Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire SáenzLast Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
Published by Brilliance Audio on 2/23/11
Genres: Literary Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: B

Quick Review:

A sad but ultimately hopeful book that evoked my sympathy (if not my empathy) and left me feeling a bit like an uninvited observer into someone else’s pain. The story is well-written and the narration is, objectively, very accomplished but I found myself vacillating between experiencing the story as it unfolded and being told a story. The drama is well-paced and despite some repetitive themes I found myself intrigued by the dynamics between characters.

The Plot:

Zach Gonzalez is an eighteen year-old boy from El Paso, TX who finds himself in rehab without any memory of how he got there. Some basic facts of his life are clear: his mother is a clinically depressed agoraphobic; his older brother, a drug user, beats Zach on a regular basis; his father is an alcoholic and Zach himself has taken to using alcohol and drugs as a way of coping with events in his life. Zach is intelligent, artistic, caring, and utterly unwilling to accept (or believe in) any helping hand offered him.

As Zach sits through group and individual therapy sessions and interacts with the people who are in rehab with him – most notably his therapist Adam and his much older roommate Rafael – he focuses his attention outward with surprising empathy for his fellow rehabbers rather than finding the courage to move past the block that prevents him from acknowledging how he ended up in rehab. Eventually the barrier he’s been propping up collapses and he’s forced to face his past.

My Thoughts:

Have you ever read a book and felt like you were overhearing a conversation you shouldn’t be listening to? This was that book for me. I would argue that because the Sáenz is also a poet there is an added air of intimacy to the writing. That isn’t meant to imply that authors whose sole medium is prose are incapable of writing stories that touch the reader on a deep level, just that I find poetry is an inherently intimate method of communication and that habit often carries over to a poet’s writing of prose. When combined with the also intimate medium of having a voice quietly speaking in your ear, this book made me a bit uncomfortable – not in the subject matter but just as an nosy observer of a life that crashed and burned and a young man who is trying to pick up the pieces.

The key word, though, is observer. I skimmed the border between observation and emotional engagement, dipping into either state at seemingly random moments so while I found Zach to be a sympathetic character, I never completely lost myself in this audiobook. Zach wavers between emotional reactions to his memories and dissociating from the world around him and perhaps that dissociation was part of my problem. There were certainly moments that rang with emotion but they were fewer than I expected.

Zach displayed a surprising amount of empathy for the people in his life, especially those who were in rehab with him. I struggled to reconcile my perception of the drug-abuser who smashed windshields with a bat as an expression of his pain with the young and tender Zach who displayed an overabundant (and maybe unhealthy) level of care for others as he went through rehab. I don’t know if I’ve absorbed too much of the media’s portrayal of men and boys as stoic and not in touch with their emotions or what but Zach’s frequent internal dialogue about his love for various people in rehab and the emotional touchy/feely that occurs between Adam, Zach and Rafael felt somewhat skeevy to me.

Zach frequently talks about what seems to be a major theme in the book – words. From the start we see Zach’s version of destiny:

“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes happy and on some people’s hearts he writes sad and on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser.”

For Zach, words are both fate and salvation. Although he rejects the hand reaching out to him when his teacher, Mr. Garcia, praises his written work in school, he holds on to that memory like it was keeping him afloat. Zach and his friends would pick words as if they were a secret password and scream them out at the end of each week. It’s through his reading of Rafael’s journal that he finds solace as well as a new addiction and it’s only when he can face his past and talk about it that he will be free from it. While the themes of words didn’t get repetitious for me as a listener, Zach’s reliance on repetitive word use in thought and speech (as true to life as it may be) was annoying. His favorite phrases (such as “tore/tears me up”, “stunned me out” and “wigged me out”) came up over and over and wore on me.

The Narration:

On the whole, I like the narration by MacLeod Andrews. His performance displayed an understanding of the author’s intent and he gave fully-formed and distinctive performances for every single character. I never needed text indicators to get a complete sense of the emotions in dialogue as they were very clear without being blatant. I really liked the way he lightly brushed several characters’ voices with just hints of an accent to portray the ethnicity or cultural aspect of their personality without allowing it to stereotype the character. My struggle with the narration came in that I often felt like Zach was reflecting on a past experience rather than allowing me to become absorbed in watching his recovery as it happened. This feeling of one-remove was an intermittent problem for me but not a deal-breaker in my enjoyment of the audiobook.