Colin is preoccupied throughout the novel with who he is if he is too old to be a child prodigy. He becomes invested in coming up with an original Theorem to predict the course of any given romantic relationship; he believes that doing so will make him a genius, which is a title similar to “prodigy” but available to adults. While Colin must work to redefine how he thinks of his intelligence, this process has less to do than Colin thinks with the difference between a prodigy and a genius. Rather, his struggle over how to identify across the course of the novel is about learning who he wants to be instead of who others want him to be, especially his parents. Growing up, it turns out, might involve some parental disappointment. In the novel, Colin and others must cut or loosen bonds with some of the people they love in order to learn who they are as individuals.
Colin and Hassan’s road trip puts both physical and emotional distance between Colin and his parents. Colin’s anxious decision to embark on it anyway demonstrates that he feels compelled to take care of himself and his feelings in the wake of his latest romantic relationship with Katherine XIX, and that this self-care requires some troubling separation from his family. The road trip is in direct conflict with how Colin’s father wants him to spend his summer, taking summer classes at Northwestern. His father tells him that the road trip seems like quitting – in fact, Colin reflects that the road trip is the first time in his life that he has disappointed his parents. Colin’s rebellion is a significant disruption to his relationship with his parents because everything Colin does seems to be motivated by a desire to live up to the arbitrary “markers” of success his father gives him. Reaching these impossible markers, Colin believes, is how he can prove that he is as “special” as his mother always tells him he is. Disappointment, however, is a two-way road. Colin realizes throughout the road trip that his mother has disappointed him by making false promises about how he will distinguish himself as “special” by having a “Eureka moment” indicative of his genius. His father, too, has disappointed him by compelling him to work hard: for all the hours Colin has put into learning, it has yet to pay off in genius-status, the way his father has led him to believe it will. Because Colin is always trying to please his parents, he needs distance from them in order to see that the pressures they place on him have caused him to treat his relationship with Katherine as a core defining aspect of his identity at the expense of defining himself outside the relationship. When Hassan asks if Colin’s problem is the genius thing or the Katherine thing, the narrator says that for Colin, the two are related. Colin has a pathological need, instilled by his parents, to define himself as a genius. He is unable to separate this need from his relationship with Katherine, which means that he is unable to separate his relationship with Katherine from his sense of self until he finds reprieve from parental pressure to be a genius.
Lindsey and Hassan, too, struggle with defining themselves. Both of them eventually come to accept versions of the lives their parents want for them, but they first must rebel in order to be sure that they are choosing their own paths instead of going along with paths laid out before them. After Colin asks Lindsey about a picture in which she looked very different from how she looks now, she tells Colin about her process a few years back of trying to remake her image. She says that she is “full of shit,” always “chameleoning” her way through life and losing all sense of who she actually is as a person. She is distressed that if her boyfriend, TOC, or anyone else really sees her, they will find her out. Even though she knows she does not really want it, Lindsey clings to her relationship with TOC because she is worried that her mother, Hollis, is going to make her leave Gutshot for college. Because she defines herself in relation to other people instead of in relation to herself, the idea of being uprooted is even more disturbing than the idea that she simply blends into her surroundings. Once Lindsey realizes that Hollis is trying to push her out of town because the town is in economic trouble and might not be around much longer, Lindsey realizes that she has been imagining a static future that might not come to fruition. In the final scene, she is driving out of Gutshot with Colin and Hassan. Although she has not necessarily decided to leave for college, her willingness to impulsively drive away suggests that she is opening herself up to the idea that she can define herself by her decisions rather than by a script that tradition has given her. Complying with Hollis’s plan and opening herself up to new experiences might, in fact, give her more agency than defiantly marrying TOC and staying in Gutshot forever.
Hassan, who has been out of high school for a year, has been getting a lot of pressure from his parents to find a job or go to college. However, his parents have been allowing him to live in their house. Hassan has little motivation to find a job of his own because his father’s paycheck provides for him and allows him to watch Judge Judy all day. Hassan’s parents allow him to go on a road trip with Colin because they think Colin, who is ambitious in school and bound for college, will be a good influence on their son. Colin does nag Hassan about his plans for college, often a little past the point when Hassan asks him to stop. While Colin may make Hassan feel he should go to college, his needling remarks also make Hassan dig in further to his determination not to go. After all, college is Colin’s future, and Hassan (while smart) has never lived up to Colin’s ambition. Tired of being Colin’s less-impressive sidekick, and tired of living under the rules of his parents’ house, Hassan uses the road trip to rebel, trying to fit in with the “normal” Gutshot kids. He drinks a little and kisses Katrina, both of which stretch the rules of Islam by which his parents expect him to abide. Hassan’s foray into romance and social drinking does not turn out in his favor. He keeps a good sense of humor when he sees Katrina cheating on him with one of his drinking buddies, TOC. Hassan’s “failed” attempt at rebellion, rather than send him spiraling à la Colin’s failed relationship with Katherine, allows him to step outside the script imposed on him by his parents and by Colin: by the end of the novel, Hassan is able to recommit to the tenets of Islam and even decide to go to college with the understanding that these are his decisions. Rather than allowing others to control him, he is taking control of his life for himself.
It is not only separation from his parents that allows Colin to explore what it means to decide the course of his own life. It is his breakup with Katherine XIX that sets off the entire novel of self-discovery. Hassan, likewise, must rebel against his parents a little before coming to the conclusion that he does want to go to college, and Lindsey must rebel against Hollis and against the standards of the popular kids at school to come to a sense of who she wants to be. Many of the strained relationships are eventually reinstated, but the relationships of the novel can only be as strong as the individual selves their members bring to the table. It is Colin’s final realization that he has the power to reinvent himself that leads him to welcome the possibilities of the future, including not only a relationship with Lindsey instead of another Katherine, but also intellectual fulfillment instead of genius-status.
Self-Actualization Quotes in An Abundance of Katherines
Crying adds something: crying is you, plus tears. But the feeling Colin had was some horrible opposite of crying. It was you, minus something.
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.
You’re a very special person. Colin would hear this a lot, and yet – somehow – he could never hear it enough.
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.
He thought of Chicago, where you can go days without ever once stepping on a single patch of actual earth. That well-paved world appealed to him, and he missed it as his feet fell on uneven clumps of hardened dirt that threatened to twist his ankles.
What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something important?
She tried to get out as quickly and painlessly as possible, but after she begged curfew, he began to cry. She held his head against her collarbone. And even though he felt pitiful and ridiculous, he didn’t want it to end, because he knew the absence of her would hurt more than any breakup ever could.
[I]t is important to know things because it makes you special and you can read books that normal people cannot read, such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which is in Latin.
The missing piece in his stomach hurt so much – and eventually he stopped thinking about the Theorem and wondered only how something that isn’t there can hurt you.
“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.
Colin’s skin was alive with the feeling of connection to everyone in that car and everyone not in it. And he was feeling not-unique in the very best possible way.