Colin and Hassan are sitting in the Singletons’ living room, telling Colin’s parents that they are going to take a road trip. Colin is already packed. Colin’s parents protest, and his father tells him that a road trip seems like “quitting” his intellectual journey and abandoning his potential. Colin says he thinks he might have already wasted it.
Colin’s father again puts pressure on Colin to conform to the life path he has laid out for him. That path culminates in a nebulous realization of Colin’s potential. Colin, who despite his high achievement feels that this realization is always just out of reach, abandons his father’s map for an unmapped road trip with Hassan.
Colin has never disappointed his parents before by rebelling in any of the other stereotypical teenage ways. The narrator suspects that either this or a desire for a few weeks alone with one another is what leads Colin’s parents to cave within five minutes of Colin’s request to take a road trip. “Five minutes after acknowledging his wasted potential,” the narrator writes, “Colin Singleton was behind the wheel of his lengthy gray Oldsmobile known as Satan’s Hearse.”
Colin’s decision to take a road trip with Hassan is significant because it is the first departure he has taken from his father’s plans for him. This rebellion creates an opportunity for self-discovery that depends on Colin recognizing that another kind of potential has died.
Colin and Hassan now have to convince Hassan’s parents to let him go on the road trip. Hassan refuses to lie to his own mother but says someone else could lie to her. The duo drives to Hassan’s house, where Colin dishonestly tells Mrs. Harbish in Arabic that they are taking a road trip so that Hassan can teach him how to avoid depressing breakups by not dating. Colin then tells Mr. Harbish that he is going to help Hassan get a job. Hassan’s parents finally consent, hoping Colin will be a positive influence on their son and get him to stop watching Judge Judy as he has been doing all year.
Hassan is willing to help Colin rebel, but he, too, feels certain obligations toward his parents. In this scene, the reader gets a glimpse into the parental pressure Hassan is getting at home. Colin’s situation, by comparison, no longer seems so uniquely stifling. Like many teenagers, Colin and Hassan simply need some space for self-discovery.
Late at night, Hassan is sleeping in the passenger seat while Colin drives on the highway. Driving is just distracting enough that it helps him ignore the gnawing hole in his belly. He also distracts himself by thinking of other holes in stomachs. In particular, he thinks of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination led to World War I. Still, Colin keeps coming back to the thought of his recent breakup, lurking “just beyond the reach of his headlights.”
Colin’s comparison of the figurative hole in his belly to the literal hole the Archduke Franz Ferdinand received when he was shot demonstrates that Colin is still blowing his own problems out of proportion. There is a sense of misguided longing in the comparison, as if he wants his own misfortunes to be so grand that, like the Archduke, he matters to the world simply for the sake of those misfortunes.
The narrator explains that everyone has a romantic type, and Colin’s type is girls named Katherine (spelled exactly this way). All nineteen girls he has dated have been named Katherine, and all have dumped him. Colin thinks that at heart, everyone is either a Dumper or Dumpee. The narrator provides a graph of this paradigm in a footnote. Colin considers himself a Dumpee. His pessimistic view is that romance always ends in either breakup, divorce, or death, but he nonetheless felt that Katherine XIX would be different. Colin is frustrated with himself that he can’t get over it, but he can’t identify what “it” is.
The graph of the Dumper-Dumpee paradigm is the first of many graphs in the novel. The idea that relationships can be represented mathematically with a graph shows that Colin is trying to make sense of his circumstances by demonstrating their inevitability. Although Colin could at any point choose to date someone not named Katherine or could become a Dumper if he wanted to, he insists that he has been cornered into his situation because it is his mathematical destiny.
The narrator provides more of Colin’s backstory in a section subtitled, “Katherine I: The Beginning (of the Beginning).” When Colin was about two years old, he read aloud off the back of his father’s newspaper. His father’s shock is Colin’s first memory. Thereafter, his parents began reading to him in both English and French. They took him to a psychologist for IQ testing. The psychologist told him, “You’re a very special person,” which became a phrase Colin hears often but can never seem to hear enough. In this psychologist’s office, Colin made his first anagram while he overheard the psychologist telling his mother that his quick information processing should be encouraged, but that it does not make him any more likely to win a Nobel Prize than any other intelligent child.
Colin’s conscious memories of his own life begin when his parents were amazed by his intelligence. In order to maintain the relationship with his parents that he thinks of as essential to his identity, he must therefore continue to amaze them at every turn. Colin also associates his skill at making anagrams with the moment he found out that he was “special” but not likely to do anything particularly remarkable. One of Colin’s talents, anagramming, thus has a valence of failure about it because he first discovered his skill when he realized that it would be very hard to continually amaze his parents in the way he did when he first read the newspaper.
The evening of his IQ testing, Colin’s father brought home a book about a circle that was missing a piece shaped like a pizza slice. Colin remembers his dad’s smile fading when Colin failed to interpret the story as a metaphor for himself as a kind of circle with a missing piece. Young Colin thought through information quickly, but he struggled with metaphor and interpretation.
Colin thinks of his failure to understand the metaphor of the missing piece as a sign of how he is constantly disappointing his father and failing to live up to the person his father wants him to be. Colin fails to see that he simply understands things on an intellectual basis more rapidly than he can comprehend their emotional significance.
Colin eventually enrolled in first grade at the school where his mother taught. He was only a year younger than the other students in his class. Colin’s father pushed him to study hard, but both Colin’s parents kept him on a fairly standard educational track for his age group for the sake of his social life. However, Colin was a know-it-all and struggled to make friends. He was bullied and called “Colon Cancer” on a regular basis. Other kids used to tug on his limbs in all directions in a maneuver he dubbed, “the Abdominal Snowman.” He mother told him the other kids were jealous, but Colin knew he simply wasn’t likeable. All this resulted in his and his parents’ delight when he won over the heart of a pretty girl in third grade.
Colin’s parents have high expectations of their son academically, but they do not demonstrate great confidence in his ability to socialize. When he struggles to make friends, rather than help him navigate social cues, they tell him he is superior to his peers. All this contributes to Colin’s sense that a social life is simply something he cannot excel at. When Colin finally attracts the attention of a girl, he surprises his parents in a way he has not done since he first read off the back of the newspaper.