Human nature insists we assign intention to the events in our lives. We assume we know why someone else does the things they do. And we make judgements about them because of the images we shape. But no matter how hard we try, or how much we believe, we can never really know someone else’s story. In The Absolute Value of -1, Brezenoff demonstrates how our minimalist perceptions can not only narrow our views, but can detrimentally impact others’ lives and relationships. How we influence and change the people around us. How every relationship changes the fabric of our being, even if we never recognize that it is happening. The remove between us, our people, and the truth.
I’m not a huge fan of the first person, multiple pov structure. It often feels confused, frenetic, and kind of shallow. Honestly, I relate this style with terrible YA romances. I much prefer my novels in the third person omniscient. That being said, when the first person switch is done well, it serves to highlight the depth of the novel. I think Brezenoff does it really well. We get each character’s story in a complete chunk. Lily’s version. Noah’s version. Simon’s version (I’m not sure how I feel about Suzanne’s part. I will ponder while I write this). Each story builds a little more on the one before until we finally have the mostly complete picture. From the outside, these three kids are easy to write off as stoner slackers. They seem like the type of kids that don’t care about anything – not their families, not their friends, definitely not school. But we don’t know their story. And the reviews I’ve read that still make those claims after they’ve finished the novel… I don’t know what those people were reading, or if their lives have just been exceptionally blessed, but I think they’ve missed something crucial. Each of these teens has something different, but so very similar, that drives their actions.
Based on the book blurb, I was a little uncertain going into this book. Although the blurb is direct quotes from the novel, it highlights the potential love triangle more than the evolution of self on the way from adolescence to the cusp of adulthood. The space between who we are and who we want to be. The deep inner turmoil that either forces us to grow or shuts us off entirely. How hard it can be to ever be certain of anything. Even when we think we have everything down.
Lily, Lily, Lily. That poor, misguided girl. She’s the most troubling of the three characters featured in the book. She’s wrapped herself so entirely in her feelings for Simon that she’s never given her own personality the chance to develop. She went from a kid living under the infallible protection of childhood to a confused, self-conscious teenager with divorced parents. Her footing was knocked out from under her and before she regained her balance, she’d noticed Simon. This strange boy who was so different from anything she’d known before that. She glommed onto the difference and began to shape her new persona around him. The track team. Her wardrobe. Her music. Her friends. Everything came from Simon. Lily never formed. She was Simon Lite. Simon without the backstory. She was whatever she could be to get his attention. Lily became a mimic. Maybe one day it’s something she’ll outgrow, but those are some strong habits to break. When/if, she ever decides to figure out who she is, it’s going to take a whole new level of self-realization, because she’s never had to do it before.
Lily is the kind of girl I hate to read. The girl whose only concern is a boy. But Brezenoff is aware of the girl he is writing. He is aware that she is not the heroine of this story. That she is a victim of herself. Her circumstances. Her life. Her choices. She is a shell of a person, and no boy’s attention can ever fill that. The reader is not meant to want to be her. Lily has genuine affection from Noah, but she doesn’t want it. It only serves to make her lonelier. She cherishes every second of attention from Simon, but is destroyed every time he pushes her away. Every ounce of her self-worth is dictated by these boys. And that’s a shame. Because she is smart. Like really smart. She understands music and math, and how they work together. She’s writing math theory at a university level in high school. But all anyone can see is this girl who dresses in black and smokes pot and moons over the weird boy. No one will ever take her seriously until she actually develops a sense of self.
Noah’s self is formed in an entirely different way. Instead of being abandoned by his parents after knowing only good times like Lily, Noah’s only ever known attention. The wrong kind of attention. The attention of an abusive, alcoholic father. An abused and fearful mother. Tack onto that his obvious ADD/ADHD/whatever, and you’ve got a teen whose view of the world is so skewed that he’s never been able to develop an understanding of subtlety or silence. Noise is the only way he can survive. Noah and Simon become friends fairly quickly, but eventually Noah falls for Lily. Except he has no idea how healthy relationships work. No idea what they look like. He’s been blanketed by fists and angry words and tears his entire life. How can he know that constantly talking to an insecure, teenage girl about her breasts is not only inappropriate, but debilitating? He’s never been taught to respect women, or men, or anything other than money. Noah knows that the way his father treats his mother is wrong, so he does the opposite. But his way is no better. It’s just as bad. He showers Lily with attention but never recognizes that her silence isn’t that different from his mother’s tears. He feels insulted that she doesn’t respond to his advances. Disgusted that she’s so attracted to Simon.
