Colin Singleton has recently graduated high school when the novel starts. For most young adults, high school graduation is a moment of triumph, a step toward becoming who they want to be. But for Colin, who learned to read at two years old and has long been considered — by his parents, by himself, and by others — to be a child prodigy, the step into adulthood that is a part of graduation thrusts him into an identity crisis because the title of “child prodigy” is no longer available to him now that he is not a child. Further, a child prodigy is seen as someone with immense potential, as someone who will achieve great things, and so now as he enters adulthood Colin must also confront his sense that he now has to start achieving those things, and that he only has limited time to do it because he will, eventually, die. The novel opens, then, with Colin in crisis because of the pressure he feels around achievement and death. The novel, though, isn’t interested in whether or not Colin actually achieves the “greatness” he believes he both should and must attain. Rather, across the arc of the narrative, Colin learns that the way he has conceived of achievement has been both limited and damaging — and that, as connected as it was to death, interfered with his ability to actually live his life.
Colin’s drive to achieve is not about fulfilling any particular passion. Rather, it stems from the need, instilled by his parents, to mark that he truly is “special” by showing tangible markers of success to the world. Colin’s intensive “child prodigy” education begins when he is a toddler, and his father discovers that he can already read the newspaper. From then on out, his parents (particularly his father), focus on getting Colin to learn and memorize immense amounts of information. One of the ways in which Colin’s father teaches his son to assess his own achievement is by setting “markers” of success. Setting such goals or markers seems intuitive, but the novel shows how they can lead to perverse outcomes in the way that Colin views success. For instance, when Colin fails to reach a marker, such as when he memorizes the conjugations of twenty-three instead of twenty-five Latin verbs in a day, he thinks of himself as failing. This sort of mindset even infects Colin’s love life. As he gets older, Colin keeps trying to date girls named Katherine because he considers each of his ended relationships a failure and feels he must start over and get it right. While Colin could focus on the Latin conjugations he has successfully learned or on the joy he experienced and personal growth he has undergone in each of his relationships with a Katherine, he instead always focuses on the ways in which he has not lived up to expectations (his own, his father’s, or society’s). This way of seeing the world and himself suggests that Colin is invested not so much in the actual learning to be done on the way to his goals as he is in the result he wants to show once he has ticked off the boxes of learning Latin or having a girlfriend.
Through much of the novel, Colin constantly compares himself to dead geniuses and historical figures, both famous and infamous. These comparisons highlight that, because of his status as a child prodigy, Colin feels immense pressure to live up to his early promise by himself becoming a historical figure. This sort of ambition, though, connects Colin to regular thoughts of death. This is not to say that he thinks of suicide. Rather, he is constantly assessing his life against the dead, and also constantly assessing his own life as if from the vantage point of it being over and trying to ensure that, when he does eventually die, he is seen as he wants to be seen. However, the events of the novel and Colin’s adventures with regard to one particular dead historical figure, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, help him to understand that he ultimately has no control over how people will see him after his death. Death is inevitable, but his life is what he makes of it. Before and during his road trip with Hassan, Colin frequently thinks about Archimedes, Einstein, Locke, Mozart, and other great thinkers and whether or not they were child prodigies. Colin is constantly worried about how he measures up against these great dead men.
