Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gay Teens: Absolute Brightness by James Lecesne

Absolute Brightness is the story of the life of fourteen-year-old Leonard Pelkey told by his cousin Phoebe Hertle. Leonard has recently lost his mother, and his stepfather, the brother of Phoebe’s mother has sent Leonard to live with the Hertles. Leonard is an endearing character, flamboyantly gay and determined to live his life as the person he is. This gets him into trouble with classmates at school and causes a perpetual unease with Phoebe. One day he fails to return from a theater rehearsal, and the local authorities begin a search for him.

Absolute Brightness was honored by the American Library Association last year as one of the best first novels written for youth, an ambiguous recommendation it seems as it ranks a work relative to other first efforts rather than among the best that is being published for teens. Indeed initial reviews for the novel varied, and while there was much praise, it was also criticized for trying to introduce too many issues and for the narrator and minor characters in the story speaking occasionally in a voice that seemed beyond their character or years.

These are I suppose, characteristically the faults of first time novelists who have trouble leaving things out and want to create a fictional world that reflects all they have come to know and feel about the world. But for those of us like Lecesne’s narrator who believe that writing is about “words and ideas,” some readers are less enamored of the pared and well disciplined novel and will indulge the ambition that results in a bit of untidiness. Some of my favorite novels are like that, Forster’s The Longest Journey and Melville’s The Confidence Man. And in Lecesne’s defense, the various “issues” criticized as being part of the overstuffing are true to life. Families often face an array of problems that make any single crisis more complex.

The problem of narration I suppose is the fundamental one faced in the composition of any work of fiction, the decision to tell the story through first person narration or through an omniscient narrator, and there are of course advantages and limitations presented by both choices. This story is told by Phoebe Hertle, Leonard Pelkey’s sixteen-year-old cousin. She does at times sound philosophical and mature beyond her years in some of her narrative observations and digressions. But those reflective moments nevertheless present fresh points of view and interesting ideas. You can forgive a little character disjunction if the ideas themselves are not trite and still serve to enhance the story. It’s not all about advancing the plot. The character of Phoebe emerges less from her narration and more from her dialogue and actions, and she is someone I have not met before, a modern teen who is remarkably hard and frank in expressing what we suspect she knows on some level are deliberately protective and distanced emotional reactions.

In the end, Lecesne’s major literary device works. He has chosen to illuminate Leonard Pelkey’s life and character by showing the impact of his absence, the revelations we are shown of how many lives he has affected as the mystery of his sudden disappearance unfolds. We come to understand the value of his life and his “difference.” And perhaps most importantly, we are left with a picture of good and evil that has no easy answers when it comes to understanding what motivates hatred, that the story, unlike so many of our headlines, cannot be painted in black and white and then be shelved away. Lecesne leaves us with an ambiguity that calls upon us to look more deeply, to try to understand both human diversity and human complexity, and to place no one beyond the pale of our forgiveness. This is a moving novel, perhaps imperfectly told, but wise and well worth the reading.

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