of Katherines past. But it’s also about learning how to tell a story. And learning about why stories are important. Because if the textile factory closes and Gutshot dries up, the stories will be all that are left. And when every Katherine has bid Colin adieu, only the stories of the relationships remain. And the significance of these stories (as with stories in our own lives) comes from the connections we make within them.  We might mis-remember and we might get details wrong (or even tweak them to serve our own purposes).  As Colin notes:  “You don’t really remember what happened. What you remember...becomes what happened.”  But it’s not a matter of lying about our pasts; it simply gives us agency to write our own stories, make the important connections, remember what’s significant.  Because telling any story—a spooky tale around a campfire or the story of our lives—is not a matter of relaying a strict account of the facts, it’s a matter of organizing details in a meaningful way to speak a truth more honest than a literal list of facts.

Recommended for ages 15+.

If you’re wondering, my storytelling college roommate is now a middle school teacher. And if he teaches the way he tells a story (as I can imagine he does), those are some lucky students!

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