The name of Colin’s car, “Satan’s Hearse,” adds a sense of urgency to his comparisons with these dead men. A “hearse” is a car that brings a body to a funeral, and Colin’s self-comparison with the dead illustrates how he constantly measures his own life almost as if looking back from his own funeral. That Colin calls the car “Satan’s Hearse,” seems to be joke, but at the same time can be seen as indicating Colin’s sense of his own lack of self-worth, or of the sort of pressure he constantly feels such that it makes his life a kind of hell. During the road trip, Colin becomes particularly interested in the Austo-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination at a young age sparked World War I. Colin’s interest is sparked by the fact that he sees a sign indicating that Ferdinand’s grave is in Gutshot, Tennessee, and he insists that he and Hassan drive there. Colin is apparently both fascinated with the idea of the Archduke’s infamy, attained by dying young, and afraid that should he, Colin, die young, he will have nothing to show for his life in the way Einstein and Mozart do. As the events of the novel unfold, though, Colin realizes that the Archduke’s grave never actually contained the Archduke at all. Rather, Hollis Wells, the woman who maintains the grave and claims that the town purchased the Archduke’s body, has spread false information in an effort to turn the grave into a tourist spot as a way to make money for the town and support the people who work in the factory founded by her grandfather. For Colin, this (somewhat outlandish) turn of events reveals to him important things about history and accomplishment. First, it makes him see how much of history is dependent on the interpretation and even the lies of the living. This, in turn, makes him realize the tenuousness of achievement as he has conceived of it, since the dead can only be as significant as living people make them, and the dead can’t control such things. Further, in Hollis’s efforts Colin comes to understand that while the town of Gutshot has not achieved any kind of historical importance by being the burial site of the real Archduke, Hollis herself has achieved a short-term solution to the town’s impending bankruptcy. Her achievement is not public, and it is not the stuff of epics, and it is even a little underhanded, but Colin realizes that it is nonetheless significant.
By the end of the novel, Colin has realized that achievement can be more loosely defined than his parents have led him to believe. What’s more, he comes to accept that rather than viewing his achievements as something to be looked back on from beyond the grave, he has a life to live now, a life in which he can enjoy the pursuit of whatever it is that he likes or loves. This revelation leads him to start dating Lindsey (Hollis’s daughter), breaking his Katherine streak, even though he knows that he might wind up with yet another heartbreak and will never be able to “perfect” his past. He ends the novel feeling more comfortable enjoying his present and celebrating his daily successes without worrying about the legacy he will one day leave.
Achievement and Mortality ThemeTracker
Achievement and Mortality Quotes in An Abundance of Katherines
All I ever wanted was for her to love me and to do something meaningful with my life.
Prodigies can very quickly learn what other people have already figured out; geniuses discover that which no one has ever previously discovered. Prodigies learn; geniuses do. The vast majority of child prodigies don’t become adult geniuses. Colin was almost certain that he was among that unfortunate majority.
Driving was a kind of thinking, the only kind he could then tolerate. But still the thought lurked out there, just beyond the reach of his headlights: he’d been dumped. By a girl named Katherine. For the nineteenth time.
His single consolation was that one day, he would matter. He’d be famous. And none of them ever would. That’s why, his mom said, they made fun of him in the first place. “They’re just jealous,” she said. But Colin knew better. They weren’t jealous. He just wasn’t likable. Sometimes it’s that simple.
What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something important?
He could just never see anything coming, and as he lay on the solid, uneven ground with Hassan pressing too hard on his forehead, Colin Singleton’s distance from his glasses made him realize the problem: myopia. He was nearsighted. The future lay before him, inevitable but invisible.
Like it or not, Colin thought, road trips have destinations.
“It’s funny, what people will do to be remembered.”
“Well, or to be forgotten, because someday no one will know who’s really buried there. Already a lot of kids at school and stuff think the Archduke is really buried here, and I like that. I like knowing one story and having everyone else know another. That’s why those tapes we made are going to be so great one day, because they’ll tell stories that time has swallowed up or distorted or whatever.”
As the staggered lines rushed past him, he thought about the space between what we remember and what happened, the space between what we predict and what will happen. And in that space, Colin thought, there was room enough to reinvent himself – room enough to make himself into something other than a prodigy, to remake his story better and different – room enough to be reborn again and again….There was room enough to be anyone – anyone except whom he’d already been, for if Colin had learned one thing from Gutshot, it’s that you can’t stop the future from coming. And for the first time in his life, he smiled thinking about the always-coming infinite future stretching out before him.