Review: Last Night I Sang to the Monster
A couple of words before the review.
I love reviewing books, but my feelings are more complicated now that I am a “real” author with a novel. For the first time, I can’t help thinking about what it’s like to put oneself out there in print, to get naked before the world by publishing.
Don’t get me wrong: I want honest, not sugarcoated, reviews of my book. And so far reader reviews of What Can’t Wait have been pretty positive—even if it wasn’t the reviewer’s favorite, the response has been fair. Several reviewers, like this blog review and this teen review, got much of what I wanted to get across in the book.
Now, though, I don’t quite feel free to be “just another reader,” going off on what gets under my skin. Instead, my honesty needs to come with a sincere effort to understand what the author was trying to accomplish. I think this has pretty much been my MO all along, but now it feels… more urgent somehow.
Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
There are a lot of things I like about this book. I like that (as with Sáenz’s Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, which I loved) the speaker is Mexican-American but that this isn’t an “issue” that the book is trying to work through in any intentional way. I like that the age and situation of the protagonist is unconventional—Zach’s already 18, and he interacts almost exclusively with older people at the treatment facility where he’s recovering from his alcohol addiction and learning to remember the secret that’s cutting him off from the world. I like Zach’s voice, which is distant and intimate almost at the same time, shying away from emotive language (because Zach is a pro at finding ways not to feel) in such a way that we, as readers, feel for him.
Some people were annoyed by the tics in Zach’s private language; he says “tears me up” and “wigs me out” often. But I read this as a way of noting that he’s had an emotional response while evading the need to be responsible for the specific feelings. While others might object to the (unbelievably) sunny ending, I share my friend ALISA’s conviction that part of the point of the book is that you ought to believe in this kind of ending, that nothing is more improbable yet necessary to believe in than an addict’s recovery.
The things that bothered me had to do with character and plotting. Part of this comes from Zach’s situation: there’s a muted, flattened affect in the narration because he’s determined not to feel anything and a lot of vagueness in what he narrates because he’s determined not to remember anything. But somehow, as the novel progresses, it undercuts its own drama. I come to know without knowing the source of Zach’s trauma, and even though it’s built up as THE revelation, I have trouble caring when I find out because I still know so little about the particulars of Zach’s family life.
Also, I get that Zach’s self-esteem issues keep him from seeing himself as others can see him, but I had trouble swallowing all the well-meaning interventions, not just by Zach’s therapist, but also by many of his fellow addicts. This was least convincing in one particular case, which illustrates in part my broader objection. One of Zach’s roommates, Sharkey, quits the facility, only to be replaced by Amit, who functions virtually identically to Sharkey in Zach’s life. Now, the similarity of their characters is bad enough: both are sleepwalking coke addicts with street smarts, sharp attitudes, and a passion for sunglasses and shoes. But what really gets me is that there is nothing that motivates Amit’s concern for Zach. He shows up, and suddenly he’s all caring and concerned. It’s as if (and the cynic in me wonders if Sharkey and Amit weren’t originally one character) Amit has just taken over Sharkey’s role.
Still, this is a thoughtful novel that may especially appeal to male readers and those who feel disconnected from family and peers. In terms of tone and development, Last Night I Sang to the Monster reminds me of Greg Galloway’s As Simple as Snow. I like Sáenz’s book much more, though.