Noah’s relationship with Simon is complicated. They begin the novel as best friends. But slowly, over the years, they grow apart, as people are wont to do. Simon lives in silence. In his thoughts. Noah revolts against this choice. Noah does not understand Simon at all, but he thinks he knows him. He thinks he knows exactly why Simon does everything he does. That Simon is a whining, crying baby. That he’s a poetry writing sissy. That he’s dismissive and damaging. That he’s using Lily. The change in Noah’s relationship with Simon directly ties to his feelings about Lily. The more they grow, the less he tolerates Simon. He sees everything Simon does in direct relation to how he thinks he would treat Lily. Every time Simon sits next to Lily. Allows her to touch him. Noah taps further and further into his father. He becomes more prone to violence. To degrading. To getting wasted in order not to think about all the things that trouble him. The more her assigns intention to Simon. The more he assumes he knows. Just like his father. Because he is forming his image of self on what he thinks drives other people, he’s creating a dark, empty void around him that no one can really penetrate.
Simon is both the simplest and most complicated character in the story. In typical YA novels, a character like Simon would never come from the type of family Simon comes from. He’d have Lily’s mother and Noah’s father. Instead, he has a pretty straight lace, clean cut, happy family. His parents love each other very much. He has a tight relationship with his sister (yeah, more on that in a bit). They have family discussions around the dinner table. They have family game nights. He wants to see them. Spend time with them. So, even though he comes from this mecca of what makes a good family, he’s still a sullen, petulant teen. He drags himself through his school day. He smokes an unnecessary amount of weed. He is terrible at making friends and terrible to the people he is friends with. All the actions Lily and Noah see as attraction to Lily are really just Simon’s way of not doing anything. He has no intentions for them. He just can’t be bothered to do anything different. Lily thinks Simon put his head in her lap to show that he likes her. Simon really just wants her to stop touching him but is too stoned to tell her. He lets his friends think that he wants to be with Lily because it’s easier than admitting he doesn’t know what he wants.
Simon has all things that should make him good at expressing himself. Christ, his parents even sit him down to talk to him about what will happen if his dad dies (as they should, it’s just rarely what happens). He should be a well-adjusted kid. But nature/nurture is never a cut and dry choice. You can give someone everything they need to become a certain type of person, but if they have any self-awareness. If they are willing to figure out who they are as a person, to write their own story, there will be parts of their personality no one can control. Parts of their story no one can know. For Simon, this has something to do with his relationship with his sister. Now, there’s nothing openly sordid between them, but they are really close. Close to his detriment. He develops some kind of obsession with her that won’t allow him to create healthy attachments with other people. Until he realizes Melanie likes him. She’s not the typical stoner girl. She’s Lily’s opposite. She’s chipper but not to the point of distraction. She’s popular, but not too much so. And she likes Simon and doesn’t care if he’s a little dark. Because he’s different with her. He doesn’t know why he likes her; he just does. Noah thinks he knows why though… she looks like Suzanne. But Simon doesn’t know. He just knows that this girl makes him happy in a way Lily and Noah never did.
Here’s the bit of the novel I’m not sure how I feel about. The Suanne chunks. Two short pieces bookending the stories of the other three. Preparing us for what’s to come. Wrapping everything together. An omniscient narrator of sorts. We know someone is dead. We know their family has been destroyed. We know Simon has a girlfriend. We know Suzanne is distracted. We know that she made out with her brother… wait, what? Suzanne and Simon are so distraught by their father’s death that they make out with each other? Now, I’m not going to pretend that my brother and I are as close as these two are, but yikes! I know with 100% certainty that there are no makeout sessions in our future.
But I guess this moment that I cannot understand brings me back around to my original point. I’m trying with all my might to figure out what would have driven this event, but I can’t. I don’t know this story. I know Simon’s story. I know moments of his relationship with his sister, but I don’t know Suzanne’s story. I don’t know what drives her. I can’t know what’s in her mind. I am removed. We form relationships with people. We know as much as we can about them, but we can never know all of them. Good relationships. Bad relationships. They’re all just a piece of the picture. In the end, we’re all just who we are, on one side of this absolute value. The answer is on the other side of zero. We are the only person that can know our entire story and it’s how we take that knowledge and use it that shapes us into the person we show the world.